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Hot Topic: 9/11 and Islamophobia in America
Since the events of 9/11, there has been a rise in animosity towards Muslims and Arabs in the US., a professor of media studies at the School of Communication and Information, is the author of a forthcoming book on Islamophobia (Haymarket Press, Spring 2012) in which she examines the ways in which anti-Muslim rhetoric has been used in the public sphere. Here she weighs in on the events of 9/11 and the role of the media in shaping negative public perceptions of Muslims. Kumar's area of research includes media, war, and imperialism as well as Islam, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy. She is active in social movements for peace and justice.
Rutgers Today: Do you think there is widespread fear of and animosity toward Muslims in the United States?
Deepa Kumar: Unfortunately, yes. I don’t think, however, that this anti-Muslim attitude comes from regular Americans. Rather, since the events of 9/11, the mainstream media and the political elite have helped generate an attitude toward Muslims that has been largely negative. Over the last year and a half, this rhetoric has been taken up a few notches by forces such as the Tea Party and other far right-wingers whom I have called the "Islamophobic warriors." These individuals were not only responsible for the controversy around the planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, but also the new push to stop the use of Sharia or Islamic law in U.S. courts. There is no evidence to suggest that Sharia law is going to replace the constitution -- yet about two dozen states have considered banning its use anyway.
The "warriors" believe that there is a conspiracy by Muslims to take over the U.S. They also insist that Muslim Americans have ties to terrorist organizations and that there are really no "good" Muslims. These are very dangerous views, but unfortunately they have impacted politics in the U.S. and created even greater hostility towards Muslims. All the Republican presidential candidates, for instance, have eagerly incorporated anti-Sharia rhetoric into their campaigns.
Rutgers Today: If you feel most Americans don’t have animosity toward Muslims, why do you think anti-Muslim rhetoric is prevalent?
Kumar: The majority of Americans have been manipulated by a politics of fear generated after the events of 9/11. Every country that seeks to obtain the consent of its citizens for war must construct an enemy that is feared and hated. When President George W. Bush declared that we were involved in a “war on terror,” we were told that the new enemy was the vicious Muslim terrorist. This generated a politics of fear similar to that which existed during the Cold War when we were told to fear the Soviet Union and “communists” in our midst. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were vilified and more than 100,000 descendants of Japanese origin in the U.S. were put into concentration camps. Over half a century ago, Japanese Americans were collectively blamed for the attack at Pearl Harbor. Today all Muslims are viewed as responsible for the events that took place on 9/11.
Rutgers Today: Do you think this level of tension always existed between Muslims and non-Muslims in America? If so, why now are the tensions so apparent?
Kumar: Strains of anti-Muslim attitudes have existed in the United States for over a century. But the association of Muslims as enemies of the U.S. has a more recent history in the political sphere, and begins in the 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, sections of the political elite sought to replace the old communist enemy with thee new "Islamic terrorist" enemy. Yet, we did not witness large-scale discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in the way we have since 9/11. As civil rights groups have documented, not only have Muslims been the victims of hate crime, they also have been racially profiled, imprisoned indefinitely without the ability to go to court, deported, and tortured in secret CIA prisons around the world. Just like during World War II, when there was no public outcry around the mass punishment being meted out to Japanese and Japanese Americans; today, too, there isn’t enough attention cast on the violations of Muslim Americans’ civil liberties.
Rutgers Today: Ten years since 9/11, has the situation for Muslim Americans improved or deteriorated?
Kumar: Sadly, the situation in some ways is worse today for Muslims than in the years immediately after 9/11. There was a lot of hope that with the election of President Obama that Islamophobia would lose its bite. Unfortunately, that has not come to pass. While President Obama has toned down the rhetoric of Islamophobia, he has done little in reality to stop the scapegoating of Muslims. In practice, he has continued President Bush’s policies abroad and extended the domestic attacks on Muslims and Arabs that I mentioned above. He has even gone further than Bush in some ways--for instance, in giving himself the power to execute U.S. citizens suspected of ties to terrorism, such Anwar al-Awlaki, without so much as a trial or the apparently unnecessary burden of proof.
His recent “counter-radicalization" strategy announced in early August states that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are a “preeminent terrorist threat” to the US and that the government should prevent them from radicalizing and recruiting Americans. The fact is that it is widely believed in the CIA, as well as among counterterrorism officials, that al-Qaeda is no longer a threat, let along a “preeminent” one. Also, an August Gallup poll found that 92 percent of Muslim Americans had no sympathy for al-Qaeda. Over 50 percent of Americans in other religious communities also believed this about Muslims, with Jewish Americans at the top with 70 percent. Yet, we are being asked by this “counter-radicalization” strategy to look at our Muslim neighbors, friends, classmates and teachers with suspicion and to inform on them. This is deeply troubling and harks back to the kind of fear and suspicion generated during the McCarthy era.
Rutgers Today: What role do you think the media has played in shaping the perception of Muslims? Have the media encouraged or discouraged fear toward Muslims?
Kumar: Hollywood has produced a steady stream of films that reinforce stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. These stereotypes include images of Arab men as barbaric, violent, gaudy, lascivious, and of Muslim majority countries as uncivilized, misogynistic, irrational, and undemocratic.
The mainstream news media in the U.S. take their cues from the “primary definers of news;” that is, people who are the key political and economic leaders. These members of the political elite, with some notable exceptions, have branded the Muslim community as untrustworthy and anti-American. Largely, mainstream media have not deviated from this script.
Updated: August 26, 2011
Media Contact: Ken Branson
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