Eleven years has passed since that fateful Tuesday morning, one that for many Americans, crystallized a suspected link between Islam and violence.
Two years after 19 of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, an ABC News poll found that 34 percent of Americans believed that Islam encourages violence. Five years later, in 2008, despite the rarity of religiously inspired attacks, that number rose sharply to 48 percent. Today, the pattern of skepticism continues. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in September 2010 suggested that half of Americans harbor negative views of Islam, the highest number recorded since the al-Qaeda attacks in 2001.
Correspondingly, in the midst of escalating anti-Muslim sentiment, reported hate crimes against Muslims appear to be on the rise. From 2000 to 2001, hate crimes in the United States against people of Middle Eastern descent increased by more than 324 percent, with 354 attacks in 2000 and 1,501 reported attacks in 2001. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) noted that hate crimes against Muslims in the United States rose by more than 50 percent from 2003 to 2004. And by 2009, not much had changed. Pew Research released a report saying that “Eight years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans see Muslims as facing more discrimination inside the U.S. than any other major religious group.” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, said in the fall of 2010, “I have been working on behalf of other Muslims for more than 30 years and I have never seen it like this, not even after the 9/11 attacks. Hate rhetoric often leads to hate crimes, and I think that’s what we’re seeing now.”
We need look no further than this past summer as proof of that. The Sikh temple shooting — where worshippers were not targeted for their religion but for their dark skin, turbans, beards, and foreign names — as well as mosque vandalisms, arsons, and assaults on Muslim Americans are evidence of a growing climate of hate.
Despite efforts on the part of President George W. Bush, President Obama, various members of Congress, and American Muslim organizations to distinguish between violent acts of individual Muslims and the quintessential nature of their Muslim faith, such endeavors have often been overpowered by a counter-narrative that exploits realistic fears and represents Islam as a violent threat to not only American values but the future of America itself.
The Islamic bogeyman represents the newest chapter in America’s long history of monster stories. Given the vast displays of violence committed by Muslim extremists, such an emergence only seemed inevitable. Like the threat of the Bavarian Illuminati in the late 1790s, the alleged infiltration of Catholics in the 1850s, and fears of a Communist takeover throughout the 1900s, actual world events have provoked the outbreak of fears in certain quarters of the country and the fear of Islam is no exception. But also like the monsters of the nation’s past, the Islamic threat has been seized upon by a cadre of individuals—an industry of Islamophobia—that use lurid imagery, emotive language, charged stereotypes, and repetition, to exacerbate fears of a larger-than-life, ever-lurking Muslim presence. This industry is largely, though not exclusively, comprised of ideologically driven, right-wing activists, many of whom identify themselves as evangelical Christians and have found a chorus of like-minded enthusiasts within the Tea Party movement and various political and social fringe groups. Despite their peripheral location within American society, their outcries over a suspected Muslim takeover have gained traction within more mainstream, moderate communities.
In the summer of 2010, a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence swept through the United States, generated by a controversy that surrounded the construction of a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Two blocks away from the site of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Park51, as the development would be called, reawakened the suppressed emotions of a nation deeply wounded by the tragedy. Opponents of the project cited its location as their primary point of contention. For them, building a “monster mosque” so close to Ground Zero was offensive because Muslims, however deviant in their beliefs, were responsible for the massacre there nine years before. And, because the developers of Park51 were Muslims too, there must have been a link—the Quran found in Mohammad Atta’s bag contained the same verses that would be preached to Muslims attending worship in the building’s mosque, they believed. The center was also, according to some, an omen that warned of a larger Muslim takeover. By infiltrating lower Manhattan, they claimed, Muslims would use the mosque as a command center for terrorism and dispatch extremists all across the heartland of the United States, uprooting governments state by state until Sharia law replaced the Constitution.
The conspiratorial theories of historical monster conquests reemerged at Park 51 and have also reemerged in other similar public paroxysms over “creeping Sharia” law, “stealth jihad,” and “terror babies.” But unlike the earlier historic scares which were born in church pulpits, on front porches, and in government offices, the tide of recent anti-Muslim sentiment was nurtured on the Internet where, with the single click of a mouse, it went viral, spreading to every corner of the country overnight.
This piece appears as an updated excerpt from Nathan Lean's new book The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto, 9/18)