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Islamophobia: A Bipartisan Xenophobia in American Politics

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The late Palestinian academic giant Edward Said, whose groundbreaking book Orientalism still illuminates how Arabs and Muslims are viewed in the Western world, once wrote, “I have not been able to discover any period in European or American history since the Middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice, and political interests.” Although much of the meteoric rise of Islamophobia (and anti-Semitism) within American politics today squarely rests within the ideological political platform of the Republican Party, any intellectually honest conversation about Islamophobia must also concede that there also seems to be great disdain for Muslims within some prominent liberal political circles as well.

Even before Donald Trump’s election, Islamophobia was firmly entrenched within the ideological political platforms of many Republican presidential hopefuls. Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in a 2015 Washington Post column about growing Islamophobia within the Republican Party. (Disclosure: Gerson and I both serve on the national advisory board for the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes this journal.) In addition to highlighting the Islamophobia of Donald Trump, Gerson reminded readers that 2012 GOP candidate Newt Gingrich once called sharia law a “mortal threat to the survival of the United States” and 2016 Republican candidate Mike Huckabee publically described Islam as a “religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet.” In the past, other Republican candidates have proposed requiring a loyalty oath for Muslims (pizza magnate Herman Cain) and even said that Muslims should not be allowed to run for president (Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson).

While the vast majority of conservative Islamophobia in the United States generally centers itself around an overall hatred of Islam, the specter of liberal Islamophobia seems to revolve around a disdain for the religious freedoms of Muslim citizens when they supposedly contradict with culturally relative Western liberal orthodoxies.

For instance, consider the 2010 controversy over the Park51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, which became pejoratively known in the media as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which was interesting since it was neither at Ground Zero nor simply a mosque. The Manhattan building in question was already serving as a prayer space for Muslims. The Park51 project was actually going to tear down the original building and construct a larger $100 million community center for New Yorkers of all religions, where there would be bookstores, restaurants, art galleries, and yes, even a Muslim prayer room. Needless to say, we saw the indignation from the usual anti-Muslim voices on the far right. However, even liberal Democrats like former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean also both publicly (and bizarrely) came out against protecting the First Amendment rights of more than 7 million American Muslims.

“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” Reid’s office said in a statement at the height of the controversy. “Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.” In a radio interview posted on YouTube, Dean stated that the Ground Zero mosque is “a real affront to people who lost their lives” and “I think another site would be a better idea.”

Even Democratic Party stalwarts like Hillary and Bill Clinton have not been immune from their own political forays in Islamophobia. For instance, during his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton told millions of Americans: “If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make the future together. We want you.”

During the third presidential debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton said that the United States needs “to work with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent [terrorist] attacks.” Again, this was not a new talking point. In the first and second debates, she said, “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines” against terrorism. Yet framing American Muslims within the context of terrorism perpetuates this anti-Muslim trope, and it has had an insidious political effect of marginalizing 7 million American Muslims. Read the Whole Article

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