The Never-Ending Crusade

No Americans were killed on U.S. soil by Islamic extremists in 2011. Why does Islamophobia persist?

Patrick Glennon March 29, 2012

Men praying at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, in Sterling, Va. on February 24. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sec­onds after lam­bast­ing the intol­er­ance of the Left” and com­par­ing Barack Oba­ma to a Sovi­et athe­ist, pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Rick San­to­rum lion­ized his sup­port­ers at a cam­paign ral­ly in Texas as the real dis­senters of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: “[D]issent comes from folks who use rea­son, com­mon sense and divine rev­e­la­tion,” he told an enthu­si­as­tic crowd in February.

Having grown accustomed to the Muslim character of America's global enemies, Islamophobes instinctively view the ascendancy of Muslim nations with trepidation.

Democ­ra­cy, accord­ing to San­to­rum, is under­pinned by faith. And he’s not entire­ly wrong. Mahat­ma Gandhi’s non­co­op­er­a­tion move­ment against British impe­ri­al­ism was pred­i­cat­ed on the prin­ci­ples of Hin­du dhar­ma, and Rev. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. orga­nized against polit­i­cal dis­en­fran­chise­ment through a net­work of Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tions. But to San­to­rum and his ilk, the roots of democ­ra­cy are exclu­sive­ly Chris­t­ian. And one reli­gion in par­tic­u­lar rep­re­sents the polit­i­cal antithe­sis: Islam. “[Equal­i­ty] does not come from Islam,” San­to­rum said.

John Feffer’s new book, Cru­sade 2.0 (City Lights Books, March), tack­les the West’s resur­gent Islam­o­pho­bia, cri­tiquing the notion that Islam is innate­ly hos­tile to demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. From the medieval-era Cru­sades to the Cold War, Fef­fer argues, the West­ern imag­i­na­tion sees Islam through the prism of con­flict, syn­the­siz­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his­tor­i­cal ene­mies and pro­ject­ing the result onto mod­ern-day Mus­lims. Part dooms­day reli­gious adver­sary, part geopo­lit­i­cal men­ace, Islam sat­is­fies a cul­tur­al anx­i­ety” in Amer­i­ca that longs for a gal­va­niz­ing ene­my – the inverse of demo­c­ra­t­ic and moral Christians.

Take the word Islam­o­fas­cism,” for exam­ple, which con­flates con­tem­po­rary Islam­ic move­ments with 20th-cen­tu­ry fas­cism. Fef­fer, co-direc­tor of the For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus project at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, notes that the term – a favorite of the Right (and the late Christo­pher Hitchens) – is a fusion of the the­o­log­i­cal and the geopo­lit­i­cal,” embody­ing a threat to the polit­i­cal struc­ture that pro­tects America’s Chris­t­ian heritage. 

The fear of polit­i­cal Islam has gen­er­at­ed some rather extreme behav­ior: Four states have passed mea­sures out­law­ing Sharia law. Okla­homa, which in 2010 passed its law, has a Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion of less than 1 per­cent. In the midst of the Park51 com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter con­tro­ver­sy, Newt Gin­grich com­pared Islam to Nazi Ger­many. Euro­peans haven’t been much calmer: In 2009 Swiss vot­ers approved a ban on the con­struc­tion of minarets; there are four in the entire country. 

What makes right-wing alarmism dif­fi­cult to grasp is its tim­ing: The recent uptick of Islam­o­pho­bia coin­cides with a steady decline in domes­tic ter­ror plots con­nect­ed to Mus­lims. A study by the Tri­an­gle Cen­ter of Ter­ror­ism and Home­land Secu­ri­ty found that the num­ber of Mus­lim Amer­i­cans involved in ter­ror plots fell for a third year in a row, from 49 in 2009 to 20 in 2011. Of the 14,000 mur­ders that occurred in the Unit­ed States last year, none were con­nect­ed to Islam­ic extrem­ism. In Cru­sade 2.0, Fef­fer argues that Islam­o­pho­bia is sus­tained by U.S. gov­ern­ment [for­eign] pol­i­cy” as well as the grow­ing eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and glob­al influ­ence of mod­ern Islam.” In oth­er words, hav­ing grown accus­tomed to the Mus­lim char­ac­ter of America’s glob­al ene­mies, Islam­o­phobes instinc­tive­ly view the ascen­dan­cy of Mus­lim nations and the prospect of Islam-inspired democ­ra­cies with trepidation.

GOP rhetoric offers evi­dence for this the­o­ry: Texas Gov. Rick Per­ry assert­ed that Turkey, a NATO mem­ber, is ruled by what many would per­ceive to be Islam­ic ter­ror­ists.” Michele Bach­mann blamed the Arab Spring on Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion weak­ness.” Gin­grich referred to the upris­ings as the Anti-Chris­t­ian” Spring. San­to­rum claimed that Oba­ma threw Mubarak under the bus.” What all of these com­ments have in com­mon is a dis­trust of Islam in pol­i­tics. If you believe that Islam is incom­pat­i­ble with democ­ra­cy, it makes per­fect sense.

While the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion may diverge from the Right’s shrill nar­ra­tive, it nonethe­less sti­fles demo­c­ra­t­ic expres­sion in the region. The pres­i­dent cham­pi­oned Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak’s ouster only after its inevitabil­i­ty became obvi­ous; his ver­bal sup­port for democ­ra­ti­za­tion con­trasts with White House silence after Bahrain’s repres­sive régime vio­lent­ly attacked pro-democ­ra­cy demon­stra­tors on Feb­ru­ary 14. Obama’s cir­cum­spect approach may ful­fill strate­gic objec­tives, but it also rein­forces the notion that Mus­lims are less deserv­ing of the same polit­i­cal treat­ment that West­ern­ers enjoy. 

To defuse the anti-Mus­lim prej­u­dices still boil­ing in both the Unit­ed States and Europe, Cru­sade 2.0 pro­pos­es three solu­tions: invite Islam into the Judeo-Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, end the U.S. occu­pa­tions and admit Turkey into the Euro­pean Union. Briefly men­tioned at the book’s end, Feffer’s sug­ges­tions feel per­func­to­ry, naïve and some­what dat­ed. The Iraq occu­pa­tion, for exam­ple, is effec­tive­ly over, and a troop draw­down has begun in Afghanistan. With­draw­al from both quag­mires will mean few­er U.S. troops are fight­ing Mus­lims. But the real chance to sap per­sis­tent Islam­o­pho­bia lies in the promise of the Arab Spring – and whether Amer­i­cans can both under­stand and respect fledg­ling Mus­lim-major­i­ty democ­ra­cies in North Africa and the Mid­dle East.

Patrick Glen­non is a writer and musi­cian liv­ing in Chica­go. He received his B.A. in His­to­ry from Skid­more Col­lege and cur­rent­ly works as Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Man­ag­er for the Michael For­ti for Cook Coun­ty Court cam­paign and as the web intern at In These Times.
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