Report on Islamophobia in the U.S. raises some important questions


A much heralded, arguably misleading report on Islamophobia, “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America”, from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank with close ties to the Obama administration, warrants our attention.

The scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent U.S.-declared war on terror, which conflated external and internal threats, helped generate what Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, described as a “culture of fear” in America, with “Islamic terror” raised to a specter, in the service of a broad, neo-conservative agenda, assisted by a complicit corporate media.

A climate of anxiety and paranoia was fostered, in which Arabs and Muslims became prime targets for displaced aggression and egregious rights violations, subject to what Rutgers criminal justice professor Michael Welch labeled “hate crimes and state crimes,” convenient scapegoats in a reeling, panic-stricken nation of fasting eroding civil liberties, at a time of unprecedented assaults on American democracy.

Among the victims of such virulent Islamophobia, Arabs and Muslims, however, were not alone, as South Asians, Latinos and others thus profiled as Arab or Muslim soon discovered. The murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man of Punjabi extract, at his Arizona gas station only five days after 9/11 was one of the first reported hate crimes; the shooter, a self-declared patriot, mistook Mr. Sodhi’s beard and turban as the markers of an Arab.

Months prior to the 10-year anniversary of Mr. Sodhi’s murder, an Arizona Republican congressman, John Kavanaugh proposed legislation that would remove Mr. Sodhi’s name from the state’s 9/11 memorial, on the grounds that he was not a victim of the attacks, as if the erasure of Mr. Sodhi’s name could mute critical reflection on why he was killed.

While the events of 9/11 and its aftermath signaled a rise in Islamophobia, it might be misleading to believe that America’s Islamophobia began on Sept. 11. Edward Said’s 1981 book, “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World,” validates that, although a changed media landscape provided new avenues for arousing anti-Muslim, anti-Arab antipathy, at a juncture Condoleezza Rice, who was then the National Security Advisor, called opportune.

Ten years removed from September 2001, perceptions of Islam and Muslims in the U.S. have not improved, at least according to a recent Public Religion study. “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America’, offers an ostensible explanation as to why. The report cites “a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing.”

According to lead author Wajahat Ali, “A very small, interconnected group of individuals and organizations” are “responsible primarily for mainstreaming fear, bigotry, and hate towards Muslims and Islam,”supported by substantial funding over 10 years from a small group of foundations.

The “Islamophobia network” was central to the campaign to arouse suspicion that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, was heavily involved in last year’s Park 51/”Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, and had a hand in crafting a recent wave of anti-Sharia legislation across the U.S..

While rightly describing Islamophobia as an ideology, the report fails to draw the linkages between Islamophobia as an ideology and its centrality to the War on Terror, thereby giving undue weight to the “Islamophobia network” in perpetuating Islamophobia, thus distracting attention away from government complicity.

The report cites Anti-Defamation League renunciation of leading "Islamophobia network” figures, thus conferring respectability on an organization long-known for demonizing Palestinians as terrorists, and whose national director, Abe Foxman, was a staunch opponent of the Park 51 Islamic community center. The report praises President George W. Bush for qualifying that the War on Terror was not in fact a war against Islam or Muslims, but against Islamic extremism.

While the lengthy report is impressive for its mapping out of important relationships in the Islamophobia industry, it hardly offers anything fresh or substantive not already found in Deepa Kumar’s work. Moreover, its qualitative contributions are undermined by faulty premises and errors of omission.

It leads one to question: is “Fear Inc. an “authoritative report” from a “progressive think tank,” as the muckraking journalist Max Blumenthal calls it, or is it liberal beltway propaganda serving to whitewash America’s Islamophobia problem?

(Daniel S. Abdallah is a Saudi and Mexican journalist and urban planner based in the Middle East and the Americas. He can be reached by E-mail at: daniel.abdallah@yahoo.com)