In an interview with Muslim Press, CJ Werleman, author of The New Atheist Threat, said “Islamophobes perpetuate the myth that Muslims are plotting to overtake the West, overturn our democratic institutions, and then implement Sharia.”
“Pre-9/11, anti-Muslim bigots such as Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Sam Harris, among others were total unknowns. After 9/11, they became household names.”
Below, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.
Muslim Press: What factors have contributed to the rise of Islamophobia in the United States?
CJ Werleman: Islamophobia in the United States is rooted in two pivotal moments: the September 11 attacks, and a collection of articles published in 1986 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entitled Terrorism: How the West Can Win. These articles were designed to tie Islam to terrorism in the minds of the American public, with the ultimate objective of unmooring Palestinian resistance from a rational struggle against Israel's military occupation to an irrational Islamic fuelled hatred of Jews.
Essentially, 9/11 sealed the deal. That one single attack launched a cottage industry of anti-Islam books, and the media careers of a thousand Islamophobic opportunists. I remember Dean Obeidallah, an Arab American journalist, explaining it best. He said, "It's so weird. Before 9/11 I am just a white guy, living a typical white guy's life...I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th, I'm an Arab."
Pre-9/11, anti-Muslim bigots such as Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Sam Harris, among others were total unknowns. After 9/11, they became household names - and not forgetting the Bestseller book lists were dominated by anti-Islam books and authors in the first decade after the attacks. In a very real way, their success normalized Islamophobia.
MP: Could the rise of Trump be explained as a result of deep-rooted xenophobia in the U.S. that targets religious minorities and immigrants?
CJ Werleman: Xenophobia is never rooted in real life experiences. People who hate immigrants don't hate them because they've been terrorized by an immigrant, or that immigrants have actually made that person's life worse. Their xenophobia is always rooted in political discourse, and by that I mean opportunistic political entrepreneurs who strategically build political capital by taking their constituent's economic pain and social fears and then projecting that pain and anxiety onto certain out-groups. It's the oldest and most reliable political ploy there is.
Trump was smart enough to realize there is much economic pain and social anxiety in America. Studies show that 65% of households cannot afford to pay an unexpected bill of $400 or more. It's interesting to compare the respective presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates spoke to this economic pain, but where Sanders correctly blamed a rigged tax system that favors the wealthy, the influence of corporate money on the political system, and the never ceasing transfer of public wealth to private shareholders - Trump, on the other hand, blamed Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims. Sadly, his calculus worked, and here we are now.
MP: Do you think the far-right is only to blame for anti-Muslim hate crimes?
CJ Werleman: The far right is not the only entity worth of blame here. The far right are simply reacting to false narratives their fed by political entrepreneurs and opportunists who have built careers pushing anti-Muslim tropes and stereotypes into the media. To that end, the mainstream media is also to blame for helping normalize Islamophobia by inviting anti-Muslim bigots to appear routinely as guests.
Look back at Nazi Germany - they didn't start killing Jews on day one. The German public would've never accepted systematic violence against Jews in 1932. It took eight years of unrelenting anti-Semitism in the media and elsewhere before crimes against Jewish populations became normal and acceptable behavior.
MP: What constitutes an Islamophobic act? What movement(s) and group(s) are fueling anti-Muslim sentiments?
CJ Werleman: Criticism of Islam is not an Islamohpobic act in itself, so long as that criticism is accompanied with some kind of intellectual rigour. No religion is immune from criticism, and, in fact, I don't know a single Muslim who believes Islam is beyond fair minded critique. And I'm someone who speaks to quite a few jihadist foreign fighters, too. Even most of them are fine with serious religious debate. So that says something.
An Islamophobic act is one that portrays Islam, and therefore Muslims, as a threat. Islamophobes perpetuate the myth that Muslims are plotting to overtake the West, overturn our democratic institutions, and then implement Sharia. That's Islamophobia, and no different than saying, "Jews are plotting to overtake the world," which it was, not coincidently, a Nazi generated trope. Also, veil and headscarf bans are another example - for these signal that Muslimness is unacceptable in what is supposed to be our pluralistic society.
CJ Werleman is a journalist and senior columnist for Middle East Eye. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman