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The terms Islam, Arab, and Middle Eastern have long been conflated with each other, and are increasingly depicted in an unfavorable light. These negative attitudes spiked considerably during the aftermath of 9/11, with the FBI reporting a 1,700 percent increase of hate crimes against Muslim Americans between 2000 to 2001. Discrimination towards Muslim Americans was present before the attacks, relating to Islam being frequently portrayed by the media as violent and barbaric. Afterward, the group faced a tremendous upsurge of negative stereotypes. The lasting racial and religious animosity has left Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and those who share stereotyped resemblances to these groups fearful of potential hostility and hatred from other groups.
Muslims became a subject of debate during the 2016 presidential race. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was infamous for its use of divisive and hateful rhetoric. Towards the beginning of his campaign, he referred to Mexican immigrants as “criminals and rapists” responsible for “bringing crime” and “drugs” into the United States. At a 2015 campaign rally in New Hampshire, a Trump supporter said, “we have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims.” Trump nodded, saying “right,” and “we need this question!” The supporter then asked, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump simply assured the man that he would “be looking at that and many other things.” In November 2015, on Morning Joe, Trump said that America needs to “watch and study the mosques.” Four days later, he entertained the idea of implementing a database to track Muslims in the United States. Days later, he falsely claimed that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the World Trade Center collapsed.
Bolstered by Trump, anti-Muslim bloggers, activists, and organizations began to enter mainstream conservative politics during the election cycle, further normalizing the hateful and divisive rhetoric. Anti-Muslim hate crimes had risen 67 percent in 2015, and another 20 percent in 2016, reaching their highest level since 2001. This spike correlated directly with the election cycle and the mainstreaming of Islamophobia. Once he came into office, President Trump signed an executive order that temporarily banned individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Trump was quick to surround himself with those that shared his ideas. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser, had been fired from the FBI for his anti-Muslim diatribes. Michael Flynn, Trump’s now-disgraced former security advisor, had said that Islam “is like a cancer.” Other top officials, such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, have also made anti-Muslim remarks.
While the topic of Islamophobia in the United States has been more widely covered after 9/11, anti-Muslim attitudes date back thousands of years. Historically, negative images of Islam have pervaded popular and political discourse. As Palestinian writer and intellectual Edward Said famously explored in his seminal work Orientalism, published in 1978, there is a vast history of distorted views of the Orient through the eyes of the West, including the U.S. Islam was and still is largely depicted as monolithic; a large and diverse group of peoples, with unique cultures, languages, and histories, are lumped together as violent, barbaric, and underdeveloped.
Said’s book reinvented the meaning of “Orientalism.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Orientalism” referred to the work of orientalists; scholars that were versed in the language and literatures of the “Orient” which at the time referred to Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Arabia, later including India, China, Japan, and the entirety of Asia. In the art world, it referred to styles, subjects, or qualities associated with the “Orient.” From Said’s perspective, however, Orientalism referred to the West’s historically patronizing and flawed representations of the East. In his words, Orientalism could be understood as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’” and “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Essentially, the West had created the idea of the Orient in order to subjugate and control it. This nexus of power and knowledge enabled the “West” to generalize and misrepresent the “Orient.” Importantly, it created a hierarchical structure in which the West represented democracy, modernity, and enlightenment, while the “Muslim world” was backward, stagnant, and intolerant. All civilizations are seemingly defined in relation to the superior blueprint that is the West.
In 1981, Said published Covering Islam, which primarily focused on Western media images of Islam. Whereas the old Orientalist image was of a distant, primitive, and static people, the new sense of Islamic threat that was exacerbated by the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis had re-coded Islam into something violent, oppressive, fanatic, and too close to the West. In the words of Said:
In newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.
The rise of Islamophobia is generally found to have taken place since the 1990s during the post-Cold War era. It differs from Said’s interpretation of Orientalism in that it is a wholly negative conception in which racialized Muslims are seen as a menace to Western societies. The exotic and mystified “Other” had transformed into a clear-cut image fueled by prejudices and stereotypes. 9/11 worked to solidify the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, and during the 2016 presidential election, hate-filled rhetoric towards Muslims was seemingly becoming a norm, with Ben Carson comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs” and Mike Huckabee describing Muslims as “uncorked animals.” In the aftermath of the election, blatant hostility towards Muslims had worsened, with Steve King, a Republican congressman, suggesting that immigration involving Muslim children was stopping America’s civilization from being “restored.” Research has, not surprisingly, shown that American Muslims are viewed very unfavorably by members of the public, undoubtedly stoked by members of the government and media who espouse these ideas openly.
Media is an unmistakably vital player in the way Muslims are perceived by the American public. It acts as a conduit for conveying messages, and has the ability to shape attitudes, influence the national and global discourse, and generate stereotypes. Particularly since 9/11, media coverage and portrayals of Muslims have been overwhelmingly in the context of global terrorism, violence, and war. Portraying Muslims as more than just terrorists, but as multi-dimensional, real people is one step towards creating understanding. But this alone is not enough.
As long as those in power continue to demonize Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners, those who share similar sentiments will continue to feel validated in their hate. Of course, any change is likely to be slow, as it is undoing hundreds of years of false ideology that continues to be reinforced. Most of all, it is up to us as consumers of news and information to be informed and educated, and look at the world critically, and encourage others to do the same.