by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 5, 2012:
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, argues in his book Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War against Islam (out earlier this year) that there are three major stereotypes about Islam — “that Islam is inherently violent, that Islam and Muslims are treacherous, and that Islam is trying to take over the world.”
In a public talk and book signing at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop on March 19, he described how “these messages actually have remained pretty consistent for over a thousand years.”
Feffer also detailed the resurgence of anti-Islamic sentiment in the West and its global implications, and reviewed the actions that the U.S. has taken against Muslim countries since September 11, 2001. And he explained how polling shows America’s favorability ratings in the Islamic world have gone down since Obama became president, with the exception of his speech in Cairo in 2009 “when there was great expectations that there would be a change in U.S. policy toward the Islamic World.”
“We can ultimately change our behavior — we being the United States and our NATO allies — by ending the wars that we conduct in predominantly Muslim countries,” he told the audience. “I think that would go a long way to narrowing the gap between the language expressed by President Obama in Cairo about restarting a different relationship with the Islamic world and our actual conduct in the Islamic world.”
I asked him, after the talk, if Islamophobic people’s minds can be changed.
“The most important thing — studying the transformation of homophobia in this country (for example) — is personal connections. And they don’t even have to know someone personally. It’s only that they think they know someone personally — the so called “Will and Grace” effect,” Feffer said.
He also pointed to Lawrence v Texas, the anti-sodomy legislation was struck down by the Supreme Court. “Why was it struck down when it was struck down? The most important thing was that there had been a transformation among clerks. (some of) The clerks for Supreme Court justices were openly gay, and the Supreme Court justices could not turn away from that.”
“Is acceptance a generational thing?” I asked.
“It takes time. We are talking about prejudices that run pretty deep. You could go back 100 years and find that folks here in the U.S. didn’t really have a conception of Islam, in order to be anti-Islamic, but still, whether it was some of these key documents of Western Civilization or how Islam is presented in the pulpit, I think there is a kind of line you can draw through Western Civilization.”
With two months left until the presidential elections, I reconnected with Feffer over e-mail to discuss the Islamophobia in America and the campaigns.
Q: How do you see Islamophobia today in the run-up to the elections?
A: This summer, compared to 2010, was relatively quiet in terms of Islamophobia, emphasis on “relatively.” True, we saw some of the same incidents taking place: controversies over proposed mosque construction (this time, for instance, in Detroit), violent acts against existing mosques (the burning down, for instance, of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri), anti-Islamic billboards (again sponsored by Pamela Geller and her network), outrageous Islamophobic comments from elected officials (Michelle Bachmann’s summertime screed), and so on.
But the big difference in 2012 has been media coverage. The Islamophobia network has not succeeded this time in making Islam — and its critique of Islam — a big news story. The lack of media controversy could be seen in the uneventful opening in August of the Murfreesboro mosque in Tennessee. As with the case of Park 51, which similarly opened peacefully, it was the media’s fanning of the flames of controversy, encouraged by a small but fervent group of Islamophobes, that made these national stories and put Islamophobia on the cover of Time two years ago.
Instead, the economy remains the big political story and the one that has dominated the party conventions. In Europe, Islamophobia is very much connected to the overall economic downturn and the scapegoating of Muslims (who stand accused of “stealing” jobs and government benefits). But Muslims in America represent a rather small percentage of the population and a rather affluent percentage at that, so where scapegoating has taken place, it has largely been of Latino immigrants.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the two party conventions, in terms of ethnic and racial diversity, couldn’t have been starker. The Republican Party has become older and whiter while the Democratic Party has put an ever greater emphasis on all the various communities that have been traditionally excluded from American society. So, from the point of view of identity politics, the Democratic Party has been far more careful not to engage in any politics that would alienate its increasingly multicultural following.
Q: Has President Obama and others done enough to counter Islamophobic attitudes in our country?
A: In some respects, of course, Obama has worked to counter Islamophobic attitudes in America. He gave a speech in Cairo that praised the accomplishments of the Islamic world. He has directed his Justice Department to do a review of the counterterrorism trainings and materials used by law enforcement officials, which have featured so much anti-Islamic content.
But in other respects, the administration has been quiet, or worse. Although the administration retired the phrase “global war on terror,” it has continued the war under different names. Domestically, the administration provided funds for the New York City police to expand its surveillance of Muslim Americans. The FBI has been engaged in several questionable cases involving Muslim Americans that come very close to entrapment. The administration has expanded a no-fly list that anecdotal evidence suggests still profiles Muslim Americans.
Overseas, the public in majority Muslim countries still views the United States in an overwhelmingly negative light. The Obama administration, after all, remains deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan, has expanded drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and remains cozy with various autocratic regimes in the Muslim world, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Perhaps Obama in a second term, no longer worried about reelection, would be more proactive to combat Islamophobia. But he has always been cautious on this issue. As far as I know, he has yet to visit a mosque in the United States since becoming president. It’s difficult to address the issue of Islamophobia without such a visible demonstration that he isn’t afraid, politically, of mosques himself.
Q: Is the GOP Islamophobic? There is a plank in their platform that seems to describe anti-sharia legislation.
A: Certainly there is a segment of the GOP that is explicitly Islamophobic. Michelle Bachmann’s attempt to use Cold War tactics to link Huma Abedin and Keith Ellison to the Muslim Brotherhood garnered significant support within the party, even as John Boehner and John McCain denounced the effort. Mitt Romney decided not to speak out against Bachmann.
Other Islamophobic efforts have attracted more widespread GOP support, particularly the anti-sharia campaign. Even after a court of appeals struck down Oklahoma’s anti-sharia ballot initiative, this campaign remains well-funded and an integral part of GOP organizing at a state level. The inclusion of the anti-sharia plank in the GOP platform is a testament to the irrationality of the party. The 2012 elections will likely be quite close, and the party can’t afford to alienate any potential swing voters. But as with so many of its positions, the GOP has opted to strengthen its putative base at the expense of persuading independent voters, in this case those in the Muslim American community.
Feffer’s March 19 talk was broadcast on C-SPAN. WATCH HERE.
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