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Post -9/11 Islamophobia And The Future Of American Islam

Osman Bakar

Introduction

The 21st century took off with a ‘big bang’ at the financial heart of the United States of America, the world’s most powerful nation and sole super power. The ‘big bang’ to which I am referring here is none other than the September 11, 2001 tragic destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. After the United States, led by George Bush Jr., struck back in vengeance at enemies it perceived as implicated in the attack, first by invading the Taliban-led Afghanistan and later Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with such a powerful global impact that is yet to subside, we could easily make the claim that the September 11 tragedy has proved to be the most consequential event to have occurred in the post-Second World War history of the world. Taking revenge on September 11, the United States mobilized the so-called “coalition of the willing” nations to wage a “global war on terror.” This global terror, which was assumed to be the new enemy of the “Free West” in the post-Cold War era but whose identity remained mysterious to many people, was presented to the world by the Bush Administration as being given shape by the al Qaeda and personified by its leader Osama bin Laden.

 

The global war on terror was widely criticized from the very day it was launched till its unofficial ending, especially in the Islamic world and in Muslim communities throughout the world, including in the West itself. Similarly widely criticised were the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were purportedly carried out in pursuit of the strategic objectives of the war. The legitimacy of the war and the two invasions was even questioned, including by some of the world’s foremost authorities in international law. As a matter of fact, as the war dragged on, it became increasingly unpopular with the Americans and the Europeans, not to mention with the more than one billion members of the global Muslim community (ummah). It did not take long before the “coalition of the willing” shrunk in size, pointing clearly to the increasing unpopularity of the war.

 

Much has been debated and written about the September 11 event and its aftermath. Bush’s war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq easily qualify for top placing in the list of consequences of the September 11 tragedy. From the general perspective of Muslims, these unwelcome happenings also turned out to the most destructive consequences of the September 11 tragedy on the Islamic world. Both Afghanistan and Iraq underwent massive destruction, not only physically but also psychologically and culturally. There were promises of a new Afghanistan and a new Iraq that would be far better respectively than the old ones, but in reality, sad to say, no better political and cultural replacement is yet in sight in each case. The full impact of the September 11 episode and Bush’s global war on terror vis-à-vis Islam and the Islamic world is yet to be documented and studied. It is beyond the scope of this paper to offer a discussion of this issue in all its dimensions. Our limited concern here is the impact of the September 11 event and the American-led war on terror against the global Muslim community with specific reference to Islam in the U.S. For brevity, we henceforth use the term ‘American Islam’ to mean Islam in the United States.’

 

Why the particular concern here with American Islam? I think we may cite many good reasons for this due concern. The issue of post-September 11 American Islam is of increasing interest to many people today both within and beyond the United States. American Islam is a phenomenon – religious, socio-cultural, and political – to watch in the 21st century. It is the fastest growing, the most vibrant, and the most intellectually influential Muslim minority in the world. In light of this, American Islam has the potentiality and the capacity to influence both the Islamic world and the West, particularly the U.S. It is therefore worth pointing out the full significance of the issue of American Islam for present and future Muslim-Western relations. This is the more so when we come to realize that future international peace would depend very much on the good and constructive relations between Islam and the West on the basis of mutual respect and the common good. President Barrack Obama realizes this crucial need, as amply demonstrated, during his Istanbul and Cairo speeches to the Islamic world. He deserves to be congratulated for emphasizing this need to the world. At least he has indicated his willingness to depart from those poorly informed past American policies that could only mean disastrous relations between Islam and the West.

 

It is a generally accepted fact that the American global war on terror has impacted the Islamic world, Muslim minorities in the West, and the world at large in various areas of life and to various degrees of suffering and hardship. Without doubt, Muslims have been the worst affected. It is enough to cite the fates of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the name of War on Terror these two Muslim nations have been uprooted and devastated. The devastation wrought on them in both human and material terms is beyond estimation. Now with the American military occupation of Iraq entering its seventh year, and with its end nowhere yet in sight despite Obama’s commitment to end it, the country is set to slide further on the slope of destruction, violence and civil strife. Similarly, there is no peace and meaningful national reconstruction in sight in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the war in Afghanistan is claiming more lives from among the military servicemen of the surviving members of the “coalition of the willing”.

 

The September 11 episode and the war on terror have also impacted on Muslim minorities in the West in a significant way. Nowhere is this impact more visible than in the United States. The impact is to be observed and understood in both positive and negative senses. In the positive sense, September 11 and the war on terror have generated an unprecedented intensity of interest in Islam and in things Islamic. This extraordinary interest in the religion of Islam among non-Muslim westerners has often led to conversions to the religion. In the negative sense, Islamophobia has become worse as a result of September 11 and the subsequent war on terror. The phenomenon of Islamophobia which is usually equated with a general prejudice and hatred of Islam and the Muslims was already to be observed in the West long before September 11. We can even say that even before the Western coinage of the term ‘Islamophobia’ in the early 1980’s the phenomenon as implied by the term was already a part of the Western intellectual and social scene that may be viewed as a manifestation of the Western response to Islam and the Islamic world. But September 11 had led to the creation of new negative images of Islam and Muslims in the minds of the Western public. It became more frequent for Islam – the religion, its holy book and its prophet – to be publicly ridiculed and hated. Not few voices have condemned the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad as “violent to the core”. According to this poorly informed view, Muslim violence is rooted in the Qur’an and in the teachings and practices of the Prophet. These negative stereotyping and ridiculing of Islam become all the more disturbing when they come from the respectable class of religious preachers and church leaders.

 

Islamophobia has angered the Muslims. So have the war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are predominantly Muslim countries. All of these negative phenomena and politically charged events have invited violent reactions from the more extremist-prone elements of Muslim communities. Muslim extremism invites in turn extreme reactions from the extreme elements in Western societies such as the ‘skin heads’, the neo-Nazis, and the religious ultra-right. American and European Muslims have to bear the brunt of the extreme reactions of these rightist groups, which often include physical attacks. We thus have a potentially dangerous spiral wave of negative reactions and counter-reactions that could very well threaten the security of Muslims living in the West as well as worsen relations between the West and the Islamic world. September 11 attacks on the symbols of American wealth and power were supposed to be Muslim reactions against American-aided Israeli humiliation of the Palestinians and against other forms of “American tyranny” in various parts of the Islamic world. Then there came the American-led counter-reaction, namely the global war on terror and, within the framework of this ‘ideological’ war, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the despatch of American troops to Muslim Mindanao. These wars ignited a wave of violent anti-West demonstrations throughout the Islamic world, not to mention a series of bombings targeting Western embassies and places frequented by Western tourists. Anti-Americanism feelings ran high in the Islamic world. And as one opinion poll after another conducted in the Islamic world have shown, Muslims cite the American foreign policy, particularly its blanket support for Israel, as the main factor for their anti-Americanism. 

 

Pre-9/11 American Islam

We would be in a better position to appreciate the significance of post-9/11 American Islam if we were to look at how it fared before the tragedy. I will provide a brief profile of pre-9/11 American Islam in three main areas: first, demography; second, projection of Islam; and third, Islam in the public square. In the demographic arena, I have referred to the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. In the American context, it is important to note that we are not speaking of birth-rate as the major factor in the Muslim demographic growth. Rather, we have in mind conversion to Islam as its most significant factor. The significance of conversion to Islam to the fast changing American demographic landscape may be gauged from statistical studies of the conversion phenomenon. According to a study, in the year 2000, just a year before 9/11, more than 20,000 Americans converted to Islam. This means that on average 55 Americans convert to Islam everyday. The study provides an interesting statistical break-up of the converts, especially in terms of ethnicity and gender. Sixty percent of the new converts were blacks, twenty percent whites, and twenty percent Hispanics. On the basis of gender the study showed that sixty percent of the converts were females, and forty percent males.

 

These figures do tell a lot of significant things about the changing pattern of American response to Islam. For example, the increasing percentage of white converts is a new development. What the statistics are telling us is that 4,000 whites convert to Islam in the year 2000, which means at least ten conversions per day. The development is significant for at least two reasons. First, whites constitute the majority ethnic group in the country. This means that Islam is going to have a growing representation in the white majority community. Second, whites have been traditionally viewed as the most prejudiced toward Islam. The conversion statistics, however, show that Islam is beginning to be accepted by the white community. More than any other ethnic group white Muslims can play an effective role in bridging the wide cultural gap between the minority Muslim community and the majority white community. 

 

Also quite surprising is the Hispanic share of the new converts. Their twenty percent share is also a significant development. Hispanics are widely viewed as staunch Catholics. So the fact that 4000 of them have entered Islam’s fold in a year sent shock waves to the Catholic community. According to a Washington Post report published in 2001, Muslim Hispanics are still a tiny minority, numbering not more than 140,000. But there is an unmistakable trend: more and more Hispanics are embracing Islam, especially in the state of California. Hispanic mosques are now to be found in many big American cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

 

The fact that blacks still provide the biggest share of the new converts is not surprising. This has been the case so far ever since the heterodox Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad became transformed in the 1980’s into an orthodox Afro-American Muslim community led by Warith al-Din Muhammad, Elijah’s son. Over the years, Islam has proved to be far more attractive to blacks than any other non-Muslim ethnic group, because there is the prevailing perception among them that Islam inculcates a strong sense of cultural identity and a strong sense of social justice, both of which the black community badly needs. The claim widely propagated in the 1970’s that blacks have Islamic roots traceable to their Muslim ancestors brought as slaves to America from Muslim Africa, provided a boosting factor to the favourable reception of Islam in the black community.

 

If the statistical break-up in the ethnic composition of the new Muslim converts continues to be the trend in the years to come, then it would not be long before American Islam can make the claim that it is truly representative of the broad American ethnic spectrum. With such an ethnically constituted American Islam exhibiting a sizeable white component, we can expect it to play a more effective role in dealing with the challenges of Islamophobia, not just in America but also globally.

 

The gender composition of the new converts provides another surprise. Given the persisting negative portrayal of women in Islam in the Western media and widespread claims of Islam’s suppression of women rights, one would expect Western women to shun Islam. But the contrary has happened as clearly shown in the study. Some of these women converts are now playing leadership roles in the American Muslim community. For example, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, has created history by becoming the first woman President of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an organisation which is known for being the largest annual gathering of American Muslims.

 

Insofar as the projection of Islam to the American public in all its forms is concerned, we may say that right up to the eve of the September 11 tragedy, there has been some sort of an explosion of information on Islam. At the same time, there was also a lot of misinformation disseminated to the public about Islam. The most important source of positive information about Islam came from the academia. Books and journal articles on Islam written by academics register a remarkable annual increase in the last decade of the 20th. I do not know of any other country in the world which has published works on Islam in its varied aspects as much as America has. Not even the most academically productive Muslim country has come close to its achievement. As for the misinformation on Islam and the negative portrayals of the religion, these came mainly from the media. True enough misinformation and misleading coverage of Islam has drawn fire from Muslim individuals and groups. But the confrontational encounter between the two opposing coverage of Islam may not be necessarily bad for the religion in the long run. Given the freedom and openness of intellectual expressions in America the parallel outputs of information and misinformation on Islam have tended to generate discourses and debates that lead to further curiosity and inquisitiveness about the religion among the American public. A progressively growing interest in Islam is thus assured.

 

On the subject of Islam’s growing presence in the American public square in the years leading to the September 11 tragedy, there is indeed a lot to report. There has been a substantial increase in the number of mosques and Islamic centres across America. More Muslim students had been registered in schools, colleges, and universities. Some of them succeeded in gaining admission into the Ivy League universities. Their number is disproportionate to the size of their population. Muslim professionals – medical doctors, lawyers, engineers and others – are also on the increase. American Muslims are beginning to be noticed as a community with good educational and professional achievements. Their average income is higher than the national average. More Muslim organisations of various kinds have been formed. This development testifies to the growing Muslim social activism in the American public square in response to the current Muslim needs at both the individual and the community levels as well as to the challenges posed by contemporary American life.

 

In light of the overall positive profile of pre-9/11 American Islam as I have given in the preceding pages, it came as no surprise to me when on the very day of the tragedy I encountered American Muslim reactions that cast a bleak future for Islam and the Muslims in America. One American Muslim professor, a woman, reacted to me in person rather emotionally in these words: if it is true that Muslims did this [i.e. attacked and ruined the twin towers of the World Trade Centre], the progress we have made all these years is going to ruin! Her sentiment was widely shared in the American Muslim community in the days shortly after the tragedy.

 

Many thought Islam and the Muslim community in America would suffer a great setback from the 9/11 tragedy even if no conclusive proof of Muslim responsibility for the attack could be provided. No one could foresee then what would be in store for the future of American Islam. True enough, in the aftermath of the tragedy, American Muslims had to sail through rough waters in their courageous attempt to be both Muslim and American. But that aside, there were positive surprises in store for them as well as for the world. In the following pages, I will provide an overview of post-9/11 American Islam covering both its promising aspects and the main challenges it has to face. The most important of these challenges is Islamophobia.

 

Post-9/11 American Islam: Promises and Challenges

It is a surprise to many people that despite its numerous challenges, post-9/11 American Islam succeeded in sustaining its pre-9/11 achievements. In fact, in some respect it even succeeded in surpassing those achievements. This is certainly true in the three key areas I have considered in the profile of pre-9/11 American Islam: conversion to Islam, coverage or projection of Islam for public consumption, and the visibility of Islam in the public square. One of the earliest Muslim concerns following the 9/11 tragedy was that it would scare away the Americans from Islam. The belief highlighted in this concern is that people would have such a negative image of Islam and the Muslims that they would not even bother to study and to get to know the real Islam believed and practised by the great majority of Muslims all over the world. If this belief turned out to be true then one consequence of it would be a sharp decline in conversion to Islam. But the feared decline did not happen. As it turned out, the opposite happened. A study of post-9/11 conversion to Islam showed that conversion figures for the year 2001, the year of the tragedy, and the year 2002 surpassed the figure for the year 2000.

 

The rise in conversion to Islam has to do perhaps with the extraordinary new interest in the religion of Islam which 9/11 has generated. Within a few months of the tragedy several surveys showed that sales of books on Islam went up. Americans rushed to the bookstores to buy books on just anything about Islam. The same surveys showed that in this rush for Islamic books, the Qur’an became the best-seller.

 

In post-9/11 America, publications of books and other writings on Islam increased substantially. The same phenomenon is to be observed in the electronic media. Coverage of Islam multiplied in numbers both in the print and the electronic media. It is not an exaggeration to claim that publications of Islamic books have become a booming industry in America.

 

The 9/11 tragedy has also resulted in greater visibility of Islam in the public square. On the political front we could see Muslims playing a more active role in the political processes at all levels. At both national and state levels they have become better organised politically. They were able to mobilise Muslim voters across America to the point of being able to influence the outcome of presidential election in a number of key states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey. There is now a visible Muslim lobby in Congress which in 2006 has its first Congressman in the person of Keith Allison, a representative of Minnesota’s fifth congressional district. It was a great symbolic boost to the presence of Islam in the public square when Ellison decided to swear his oath of office on the Qur’an. His swearing on the Qur’an became the more significant for the American public when he used a copy of the Muslim holy book once owned by Thomas Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence and its third President. That historic event in American politics proved to be an excellent public relations exercise for American Islam.

 

A Muslim organisation which has played such an important role in raising the profile of Islam in the American public square is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Created in June 1994, CAIR has the professed goals of enhancing understanding of Islam, promoting justice and empowering American Muslims. It is popularly seen today by both its supporters and its critics as a defender of the rights of Muslims in the United States. The aftermath of 9/11 has helped to project CAIR to the public square and through its advocacy, to push Islam to the centre stage of American national consciousness. CAIR is presently regarded as the most visible and public representative of the American Muslim community. With its dynamism and commitment to American Muslim rights in a national political climate dominated by fear of terrorism, CAIR has not been free of suspicions and even accusations by its critics and enemies of having ties with terrorist organisations and of pursuing a radical Islamic agenda. The accusations were of course most unfair and in fact baseless, since CAIR has consistently condemned terrorism. For example, CAIR with several American Muslim groups condemned the terrorist attacks on 9/11 within hours of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Centre. It is not true as claimed by some quarters that not a single American Muslim organisation has come out to publicly condemn the terrorist attack.

 

There are many other examples to illustrate the greater visibility of American Islam in post-9/11 American public life. Apart from the three areas which I have just discussed, we may observe the promising aspect of American Islam in the field of Islamic studies and Islamic scholarship. More courses on one or more aspects of Islam are being taught in American universities and colleges. This means more lecturers or professors (faculties) are being hired to teach these courses. The teaching of Arabic gains wider currency. Islamic scholarship becomes more vibrant. Intellectual output in all areas of Islamic scholarship is acknowledged to be on the rise. This positive development in the domain of academic and intellectual life on Islam is worthy of special mention. This is because, as I have asserted earlier, the academia is the most important source of objective coverage of Islam.

 

While the promising aspects of post-9/11 American Islam are clearly visible, the same can be said about the kind of challenges it has to face. American Muslims themselves see multiplying challenges to being Muslims in post-9/11 America. I have referred to Islamophobia as the most important of these challenges. American Muslims have to endure every kind of insult and attack imaginable on their religion and community. However, in any objective study of post-9/11 American Islam, both its promising aspects and negative challenges need to be dealt with together. Moreover, we find that the development of American Islam is very much influenced by the outcome of the dynamic interaction between the positive projection of Islam to the public and the stream of misinformation on Islam and its negative portrayal. It is true to say that there has been an explosion of both positive information and misinformation on Islam. The resulting scenario may be described as an intensifying clash between two images or portrayals of Islam. It is precisely because this clash has political implications for American politics that Islam has been pushed to the centre stage of American national consciousness.

 

The following passages are meant to provide an insight into the American public mind insofar as its response to the two opposing public projections of Islam is concerned. In a 2006 USA Today/Gallup Poll, it was found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to prejudice against Muslims. Forty-four percent of Americans have the perception that Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs. A significant twenty-two percent of them say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbour. More importantly, especially in the context of America being at war with terrorism associated by many with Islam or the Muslims, many Americans believe American Muslims are not loyal to the United States. This perception of Muslim disloyalty finds agreement with the Financial Times/Harris Poll findings released in August 2007 which claim that twenty-one percent of Americans say the presence of Muslims in their country is a threat to national security. However, American Muslims may see a ray of hope in the poll findings: forty-seven percent of Americans believe that American Muslims have become the subject of unjustified criticism and prejudice.

 

Many Americans have questions about Islam and the Muslims which they have been asking since September 11 until today. Among the most popular questions are the following: why do they hate us? What are the causes of Muslim extremism and terrorism? Is Islam a violent religion? Since some of these questions are not appropriately structured it is possible to say that they smack of Islamophobia, that is, negatively reacting to the growing presence of Islam and the Muslims in America. To be sure, there are identifiable factors responsible for this rather active Islamophobia. Among the main factors are the following: [1] the persisting phenomenon of terrorism committed by some Muslim individuals or fringe groups in the name of Islam; [2] the persisting anti-Islamic sentiments and phobia displayed by the preachers of hate including Christian extremists; [3] the negative portrayals of Islam and quite often the anti-Islam and anti-Muslim outbursts by popular talk show hosts and political commentators in both TV and radio channels. All these factors tend to obscure the understanding of Islam and to inflame Islamophobia among the Americans. In the face of blatant discrimination against Muslims and the defamation of Islam, advocates of Muslim rights such as CAIR, have sought to respond to practically every manifestation of Islamophobia in American society.

 

No matter how hard the American Muslim community try to diminish the challenge of Islamophobia, they are not going to achieve it overnight. American Islamophobia is a much more complex phenomenon that what many Muslims understand it to be. Consequently, it is a much more complex and formidable challenge than what they have so far realised. Islamophobia is not simply a result of widespread American ignorance of Islam. There is an ideological dimension to the phenomenon which will help to sustain it for a long period of time. American Islam has to face political challenges of a more enduring nature emanating from this ideological dimension. Groups opposed to Islam for ideological reasons are found to have the tendency to inflate the threat of radical Islam. As Steve Chapman has observed in his interesting commentary in the Chicago Tribune, there are many Americans who see radical Islam as the heir of communism and Nazism. On the basis of this perception of radical Islam, Chapman is telling us that these Americans are bent on taking up the ideological position of “making war against radical Islam as sounding like a war between Islam and the West.” One of these Americans whom Chapman mentioned by name was Norman Podhoretz, an adviser to Rudy Giuliani. Podhoretz wrote a book titled World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism. In this book he writes: “The stakes are nothing less than the survival of Western civilisation, to the extent that Western civilisation still exists, because half of it seems to be committing suicide.” Interestingly, Chapman interprets the phrase in italics in the quotation as follows: “By that he seems to be referring not just, to terrorist groups but also to the proliferation of Muslims in the West, which many conservatives see as a mortal peril.”

 

Conclusion

Thus far, American Muslims have tried to respond to the challenge of Islamophobia in various ways. Commendably, in their effort to strengthen their strategic position to counter the damaging onslaught of Islamophobia they have created new alignments and alliances with many non-Muslim American groups. Their effort in this direction is highly visible in a number of areas. First, there is much activity in the area of interfaith dialogue especially involving members of the three Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Second, in the political arena, we see a growing Muslim activism to position their influence in both the Republican and Democratic parties. One of the goals of this activism is to help influence American foreign policy. Third, we see Muslim students and professors creating alliances with their non-Muslim colleagues in the universities and colleges in pursuit of the common goals of social justice and freedom. For example, we may refer to the role of Muslim students associations in nationwide campuses in mobilising support from other campus groups to counter the Islamophobia inflamed by the “Campus Watch” of Daniel Pipes, a vocal critic of American Islam.

 

It is the battle for influence in shaping the American foreign policy that is going to be the most bitter and the most far-reaching between the supporters and sympathisers of Islam and its opponents. The issue of Islam in American foreign policy is going to influence a lot of other issues which engage American Muslims, both in the positive and the negative sense. The opponents of American Islam are going to watch closely every step the Muslim community is taking in the political arena. In fact, there have been attempts at political pre-emptive strikes against the community with the view of preventing American Muslim political influence from taking shape.

 

It is difficult to say what the long-term impact of Islamophobia on American Islam would be. But on the basis of present trends discussed in the foregoing pages, we have good reason to believe that the outcome of the clash between the two sides of the divide – Islamic affirmation and Islamophobia – would be of great significance to the rest of the world, particularly the Islamic world.

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