The United States of Islamophobia
Even cancer has a better public image than Muslim-Americans. How did it get this bad?
An Emirati businessman visiting Ohio last week for medical treatment found himself pinned to the ground outside his hotel by local police who suspected he might be a terrorist. Someone had called 911 to report a suspected Islamic State militant. The only grounds for reasonable suspicion? His traditional Emirati clothing and the fact he spoke Arabic on the phone. It’s just one more illustration of why it’s going to take more than a few strongly worded statements by American officials to undo a long trend in American culture that demonizes Arabs and Muslims.
What makes someone call the police and report a suspected terrorist when they see traditional Arab clothing and hear Arabic? Yes, there may be legitimate reasons to be on edge, as the executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Julia A. Shearson told the New York Times. But don’t discount Americans’ constant exposure to years of news coverage, movies, and political rhetoric that portrays Arabs and Muslims as menacing outsiders.
This year’s worst offender is Donald Trump, who after the Orlando shooting repeated his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and called for more racial profiling at home, warning that “radical Islam is coming to our shores.”
Trump’s remarks earned a sharp rebuke from President Barack Obama, who warned about the consequences of falling “into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and [implying] that we are at war with the entire religion.” Hillary Clinton also chimed in, saying, “We cannot demonize Muslims.” Republicans, too, condemned Trump’s comments as offensive.
But while the reaction to Trump’s comments has been laudable, it’s not nearly sufficient for the task of eradicating Islamophobia from American political life. The presumptive Republican nominee wasn’t the one who started this anti-Muslim discourse in the United States. He’s just validating it and giving it a bigger, blunter platform.
His statements are simply the most extreme manifestation of widespread and pervasive negative perceptions about Arabs and Muslims in the United States. A 2011 poll conducted by the University of Maryland showed that 61 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam. This public perception seems to have grown dramatically over the past 15 years: An ABC News poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks found only 39 percent of Americans viewed Islam unfavorably.
Such views translate into hate crimes in the United States. In 2015, in the wake of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks, hate crimes against Muslims and mosques tripled across the United States.
The Middle East is not a source of happy news, but little is done to get beyond the headlines about violence. The bad news from there also seeps into coverage of Muslims and Arabs, feeding a soft Islamophobia that can go unnoticed for a while — until it results in incidents like the one in Ohio.
A study released last year by consulting firm 416Labs showed that over 25 years of coverage and headlines, the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the New York Times was more negative than cancer, alcohol, and cocaine. The study found there are no positive words in the top 25 associations with Islam and Muslims, and only 8 percent of headlines about those subjects carried a positive connotation. Cancer fared better at 17 percent.
All this shapes America’s collective subconscious and helps normalize racist attitudes. And while Trump’s blunt racism has gotten the most attention, the recent campaign abounds with examples of innuendos and casual bigotry.
In January, during a Republican primary debate, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about his support for profiling of Muslims to detect terrorist plots, in the context of the San Bernardino attack that had taken place in December. When Christie pushed back, indicating there were other ways of detecting a plot in the making, Kelly insisted.
“Neighbors said they saw men going in and out of the garage. They saw packages being delivered. They saw Muslims, and they did not think that was enough to call the cops. Do you?” she asked.
With just this phrase — “they saw Muslims” — Kelly suggested Muslims are somehow instantly recognizable and suspicious. They don’t fit in. They’re not your teacher, doctor, grocer, or lawyer. They may be Americans, but they are the “other.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, a woman confronted GOP nominee Sen. John McCain during a town hall, telling him she feared she couldn’t trust then-Sen. Barack Obama because “I have read about him, and … he’s an Arab.”
McCain grabbed the microphone to shut her down and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
McCain’s response was applauded as a decent pushback against bigotry. But very few people pointed out that McCain’s response left hanging the suggestion that being an Arab and being a decent family man are somehow mutually exclusive.
One Republican did push back. “The correct answer is he’s not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as he endorsed Obama in 2008. “But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no.”
How did the woman who asked McCain that question get the idea that Arabs were untrustworthy in the first place? It’s not only American politicians and the news media that perpetuate these stereotypes; it’s also ingrained in popular culture. Jack Shaheen, author of the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, found in the roughly 1,000 films he studied, Arabs were depicted in a stereotypical or negative light in 932, typically as terrorists, shady sheikhs, or similarly untrustworthy characters. Only 12 films painted Arabs in a positive way, and 56 had a neutral depiction of Arabs.
In 2014, the film American Sniper about the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle drew record audiences — but also heavy criticism for glossing over the politics of the war in Iraq and glorifying the killing of Arabs. Kyle is a hero, credited as the most lethal sniper in American history, but in his memoir, he also bragged repeatedly about killing “savages” during his time in Iraq. In the film, Iraqis, even women and children, are devoid of humanity. The release of the film triggered a deluge of social media hate and threats against Muslims and Arabs. “American Sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fuckin Arabs,” tweeted one user, @dezmondharmon.
So, is the answer a deluge of films that depict Arabs and Muslim-Americans positively? Not necessarily, according to Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian, writer, and adjunct law professor at the University of Detroit. Zahr uses comedy as a form of protest against stereotyping — but he knows the people who choose to attend his shows are already open to his message. That’s why he told me he also regularly appears on Fox News to directly challenge people who see Muslims and Arabs as dangerous or, as he put it, “those who want me dead.”
“Racism is never defeated by trying to appease the racist, by trying to show the good side of Islam or of Arabs. The way this is defeated is by direct challenge,” Zahr said. In other words, calling racism out is the best way to make it unacceptable, the way overt racism against African-Americans has become unacceptable, even if systemic discrimination remains widespread.
I also spoke to Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American stand-up comedian, who has been chipping away at the stereotypes surrounding Iranians and Muslims for years. From 2005 to 2008, he was part of the highly successful Axis of Evil comedy tour, a group of four stand-up comedians that took on Western misperceptions of the Middle East and tried to make light of heavy issues like terrorism and bombs. As a recently arrived immigrant in the late 1970s, he was called a “fucking Iranian,” and his mother was called a “bitch” at a Costco and told to go back to her country. Over the years, he’s incorporated these experiences and those of others into his shows.
“I do feel that the battle continues, but it’s not a lost cause,” he told me over the phone from Los Angeles. “I do think that strides are being made, and I hope that the younger generation [in the United States] is more tolerant, more open, and more international.”
Jobrani’s latest work is a comedy film where the hero is not an American, but a recent Iranian immigrant who saves the day.
But if it’s important to portray Arabs and Muslims “over there’’ more accurately in an effort to get beyond the “us versus them” framing of the problem, it’s equally essential to recognize the soft Islamophobia inside the United States directed at American citizens of Arab heritage or Muslim faith.
“Right now, a lot of the statements [by U.S. presidential candidates] indicate some kind of conditionality to them: ‘We have to be respectful of Muslims because they are our first line of defense,’ and so on,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “But Muslim-Americans aren’t a counterterrorism tool. They are first and foremost citizens and should be looked at as such.”
The narrative of Muslims and Arabs as the “other” isn’t going away anytime soon. Reversing the slow buildup of soft Islamophobia will be a long-term task. In the short term, however, we should all work to make sure that it’s not allowed to dominate a volatile, turbulent election cycle.