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The Distorted Lens of Islamophobia

We Need to Assess Islam Based on Reality, Not Rants

Sally Steenland puts recent anti-Muslim ranting into perspective and encourages Americans to look at the religion based on reality, not distortion.

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This building near Ground Zero in Manhattan is the proposed site of a future 13-story mosque and Islamic cultural center. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
This building near Ground Zero in Manhattan is the proposed site of a future 13-story mosque and Islamic cultural center. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Protesters have recently been rallying against a proposed Islamic educational center containing a mosque near Ground Zero, claiming that the proximity of anything Muslim to Ground Zero would contaminate a hallowed place. Protesters claim they aren’t anti-Muslim; they merely want the center and mosque to be built someplace else.

But it turns out that “someplace else” is not acceptable either. Protesters in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and California are fighting proposed mosques in their communities as well. Some of these mosques would be built in formerly used store fronts, others on vacant land. The New York Times reports that protests are going beyond concerns about traffic, noise, and zoning. They increasingly reflect fears that “mosques will be nurturing terrorist bombers, that Islam is invading, that civilization is becoming undermined by Muslims.”

Such fears run counter to the facts. A recent study by Duke University and the University of North Carolina found that community mosques actually deter radicalization and extremism through a range of efforts such as publicly denouncing violence, confronting extremists, providing programs for youth, and cooperating with law enforcement.

But factual reality doesn’t seem to be enough to stop conservative pundits and politicians—in fact, a whole cadre of critics—from fanning public fears with apocalyptic warnings about the spreading menace of Islam in America.

Anti-Muslim ranting puts our security at risk

Who knows whether Islamophobes like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin actually believe their own rants. The sad thing is, they’re getting away with blatant nonsense. There are nearly 7 million hardworking, law-abiding Muslims in this country. They participate in virtually every sector of society and engage in vibrant interfaith efforts that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews to work for the common good. Yet most Americans know almost nothing about Muslims or Islam—not to mention the media, which loves apocalyptic battles, as long as the weapons of mass destruction are words.

But anti-Muslim ranting is more than a war of words. Hateful speech against Muslims and Islam puts our nation’s security at risk. Gingrich and Palin—and others like them—are playing into a dangerous “us vs. them” framework that terrorists use to prove the United States is fighting a global war against Islam. What better recruiting tool than Newt decrying Muslim civic engagement as a threat to American values? Or Sarah tweeting that a mosque near Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of 9/11 victims? (Never mind that Muslim Americans also died at Ground Zero.)

Anti-Muslim rhetoric is also a repudiation of America’s core values. Right after 9/11 President Bill Clinton walked through the Harlem neighborhood where his offices are. He pointed to nail salons, carryout shops, beauty salons, barber shops, restaurants—dozens of enterprises run by men and women from countries around the world who’d come to America for a better life for themselves and their families, and who were living and working side by side. That is what makes our country great, Clinton said—and what the terrorists wanted to destroy.

What if we saw Christianity through the same lens that distorts Islam?

Many people have persuasively argued over the past several years that Islamophobia weakens our security and threatens our values. The fact that Muslim Americans strongly denounce terrorism, prove their patriotism, and serve their communities and nation every single day has been demonstrated in ways large and small. Yet anti-Muslim hateful speech still thrives.

It’s time to look at this problem another way.

In order to truly see how distorted, offensive, and dangerously wrong anti-Muslim rhetoric is, it is useful to switch religions for a moment and substitute Christianity for Islam. This might seem hard to do at first because Christianity is so embedded in our culture and such a familiar part of our nation’s founding and heritage. But what if we knew nothing of Christianity except what we learned from extremist groups and critics of the religion? What if we viewed Christianity through the same distorted lens that is too often used to view Islam?

First, a few words about that lens and how it distorts Islam.

  • It sees the extremists as standing for the whole.
  • It sees someone who calls himself or herself Muslim and commits an act of terrorism as personifying the faith.
  • It sees extremist groups claiming to be Islamic martyrs as true religious martyrs.
  • It sees unfamiliar religious practices and beliefs as inherently suspect.
  • It sees those Muslims who speak out against violence and extremism committed in the name of Islam as naïve and deluded about the inherently violent nature of their faith.

So what do we see if we pick up this distorted, uninformed lens and use it to look at Christianity?

We see the essence of Christianity in a group like the Michigan Christian Militia, which was arrested by the FBI this spring for trying to kill local law enforcement officers with improvised explosive devices. Militia members call themselves Christian warriors and say they are preparing to battle the anti-Christ—an evil force described in the Christian Bible. One of their symbols is the cross.

We see the core beliefs of Christianity in a group called the Branch Davidians—a Protestant sect whose founder had 140 wives, some as young as 12 years old.

Searching for Christian martyrs, we find Eric Rudolph, a member of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement who bombed abortion clinics, including one in Birmingham, Alabama that killed a police officer and wounded others. Rudolph also bombed a lesbian bar in Atlanta and was the Olympic Park bomber during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that killed a woman and wounded over 100 people. Distilling the essence of Christianity from Rudolph would tell us that it is a religion that believes in violence, in the superiority of white people, and in spreading its rule to others.

What about Christian beliefs and rituals that are practiced by millions of Christians around the world? Are some of them sinister? Absolutely—if we view them through a lens of ignorance and distrust.

The first thing to worry about is the cross. It is a sacred symbol to Christians, displayed by many around their necks, inside their houses of worship and educational institutions, and even on public grounds they own. Christians persist in these public displays, despite the fact that the cross represents human sacrifice. Christians have commemorated this sacrifice for centuries and worshipped the one sacrificed. They have memorialized other acts of biblical violence in their paintings, sculpture, poetry, and song—heads served on platters, blood gushing from wounds, knives thrust into flesh, thousands slaughtered in the name of their God. Many of these gruesome scenes can be found in the stained glass windows of their churches.

One of their sacred rituals is to symbolically drink the blood and eat the flesh of the human sacrifice they worship. Some sects do this weekly (Episcopalians), while some in other sects (Catholics) do it every day. And they indoctrinate their children—some as young as seven—in this cannibalistic ritual.

It is true that many followers of Christianity—in fact, they claim to represent the vast majority of Christians—denounce groups like the Michigan Christian Militia and terrorists like Eric Rudolph. They say such extremists don’t represent their faith, and they point to the good work that Christians do. Millions devote themselves to the environment, health care, human rights, peace, antipoverty work, and more. And they provide shelter, food, and clothing to those in need. Christians point out passages in the Bible that promote love and mercy, justice and peace. They say the most important commandments in their Bible are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.

All that may be true. But if these Christians want to be listened to, they first need to get rid of their crosses and stop their bloody rituals. They need to speak out more forcefully against extremists in their ranks. They need to tackle the dangerous problem of fellow Christians who are being radicalized by extremists, especially those in the media and on the Internet calling on Christian patriots to take up arms to save their country and protect their faith. Once moderates clamp down on these radical elements and get all Christians to repudiate extremism and violence—maybe then we can begin to have a conversation.

Back to the real world

Such a blatantly malicious and ignorant diatribe doesn’t remotely reflect the true nature of Christianity or its followers and deserves to be attacked as biased, offensive, and untrue. This would quickly happen in America. Christianity is held precious by millions (including me) who would feel committed to set the record straight and refute such biased lies and prejudice.

What we need to do regarding Islam is make similar assessments based on reality, rather than rants. We need to be more informed about the religion and its followers and push back against hate speech and fear-based rhetoric that lumps one of the world’s greatest and most diverse faiths into a monolithic block.

It’s the right—and smart—thing to do. The vision of America that draws people to our shores—that prompts many Muslims to say America is the best place to live—is one of vibrant diversity, tolerance, understanding, and respect. Our nation is a lively hum of divergent views and beliefs, creativity and energy. Muslim Americans are part of this lively hum. They are religious and patriotic—just like Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and millions of others. More of one doesn’t mean less of the other.

America has real enemies in the world—forces that want to kill us and destroy our democratic values. Some of them use the language of Islam in an attempt to elevate their violence to a holy cause and draw people to their ranks. We would be smart to refute their claims by more forcefully declaring and acting on what we know to be true—that Islam and democracy are wholly compatible, that Muslims were part of America before we were a nation, that they have fought alongside their fellow Americans in every war we have endured, and today are helping to strengthen our national security and fulfill our country’s promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all.

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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