Islam as News

Earlier today, I had an opportunity to speak at the “Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminar” (SRLS), which is held on a weekly basis at the North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. The following is (more or less) what I said:

These days, a great deal of commotion is being raised in the US media about controversial issues that have a real or imagined connection with something called “Islam.” In 2010 alone, most of us heard about the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and the “Burn a Koran Day.” In each case, the controversy began, apparently, with a single person who decided to say or do something provocative; the specific individuals involved in these three instances were, respectively, Molly Norris, an artist; Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger; and Terry Jones, a pastor. In each case, the issue was almost immediately picked up for coverage by journalists, bloggers, commentators, professional pundits, and comedians.

It seems there was a receptiveness or readiness in the US media, and the US society more generally, that allowed these issues to acquire an aura of importance and urgency and gave them a momentum that they did not deserve.

This means that if we are to understand these specific issues, it will not be enough to focus upon their religious and cultural aspects alone; we also need an explanation for why the US society tends to pay so much attention to otherwise non-issues like these, as compared to many other news stories exposing real problems that are clamoring for our attention.

A great deal has already been said about these controversies relating to “Islam.” Even the commentaries themselves have been commented upon and the analyses themselves have been analyzed many times over. I am not sure if I want to add anything to this “discourse.” We may benefit, however, by trying to trace the social and historical context within which issues like these erupt and attract a disproportionate amount of people’s attention.

I suggest we look at these issues in relation to two concentric layers of context. There is an immediate context and, surrounding that, there is a larger context. I will first describe these two contexts, and then propose a hypothesis that, I think, may explain why we are witnessing a rise in negative attention to “Islam” both in the US media and the US society.

The immediate context is characterized by what is called “Islamophobia,” a fear of Islam. To be more accurate, this is not really a fear of Islam as much as it is a fear of Muslims.  The two terms—“Islam” and “Muslims”—are not synonymous, and therefore they should not be conflated. “Islam” has a variety of meanings, but in each case it represents a concept, an abstraction, that has no causal efficacy or agency in the empirical world.  “Muslims,” on the other hand, is a term denoting concrete, flesh-and-blood, human beings, who do have causal efficacy or agency. We are never afraid of abstract concepts, but we are, frequently, afraid of other people. Strictly speaking, therefore, “Islamophobia” is a fear of Muslims which is unconsciously projected upon an abstraction called “Islam.” This projection is common because it serves certain useful functions at both psychological and sociological levels. It creates an illusion of objectivity and detachment, allowing some people to claim that they have nothing against Muslims but that they only have a legitimate dislike for “Islam.”

At the same time, the “phobia” in Islamophobia also remains unrecognized and unacknowledged. Generally speaking, we human beings do not express our fears directly; instead, we express them indirectly through another, more “acceptable” emotion, such as anger or hatred. This is why the fear of Muslims is usually expressed through a hatred of Islam. Moreover, since hating a religious or cultural tradition is socially “unacceptable,” it too is expressed in a disguised form, i.e., as a “rational disagreement” with certain Islamic beliefs and practices. And yet, the way in which these “rational disagreements” are expressed leaves no doubt that they are anything but rational.

Looking at the media “discourse” about the current controversies, we cannot help noticing a much-hyped fear of something called the “Shari’ah,” which is roughly translated as the “Islamic Law.” If the media reports are to be believed, it seems that many otherwise rational Americans are genuinely afraid of the “Shari’ah.” This fear is expressed as a series of “disagreements” with the nature, structure, and tenants of the Shari’ah, which is said to be anti-women, anti-democratic, anti-human rights, anti-minorities, and so on.

The fear is irrational for a number of reasons, but most importantly because the critics have no idea what they are talking about. Apparently, individuals with little or no knowledge of the Islamic tradition have been busy feeding the American public tons of scary stories, and the strategy has obviously been working. In a recent Pew Survey, 40% admitted that they have unfavorable views of Islam but only 9% said that they knew a great deal about Islamic beliefs and practices. It seems that lack of knowledge does not prevent us from subscribing to strong opinions, for we can always rely on our favorite “experts.” Unsuspecting Americans are being told by these “experts” that the Shari’ah is some medieval code of law with nothing but harsh and inhuman punishments, that it is a code of law that is static and unchanging, and, furthermore, that the Taliban were the best representatives of what the Shari’ah looks like.

The “Shari’ah,” whatever it may be, is merely a concept or an abstraction that has no causal efficacy or agency. There is, then, no reason to be afraid of the Shari’ah. The fear actually comes from a related piece of Islamophobic propaganda, according to which American Muslims are conspiring to enforce the Shari’ah on the helpless citizens of the United States. There is no evidence of such a conspiracy, and even if there were, I would have serious difficulty believing that a small minority could radically alter the entire legal structure of a modern state.

Muslims are less than 2% of the US population. It would be “rational” for Muslims to be afraid in this situation, simply because they are such a small minority that their rights can be easily taken away. This, indeed, has been happening in this country at least since the Clinton administration, though the infamous PATRIOT ACT has broken all records of violating their civil rights and the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to stop or reverse the abuses. On the other hand, it is hardly “rational” for the 98% of non-Muslim Americans to be afraid of a small, relatively disorganized, and extremely diverse population of American Muslims, particularly when a significant proportion of that minority is already well assimilated into the US society.

Islamophobia has a thinly disguised core of racism and xenophobia that needs to be exposed. The vast majority of American Muslims are not Caucasians; at least a quarter of them are African-Americans, and the rest are immigrants from Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. Since White Muslims constitute an extremely small minority in this country, any hatred directed at Muslims has to be seen for it really is—a hatred for non-White “outsiders.” While the US society has made great progress in recognizing, naming, and eradicating anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, it has a long way to go before it achieves the same results with respect to anti-Muslim bigotry.  To do so we need to acknowledge that Islamophobia is a form of racism.

The immediate context, which is characterized by Islamophobia, is surrounded by a larger context that supports and maintains the fear and hatred of Muslims. This larger context is characterized by a particular mindset that is known as “Orientalism.”  Both Islamophobia and Orientalism are based on very similar kinds of reasoning, so much so that Islamophobia can be seen as only a vulgar form of Orientalism.

The most important critique of Orientalism was offered by Columbia University professor Edward Said (1935-2003).  His critique is based on a postmodern understanding of the construction of academic knowledge, which may be outlined as follows:

  1. Any “knowledge” about a given religious or cultural tradition, or about a given group of people, always contains a great deal more than empirical facts.
  2. The selection and arrangement of facts so as to give them a narrative form and significance involves a process called interpretation.
  3. Interpretation depends on such factors as the identity and subjectivity of the interpreter, the intended audience, the immediate and long-term purpose, the historical context, and all previous interpretations.
  4. Every interpretation serves a particular set of interests, regardless of whether the interpreter recognizes those interests or not.

Edward Said’s main contribution is that he applied the above framework to Western understandings of Islam, Muslims, and Arabs, as well as non-Western societies and cultures more generally.

Let’s look at the specific case of Islam and Muslims. At least since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and perhaps going all the way back to the Crusades, most of the Western construction of knowledge about “Islam” and “Muslims” has taken place in a situation of real or perceived hostility, competitiveness, and fear. As a result, the larger social and historical context within which the vast majority of Europeans and Americans have approached “Islam” and “Muslims” during the last two centuries or so has been such that it has encouraged and facilitated a particular approach to interpretation, an approach that may be called “Orientalism.”

Orientalism is a dichotomous way of looking at the world, an unrealistically simplistic way of imagining “us” and “them.” The hallmark of this thinking is an uncompromising, though often unconscious, insistence on treating these two categories in terms of Aristotle’s “Law of the Excluded Middle,” which says that “everything must either be or not be.” The West/East division is projected on a whole range of dichotomies that take the classical form of A/not-A. These include good/evil, rational/irrational, peaceful/violent, freedom/tyranny, etc.

Orientalist thinking has been correctly identified as the ideological force behind colonialism and imperialism. It is also the unrecognized intellectual source behind much of contemporary Islamophobia.

In recent decades, increasing self-consciousness in academic circles has considerably reduced the influence of Orientalist thinking, or has at least brought such influence out into the open. This, however, is not true of much of the popular imagination in the West; that imagination remains very much under the spell of Orientalism. In European and North American societies, Orientalism is still the main filter through which the man or woman in the street is likely to approach anything related to “Islam” and “Muslims.”

An important element of Orientalist thinking is the tendency to imagine “the West” as a powerful and superior entity, while also cultivating a fear of harm or injury coming from the dark and unknown depths of “the Orient.” We can see here how the much more sophisticated tradition of Orientalism has trickled down into the popular imagination, from where it is expressed in the form of Islamophobia.

Despite the fact that American Muslims constitute a small minority, they are routinely presented in the Islamophobic discourse as representing a huge, powerful, and dangerous threat—as if they are about to take over the country, destroy our “Judeo-Christian” civilization, and impose medieval barbarism on innocent Westerners.

There is obviously a contradiction in being constantly afraid that “they” are about to attack and harm us, alongside the firm conviction that “we” are incomparably better and stronger than them. The contradiction goes unnoticed because it serves a very convenient function, i.e., it justifies “our” violence against them, including our pre-emptive strikes, while de-legitimizing “their” violence against us.

Orientalist and Islamophobic thinking allows “us” to see the speck of sawdust in “their” eye, while simultaneously saving us the inconvenience of having to see the log in our own eye.

To summarize the discussion thus far, the specific media-generated controversies that have “Islam” as their common denominator are best understood within their immediate and larger contexts, characterized respectively by Islamophobia and Orientalism. The following question, however, still remains: Why is there a recent surge in anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, as indicated by the amount of attention that Americans are willing to invest in Islam-related controversies. The atrocities of 9/11 and the subsequent US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely part of the causal mechanism; yet, I am not convinced that these events can provide a full explanation for the rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and activity in the last few years. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer a hypothesis to account for this surge. I propose that we avoid looking at these issues as if they were taking place in a political and economic vacuum, in isolation from everything else that has been happening in our society. Instead, we ought to look at the recent surge in Islamophobia as part of a larger pattern.

Let me take a minor detour at this point.

Millions of years of biological evolution has firmly established in our bodies the well-known “fight or flight response.” When we face an imminent danger, specific physiological changes are triggered in our bodies, including rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, diversion of blood to large muscle groups, dilation of the pupils, etc., the apparent result of which is a temporary increase in our ability to deal with the danger at hand.  In this state, there is often a loss of peripheral vision, sometimes leading to an effect called “tunnel vision.” This narrowing of the field of vision probably helps us focus on the object needing our most immediate attention, and therefore contributes to our chances of survival, but it also reduces our ability to notice what is going on in the wider environment.

Along the lines of this physiological effect of “tunnel vision,” perhaps there is also a sociological effect that is characterized by a collective attitude of defensiveness, including a narrowing of our attention to what is nearest to us in both time and space; such an effect may take place during periods of crisis that threaten an entire society. This means that whenever there is a perceived threat to the well-being or survival of a group of people, there may occur a narrowing of spiritual vision leading to a tendency of focusing on one’s immediate and short-term interests. This may explain why xenophobia and racism, and the accompanying desire to find scapegoats, are unusually common during periods of war, epidemics, and scarcity. This phenomenon may be a manifestation of what psychologists call “parochial altruism,” a heightened concern with the welfare and safety of the members of our own group and lowered empathy and altruism, along with increased aggression, toward potentially competing outsiders. Consequently, there will be a hardening of boundaries and borders, an accentuation of racial, cultural, and religious differences, and an overall sense of panic that can easily become directed at one minority group or another.

There are many reasons to suspect that the US society, as a whole, is going through a period characterized by “tunnel vision” and “parochial altruism,” along with a heightened attitude of collective panic and defensiveness. There is a widespread sense of betrayal, resulting from the realization that the American dream is just that—a dream. There is a sense of cultural anomie or disorientation, resulting from extremely rapid social changes. Here’s one example: Whether or not one agrees with the idea of same-sex marriage, it is obvious that it will soon become a norm.  This change in social standards and expectations is radical enough to generate the sense, particularly among older individuals, that the very ground on which they stand is being taken away from under their feet. At the same time, there is a growing backlash against many of the gains that were made in the 1960s, for instance through the civil rights movement. The racism of half-a-century ago now takes the form of tax cuts for the rich.  There is also an apparent rise in anti-immigrant sentiments; the crackdown on “illegal” immigrants and the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border are indications of a general hardening of symbolic boundaries. Of course, the economic downturn, or recession, has played a critical role in many of these developments.  Interestingly enough, some of these same attitudes are appearing in certain European countries as well, as indicated by the rise of right-wing parties.

It appears there is sufficient stress in the American society, most of which is hidden under the surface like the proverbial iceberg, that is causing a constant but low-level anxiety. Every now and then, whenever conditions are ripe, that anxiety erupts into outright fear and scapegoating of this or that minority. The recent surge in Islamophobia should be seen within this larger situation of society-wide stress and anxiety and a general rise in irrational fears of the “other.” Even though the fear of terrorism is justifiable, I believe it has been blown out of all proportion and projected onto the entire Muslim community in a way that cannot be explained only on the basis of the actual threat.

One manifestation of the state of stress and anxiety in the United States is that Americans are willing to believe some pretty incredible things. A new survey has found that nearly one-in-five Americans say that President Obama is a Muslim, and this figure is actually up from 11 percent in March 2009.  That’s an obviously irrational and unfounded belief, but it continues to persist, and even grow, for reasons that have nothing to do with evidence. A study published in the August issue of the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” that reveals some very interesting findings.  For instance, participants in the study (conducted before the 2008 elections) who supported John McCain showed a 56% likelihood of believing that Obama was a Muslim. But when these White participants were asked to fill out a demographic card asking for their race, the likelihood jumped to 77%. This indicates that simply being reminded of a social category that differentiated the participants from Obama was sufficient to make them believe he was a Muslim, i.e., that he was not one of them, that he was an “outsider” (and therefore a potential enemy).

The “accusation” that Obama is a Muslim is itself highly revealing. It shows that “Muslim” is often seen as a negative, undesirable category. This is mainly because, for the majority of Americans, a “Muslim” has come to represent the archetypal “outsider,” the religious and cultural “other,” the diametric opposite and antithesis of everything they hold dear. The prevalence of this kind of attitude is a sign of a hardening of boundaries and borders that often occurs under conditions of fear and scarcity. In relation to Islam and Muslims, this attitude is linked with the pre-existing but usually dormant sentiment of Islamophobia as well as the much-longer tradition of Orientalism. Taken together, these factors provide a plausible explanation for the recent surge of media-generated interest in “Islamic” controversies.


  1. “Neither hurt your enemy as much as is in your power for one day he may become a friend.”
    -Saadi, ‘Gulistan’

  2. A great great piece of writing. Eloquent, balanced and thoughtful. Thanks Ahmed Afzaal for enlightening your readers.

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