What is Islamophobia? Who is promoting it? And, how is it a poisonous force in the world today? Nathan Lean answers these questions in his excellent new book, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto Books/Macmillan, 2012).
Nathan Lean is Editor-in-Chief of Aslan Media, one of the best American sources for news, commentary, and analysis of issues in the Middle East. He is the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: Regime Security vs Political Legitimacy (Praeger, 2011). Lean earned his Master’s degree in International Studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, in the US state of North Carolina. He is currently in graduate school at Georgetown University’s Center for Arab American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington DC.
In The Islamophobia Industry, Lean illuminates the shadowy underworld inhabited by bigots united against Muslims and Islam. It is a meticulous investigation of the disturbing global phenomenon of ‘Islamophobia’. His book will shape our understanding of this subject for a long time to come. Lean discusses his new book in this exclusive interview.
What was the inspiration for your new book?
I was interested in the way in which the controversy over the Park51 Islamic Community Center, dubbed by ‘Islamophobes’ as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, mushroomed into a national hysteria almost overnight.
It occurred to me that the people heralding the opposition to Park51 were the same people behind the push for anti-sharia laws, the scare over the Muslim Brotherhood, and the virulent and nasty protests over the construction of mosques from California to Tennessee. I saw that there were dots that needed to be connected, and that this tight-knit, well-funded network needed to be exposed.
Who are the captains of the Islamophobia industry?
There are several. But two in particular have had more influence than other, at least as of late: Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. These are two American bloggers who prey on Muslims and who use the power of the Internet to drum up hate.
Spencer and Geller were not only the leaders of the Park51 protest, but their lawyer authored the blueprint legislation for the anti-Sharia bills circulated throughout American legislatures. Recently, their metro ads in New York and California were met with backlash, and now we know that they are both connected to the filmmaker and producer of the anti-Muslim flick Innocence of Muslims that set off protests in the Middle East. Both Spencer and Geller were listed as inspirations by
Anders Breivik, the Norway killer who, in July of 2010, murdered 77 youth that he blamed for the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe.
How profitable is their industry?
The Islamophobia industry is very profitable. We know, thanks to the Center for American Progress, that over the past decade, seven different organisations have funnelled US$42mn to groups that support the work of these Islamophobes. But that’s not all.
Millions of dollars have also come from other sources, individuals who donate substantially to these projects, wealthy Israelis connected to or living in the Occupied Territories, and sadly, much money has come via political donations that are made to candidates who take up a particular anti-Muslim platform.
Beyond just donations, though, the key players in this industry have created careers peddling this type of hate - careers that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries each year. They sell books, have provided training for law enforcement officials, and charge astronomical fees for speaking engagements.
How deep is Islamophobia in America?
Islamophobia in America is a real problem. Polls show that today, nearly half of all Americans report that Muslims make them feel ‘uncomfortable’. Mosque burnings, assaults, Congressional witch-hunts and hearings, racial and ethnic profiling, illegal surveillance programmes - all of these things are evidence of a social cancer that is festering within our society.
Violence carried out by Muslims inside the US is at extremely low levels. Between 2001 and 2010, 33 terrorist attacks were successfully carried out. Certainly that’s 33 too many, but compare that to the 150,000 murders that took place in the same period of time and a clearer picture emerges about where - and who - the real threat is.
How has Islamophobia infected Europe?
Islamophobia has affected Europe so greatly because it has been institutionalised. In essence, what you have is a cadre of state governments that officially adopt policies discriminatory to Muslims. In Belgium, citizens were paid money to go around town and capture women wearing burqas - which were banned - and report them to the police.
It sounds too absurd to be true.
There is also a growing and dangerous right-wing nationalism in Europe that, in addition to being neo-Nazis and supporting only the advancement of the white race, have zeroed in on Muslims. The English Defence League (EDL) is a classic example of one such football hooligan group.
They storm the streets of various cities, beat up Muslims, break into restaurants and, with their fists pumped and their jugular veins popping from their necks, proclaim that Europe won’t tolerate the infiltration of ‘outsiders’. That is what’s happening in Europe.
What is the antidote to Islamophobia?
First, relationships. Then, more speech. Getting to know Muslims - neighbours, co-workers, etc - and developing friendships with them is a positive step in this direction. That doesn’t mean that we work to change their ideas, nor does it mean that they change ours. We have to move the Overton window to a place that excludes the rhetoric of the Islamophobes in our society and emphasises our common humanity.
What that means is agreeing, as a society, that Islamophobia is first a real problem that needs to be considered in the same light as racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. We can accomplish that by constantly dragging the people who spout anti-Muslim sentiment out into the light and exposing their hate.
We must also reject that hate, not just in private but vocally – in op-eds, in articles, in the media, in church pulpits, in schools and universities, in workplaces. It’s not an easy task. But I am certain that one day, the Islamophobes will be swept under the rug of history along with the other racists in our society whose rhetoric was at one time acceptable, but now is considered disgusting and taboo.
How can all of us challenge Islamophobia in our own communities?
By not being afraid to speak out every time we witness an injustice. By getting involved in interfaith groups. By learning about Islam and getting to know our Muslim neighbours. An important part of this is using the word ‘Islamophobia’. If it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist.
And when we reach a point in our society where we begin to describe this illness with consistent terminology, we will reach a real tipping point. Think about it - we have ‘anti-Semites’ and ‘racists’ and no one wants to be labelled as one of those. Everyone knows that these are bad things. The same must be true about Islamophobia and the Islamophobes that seek to fracture our society.
[Joseph Richard Preville is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia]