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Islamophobia and the Fear of Influence

 

No group of immigrants has come to American shores without claiming their first right of passage as a second-class citizens under the law. The Irish, Italians, Romanians etc. have all done their decades as unequal citizens.

Discussions of Islamophobia often center upon the results contempt towards Muslims.  Rarely is Islamophobia viewed as a stage in the evolution of American cultural and political transformation.  Rather than viewing Islamophobia as an independent phenomenon impacting Muslims, an alternative is to treat the rise in Islamophobia as a reaction to historical political loss.  While this perspective does not change the effects of Islamophobia, it contextualizes America's fears of the "religious other" in a historical framework rather than a perspective of a targeted victimization.  This essay will give a general overview on how the idea of Islamophobia can be viewed from America's own dilemma of defining itself and its citizens.

Making the American Mold

The United States has forever prided itself on being a nation of immigrants strengthened by its unique blend of ethnic and religious diversity.  However, this strength in diversity has not come without challenge.  No group of immigrants has come to American shores without claiming their first right of passage as a second-class citizens under the law. The Irish, Italians, Romanians etc. have all done their decades as unequal citizens.  Through the American process of assimilation, these unequal citizens would eventually forge a new joint identity in America that would have been unthinkable in their native lands.  The idea of the American melting pot was born out of the idea that the European in America were after the same goals and would be a new culture personified by the removal of historical prejudices.  In a passage from Letters from and American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur writes

"...whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch,  Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes... What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared." - J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer.

Because this idea and ideas similar to these formed the basis by which Americans have come to understand what it means to be an American, it is predictable to deduce the ensuing effects that the increase in the number of non-Europeans would have on the public consciousness.  Crevecoeur's idea of an American melting pot cemented the early meanings of what it means to be an American- to be European and by default Christian.  The ancient prejudices and manners that plunged Europe into a bloody cycle of religious wars were to be set aside to promote the idea of America as a European reconciliation.

Throughout U.S. history, there have been a great diversity in Christian practice.  However, the struggles and differences faced in and amongst Christian denominations paled in comparison to the communal struggles amongst communities in Europe.  Exercises of religious prowess, though resulting in instances of discrimination, particularly amongst Catholics were primarily measures to gain power and influence within American society. These religious differences, however, did not break with the theological similarities afforded by the central tenants of Christianity.  Together, Christian Europeans forged the creation of one nation under God- one in which the majority of the nation's citizens knew and believed in. 

The implied goal of the American melting pot was to homogeneity the heterogeneity of Europe’s immigrants-one nation one people.
 
While this is a simplistic rendition of the account of the formation of American identity it is the basic context in which identity came to be understood. The implied goal of the American melting pot was to create homogeneity from the heterogeneity of Europe's immigrants-one nation one people. This concept was ideal as a means of forming a unified identity, however, it also created barriers to the idea of forming a nation of immigrants with different religions and ethnicities.  

A Different Dynamic

Although Jews have had a presence in the U.S. since colonial times, early Jews came primarily from western European nations.  These communities sought assimilation rapidly as a means of seizing the entrepreneurial opportunities in the U.S. It was not until the larger influx of poorer Jews from Eastern Europe prior to and following World War II that the "otherness" of Jews began to take shape.  Newer immigrants had a greater difficulty assimilating and remained within concentrated enclaves often holding on to their native languages and traditions.  These immigrants in contrast to their entrepreneurially minded counterparts came to the U.S. for refuge rather than wealth. Therefore, the incentive for assimilation to achieve this means was not as dire.

For the first time, the American Jew created a very different dynamic.  American Jews became visible as not merely the "other" but the religious other. The growing presence of Jews holding on to language and tradition was no longer capable of being ignored.  Presence in numbers meant the potential power in numbers. Therefore, restrictions on Jewish political involvement were attempted.   Ethnic stereotypes of Jews such as the miserly money lender and anti-Christian murderer of Jesus followed Jews from Europe to America. Thus creating a class of "other" that was perceived by Christian Americans not only to be different but despised. 

The mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of a rapid movement towards the organization of Jewish communities. Older communities of Jews that had generated wealth and inroads into the political landscape increased the capacity for organization.  Over time, the superior organizational infrastructure and both cultural, religious, and political aided the Jewish community in staking out a new and permanent Jewish-American cultural identity.

While Jews have largely assimilated into American life, they the community as a whole has maintained a presence that is both a part of and distinct from America's historical religious identity.  This has set the precedence for the rejection of the idealism of the American melting pot and oriented the U.S. towards more of a multicultural approach to identity.  This reversal of American identity building is significant because it has forced the acknowledgement of religious minorities in the U.S. and established a model of influence by which other religious communities may follow.

A silent sentiment that often runs through the current of America is a feeling of resentment of Jewish success in areas such as finance, media, and politics.  To many the ability of the Jewish community to gain such unprecedented influence as a religious minority has allowed Jews as a group to maintain a foothold on American society.  It is this particular foothold that generates the most fear amongst Americans and particularly political America when the issue of the growing population of Muslims is discussed.

The following excerpt, though extreme, represents the undercurrent sentiment that has allowed anti-Semitism to ebb and flow at various points in modern American society.

Jews are all over Washington these days. One begins to wonder if the Jews have not already taken over our once Christian nation. President Bush recently appointed the ultra-orthodox Jew, Michael Mukasey, as Attorney General. And what is one of Mukasey's first acts as Bush's newest cabinet member? The lighting of the Hanukah Menorah on the south lawn of the White House this past Tuesday December 4 2007!

The Christmas season is here but it seems more like a Jewish season with Hanukah Menorahs in your face everywhere you go. And this is what the Jewish-controlled media treated us with this past Tuesday - an in your face lighting of the Hanukah "National Menorah," as it is now officially called, by the likes of our new Attorney General and his Anti-Christian Lubavitcher rabbi friends. (http://www.realzionistnews.com/)

To many the ability of the Jewish community to gain such unprecedented influence as a religious minority has allowed Jews as a group to maintain a foothold on American society. It is this particular foothold that generates the most fear amongst Americans and particularly political America when the issue of the growing population of Muslims is discussed.
 
Although Islamophobia has taken root takes on various forms and is perpetuated by varying means, it is often the Jewish example that is used to create caution and fear.  In many ways, it's as if to say, "Look what we allowed the Jews to do.  We can't let Muslims do the same."  In the way of politics, these sentiments become even more prominent because political action amongst Muslims is seen not necessarily as a civic duty but as a potential religious assault.

Politics and the Religious Other

Understanding anti-Semitism in America is critical to the uncovering the rise in Islamophobia in America. Although the architects of the U.S. constitution were heavily influenced by deism in the creation of the constitution, the United States has historically viewed itself as a Christian nation.  By virtue of the abundant population of Christians in America and in politics, law has been primarily interpreted from a Christian framework. This enabled Christian religious norms (primarily Protestant) to remain dominant and inseparable from American cultural identity.

This norm has been carried over to whom Americans have felt to be capable of representing itself as a nation.  There was no lack of awe in the 1960 election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the nation's first Catholic president. Catholics, in the historical thought of America's cultural identity, were viewed in some sense as second-class Christians or not really Christians at all.  However, Catholics shared enough of the religious heritage to eschew much distinction. The pints of contention were whether or not Catholics represented the same values as its Protestant majority.  As if to believe, a U.S. president would single-handedly create a powerful Catholic nation that would become more favorable to Catholics.

Additionally, when Joe Lieberman, a then United States Senator from Connecticut, was nominated as the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee by Al Gore, there was awe and much scuttlebutt.  While Senator Lieberman was not particularly endorsed (or well-liked) by the Jewish community, the American public had no problem calling him out as a Jew.  The discussions of Jewish influence resurfaced and the prospect of a Jewish president in the event of the death of a sitting president created a peculiar dialogue of a Jewish takeover of the U.S.  The under current in the American political discussion took a very similar form as discussions on race.  One line of discussion extolled the benefits of having a Jewish nominee, another segment curiously worried if the public would be accepting, and another fervently rejected the notion as an undercover attempt for Jews to exert their influence at a national/global level.

The conservatives had no loss of words when Representative Keith Ellison became the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress.  The speech and tone surrounding the election took on similar tones of a potential Muslim takeover of the U.S.  Conservative blogs were rampant with attacks on Ellison, Muslims, and Ellison's decision to take his oath of office on a Quran.  In a Washington Postarticle, conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager was quoted as saying, "America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress... This has nothing to do with the Koran. It has to do with the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition."  Though Prager, who is Jewish, may have been capturing the undercurrent sentiment in conservative circles, he did not acknowledge the fact that several Jewish and Christian congressmen and women chose not to take their oaths on the Bible.

Understanding anti-Semitism in America is critical to the uncovering the rise in Islamophobia in America. Although the architects of the U.S. constitution were heavily influenced by deism in the creation of the constitution, the United States has historically viewed itself as a Christian nation.
 
Prager's attempt to communicate Ellison's actions as a unique phenomenon was a call to fear the possibilities of what this single expression of faith could lead to if unrestrained. With the backdrop of September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. War on Terror, Prager and others sought to capitalize on the fears of Muslims that were present in society.  The mission that has taken shape in the American media is to reconstitute the idea that Muslims are so ideologically different from Judaism and Christianity that these differences in a politician may adversely affect his/her policy decisions.  Conservatives continuously raise the ire that Muslim politicians due to the global brotherhood of Islam will always be sympathetic towards Muslims and could therefore become an enemy from within.

Recent media accounts of homegrown terrorists have added fuel to the fire for limiting Muslim civic involvement.  The more extremism is in the media, the greater depth conservatives use to develop their arguments against Muslims in the public sphere.  Through priming, the media makes some issues salient, thereby activating the public's memories about previously held information (McCombs et al., 1991).  The attempt to restrict a Muslim presence in politics is a well-coordinated attempt to associate the quest for Muslim civic engagement with the goals of extremism.

Although the Council on American Islamic Relations, describes Islamophobia as the unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam, these fears are founded.  However, the methods by which these fears are disproportionately used in the media is what creates the hostility that is unfounded. CAIR purports that these fears and hostility are what lead to discrimination against Muslims, exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political or social process, stereotyping, the presumption of guilt by association, and finally hate crimes.  While there is a very well documented fear of Islam and Muslims due to pure unfamiliarity and limited exposure, the question must be asked of what is actually fueling Islamophobia today versus in decades prior.

Whereas, the fear of Islam was dominated in the past by the fear of otherness, today's fear is primarily a fear of Islamic influence. The fear of influence is the impetus to create an unfavorable image of Muslims and to raise doubts concerning the motives of politicians and ordinary citizens. American's particularly the conservative right, have been always quick to warn of the impending encroachment of Islam on American politics.  In many ways, the fears perpetuated about Islam and Muslims serve to avenge the influence that American Jews have gained. The loss of power and influence in American has become not only the concern of Christians but also of Jews.  Muslim communities are seen as following similar patterns of political, cultural, and economic growth as their predecessors and this would mean a further dispersion of power in the U.S.  Antagonists attempt to raise doubts about the intentions of Muslims in America some stating conspiracies ranging from a desire to institute shariah law in America to the desire for Muslims to launch an American jihad.

Fears of an Islamic presence in politics played out in the period leading up to the 2008 U.S. Presidential election.  Because Conservatives could not revive America's long-standing problems with race relations, the then Democratic nominee Barack Obama was attacked for his middle name.  Conservative pundits spouted Obama's name with emphasis on his middle name-Hussein.  "What's wrong with saying his middle name" conservative radio talk show host Rusch Limbaugh would state. His Muslim father gave it to him."  Despite having stated he was a Christian and not a Muslim, there was enough cultural connection to Islam that could be used to reignite the fears of an attempt of Muslims to grow their political power.  There was a concerted attempt to state his middle name with emphasis, show pictures of him in cultural attire associated with Muslims, etc.  Though Obama is not a Muslim, it was eye opening to see an attempt to smear a politician just by virtue of being a Muslim. This smear campaign was a part of a larger scheme which is the attempt to restrict Muslims from political office and influence amidst a rapidly growing American Muslim presence.

While there is a very well documented fear of Islam and Muslims due to pure unfamiliarity and limited exposure, the question must be asked of what is actually fueling Islamophobia today versus in decades prior. Whereas, the fear of Islam was dominated in the past by the fear of otherness, today’s fear is primarily a fear of Islamic influence.
 
Tipping Points

While there have been small fragmented communities of Muslims throughout the history of the United States, the late 1960s proved to be the rise in visibility of Muslims.  Students from Muslim majority countries flocked to the U.S for educational opportunities afforded by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that removed quotas for foreign immigration to the U.S.  This Act allowed immigrants to seek visas on a first-come first serve basis which shifted the pattern of immigration from European countries to Asian countries. In addition, the Act allowed immigrants to bring not only themselves but whole families as well.

Following September 11th, there was much discussion concerning the level of immigration that had occurred throughout the decades from Muslim majority countries.  Conservatives jumped at the opportunity to frame the debate around immigration as a means to protect America against terrorism. However, the framing of this debate became a call to limit immigration to prevent the global connections of Muslims abroad to Muslims in the U.S.  The Conservative gripes over immigration are often fueled by the prospect of changing the American landscape too much by tipping the balance of power in favor of the "other".  Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network stated in the Boston Globe that the Immigration and Nationality Act set America on a very different demographic course than the previous 300 years."  Understanding the reach of this Act, there have been several attempts by conservatives to limit it.  The Immigration and Nationality Act is seen as having had the unfavorable effect of setting the stage for the racial and religious imbalance in America.

Like American Jews, Muslims have reached a critical mass with the capacity to organize politically and economically. This development has taken place within a relatively short span of time.  Both indigenous and immigrant populations of Muslims continue to increase not only by immigration but also by birth rate and conversion.  While there is no political means of curbing each level of growth, immigration has become the most viable opportunity to restricting the influence of Muslims in America.  Islamophobia is merely a symptom.  Hate crimes, stereotypes, and guilt by association only become present when perpetrated through a campaign of fear.  This is why tackling the symptoms of Islamophobia will do little to change its root.  Therefore, more energy should be spent addressing the actual fear.

 

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