Western Muslims and Islamophobia
Dr Noureddine Miladi
Donald Trump a front-running candidate for the Republican Party in America’s upcoming National elections called for a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on’. He also said that “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”
As American writers are saying this is not the only Islamophobic statement made during the run up to the American elections by would be politicians and the corporate controlled media and these comments are not the first time that American and European Muslims have experienced Islamophobic statements that amount to hate speech. With few exceptions and for the last few decades Western media have been generating recurrent stereotypes about women culture and society in the Arab and Muslim world. Edward Said and John Esposito among many other scholars described the systematic misrepresentation that Muslims and Arabs have been subject to. They argued that a close look at the media portrayal works of arts and literature about Muslims reveals a long history of misrepresentation. Jack Shaheen’s book (Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People) is by far the most extensive study done on Hollywood movies. Shaheen analysed over 900 films with the main objective of finding out the way in which the world’s biggest media industry portrays Arabs and Arab culture. Part of his findings were that what is consistent in most of these films is that the Arab world is seen through distorted lenses. Something being repeated in action films drama or children cartoons he writes in Reel Bad Arabs is that ‘Arabs look different and threatening’ and are demoted along racial and religious lines.
Ethnic minorities terrorism jihad Shariah and hijab are words that have played an essential part in the historical development and representation as a ‘rhetoric of civilization’. Various newspapers as well as broadcast media have been criticized for the repetitive stereotypical frames which tend to associate Muslims with fanaticism and violence and their faith to a backward religion not fit for the modern age. Referring to the French Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s post-modernism as a framework for understanding this historical representation labeling can be considered not merely a neutral process of classification that social scientists perform but rather an act of power often politically connoted in relation to the studied minorities and ‘others’. In that process the media as well as political discourse tend to be powerful in producing and disseminating representation about minority groups in society. They often categorise classify and evaluate individuals and communities in a way which leads to producing new hegemonic meanings.
Similar to the black community in US and Europe which has been historically subject to discrimination and at times institutional racism European Muslims have also been facing recurrent Islamophobic cases during the last few decades. The Runnymede Trust (1997) and scores of other studies have so far accounted for several examples of racial abuse against Muslims that should be categorized as ‘Islamophobia’. This trend of hatred towards Muslims and Islam has been on the increase during the last few decades starting with the Rushdie affair in the 1980s to September 11 2001 attacks and 7/7 2005 London Bombings and what is currently known as the War on Terror/Daesh. The publication of the Danish cartoons defaming Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as a ‘terrorist’ and the later murder of eleven journalists from the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo further opened the door for the blanket stigmatization of Islam and Muslims. Since then the mission of scores of western media outlets can be seen as significant in further constructing a negative public perception about Islam hence the increase of racial hatred towards the Muslim minority communities in the West.
However what seems different in the Donald Trump’s recent statement and the subsequent survey done by his supporters about the cartoon programme Aladdin is that this derogatory statement comes from a high profile American politician (Presidential front-runner) and not an ordinary person. Among the many other connotations it suggests this event certainly signifies the following:
Firstly few political campaigners seem to capitalize on the strategies of fear-mongering in order to attract the electorate. The Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s suggestion that the US should place a blanket control on all Muslims entering its soil has been globally condemned as racist and stigmatizing considering that Muslims constitute no more than 1pc out of the total American population and that they are overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding citizens. Trump further added insult to injury by his denigrating comments that “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”
So his key message is to warn of an imaginary Islamic threat rather than call for social harmony and multi-ethnic co-existence. Creating the Muslim ‘other’ is what seems to drive his programme and those of few right-wing politicians in Europe instead of convincing the public on how to bridge the gap between the rich and poor how to introduce a more equal health service how to tackle crime and the drug culture or how to establish a just society unsurprisingly to many considering that he is himself a proudly declared Billionaire.
Secondly it is rather shocking to learn that ‘Some 30 percent of US Republican primary voters and 19 percent of Democrats said they would support bombing Agrabah a fictional nation in Disney’s Aladdin animation feature’ (Aljazeera.com). Although they cannot be excused for their ignorance American people who answered the survey can be considered victims of the constant stereotypical messages that such politicians and parts of the media have kept on pumping them with during the last few years. In spite of the information revolution that is shaping the world television nowadays remains a key window on how societies develop and how social relations traditions public opinion and manners in any society change. Various programme genres produced for radio and television and tailored for mass consumption on American and European TV screens have been blamed for the continuous false representation of Arabs and Muslims. As a consequence there exists a blurring of the boundaries between what is real and what is imaginary. The obvious scarcity of alternative sources of information about the Arab world which Americans can access on mainstream media is partly responsible for the misconception about Islam and Muslims.
Thirdly Donald Trump’s statement surely amounts to hate speech. It not only stigmatises Muslims as an alien other but it classifies them as a potential danger to American society. The repercussions of such statements are not hard to find. Muslim families have been recently denied entry to the US although they had valid entry visas. Attacks on Muslim individuals mosques and other properties have also been on the rise. One wonders what would happen if such a comment from a high profile politician was made about another religious group or an influential minority in the American society. Donald Trump seems to be sure he will get away with such attitude given that Muslims are currently the ‘weakest link’ in the American society!
On a final note one should highlight the fact that Trump’s statement has faced waves of criticism from inside the US and the rest of the world. Worthy of a mention is the robust condemnations he has received from Hilary Clinton and scores of other politicians and scholars that have attempted to set the record straight. Also responses in the social media have been enormous whereby minority groups have been able to challenge Trump’s discourse and those of other centres of power in American society. Discussions on Facebook Twitter and other social media networks have been of global nature. Such networks have proven to be the new battleground for ideological cultural and even religious arguments and where cultural and social relations of power can be negotiated won and maintained.
The writer is Professor of Media and Communication.