In an interview with Muslim Press, Ken Chitwood, a religious scholar at the University of Florida, said “Stories in the media that imply that Islam is all about violence, Mohammad cartoons, or subjugating women and non-Christians to harsh impositions of Sharia law, find a big audience in the U.S.”

“That’s part of the problem,” he said, adding that Islamophobia leads to clicks on stories that lead with links between Islam and violence.

Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

Muslim Press: What forces are responsible for the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries, especially the U.S.?

Ken Chitwood: Islamophobia — unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims — and specific acts of anti-Muslim bigotry, continue to be on the rise in the U.S. 

However, Islamophobia is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Fear, ignorance, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims by Americans (in the U.S., North America, and the American hemisphere in general) is situated within a long historical tradition of Eurocentrism (a worldview focused on “Western” civilization & belief in the notion of Euro-exceptionalism & related to “white privilege” and “white ‘supremacy’”), Orientalism (the representation of Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotyped way that is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude), and general racism. 

Islamophobia is also manufactured by an intense “Islamophobia industry,” which consists of a reported 74 groups that donate, and make, millions of dollars every year by promoting hostility, fear, and aggression toward Islam and Muslims. 

Much of this industry’s energy is supplied by “identity politics.” The pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment that is plaguing the U.S. tells us that we must define and protect our own identity against others, in this case, a religious other: the Muslim.” It can also get wrapped up a distorted view of international politics as a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West (see Samuel P. Huntington). 

This emerges from the wider American population’s ignorance when it comes to matters of Islam. Americans largely view Islam as unchanging and static, sharing no common values with other religions or certain regional values, as irrelevant and immoral, as linked with terror, violence, and suppression of freedom. These linkages and assumptions are far from the truth, but are still commonly held by people who suffer from Islamophobia, which CAIR identifies as a psychological issue in need of treatment and care. 

MP: What’s your take on the mainstream media’s role in this problem?

Ken Chitwood: The media does play a role in exacerbating Islamophobia. For the vast majority of the general public, their only interaction with Islam and Muslims is through news stories that tend to link both to tragedy and terror. Muslims are far too often portrayed as violent and repressive, radical and irrational. Although some stories humanize Muslims, or tell the stories that are important to Muslims, the more common media representations of Muslims misrepresent Islam and Muslims and portray them in ways that are inaccurate and unfair on the whole.

Stories in the media that imply that Islam is all about violence, Mohammad cartoons, or subjugating women and non-Christians to harsh impositions of Sharia law, find a big audience in the U.S. That’s part of the problem as well. Islamophobia leads to clicks on stories that lead with links between Islam and violence. If given the option of reading story A with the headline, “Muslims go to mosque, found praying there” and story B with the headline, “Muslims go to mosque, found plotting terror attack” most Americans will click on the latter. Every time. And so, there is this feedback loop between Islamophobia and media representations of Muslims. They each feed on each other. 

Journalists, editors, and news analysts should tell stories that undermine the narrative that Islam’s identity is either one of violence or countering violence. While it is important to cover CVE programs and discuss the ways in which religion and violence are often linked, newswriters and analysts must be careful to balance this coverage with stories that undermine the narrative that religion and violence — or specifically Islam and violence — are inherently interwoven. While this does not mean we do not tell the story of ISIS or terror attacks, it does mean we have to tell other stories that humanize Muslims. The stories are out there. The challenge is on newswriters to put pen-to-paper to tell the stories that not only matter to Muslims, but matter to us all.

Even so, well-meaning journalists can still have their stories co-opted. I cannot tell you how many times a benign story of mine or explanatory piece, written for a wire service, is picked up by a news outlet that then adds a picture of a bomb exploding, or a woman in niqab, or a terror attack when it has NOTHING to do with the story or “explainer” piece I wrote. 

MP: How do you see the future for Muslims in the United States? Should they be worried about Islamophobia?

Ken Chitwood: On the one hand, yes. Attacks and aggression are on the rise. General fear and hateful attitudes toward Muslims are on the rise. Muslims, and non-Muslim allies, must be diligent in being aware of these currents, critiquing them, and contesting them in public and private conversations, venues, and events. 

On the other hand, Muslims have a lot to be hopeful about. First, Muslims in the U.S. are marking out a critical counterpublic space within which they are displaying a powerful agency and strength. This space is not violent, but it is forceful. This space is proudly Muslim as well as being distinctly American. This space is contested with many voices, but speaks out clearly against Islamophobia and all forms of xenophobic hate and violence. I am sure, barring significant political decisions or demographic shifts, that the Muslim population will continue to grow in the U.S., carve out their own distinct spaces and presence in the American public and private spheres, and chart their own path of assimilating to, adapting, and augmenting American culture in the process. 

Second, there are an emerging number of allies from across the religious and secular spectrum. From journalists to religious leaders to business executives and everyday voters and participants in society more and more individuals are learning what it means to be an ally and do everything that we can to stand up for Muslim rights and to ensure that they are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The key here is relationships and “everyday politics and social collaboration.” This process is not all sunshine and rainbows. There will be tensions, misunderstandings, and break downs in relational communication, but there is a need to build connections through relational interactions at home, at work, in school, in places of worship, and in politics. 

MP: Extremist groups, such as ISIS, follow Wahhabi Islam which is rooted in Saudi Arabia. How do you see such group’s growth in the U.S.?

Ken Chitwood: I would be hesitant to “just-so” link ISIS and Salafis directly to all forms of Wahhabism and then to Saudi Arabia. The reality is far more complicated than that.

With that said, through print media such as books and pamphlets, educational opportunities for U.S. based imams, online videos and social media, and funding for mosques Saudi Arabian authorities and institutions are able to exert influence in the U.S. 

This is part of a broader spread of Salafism worldwide. 

The Salafi movement is a slippery one to pin down. Some scholars, and the Salafis themselves, claim they are a subset of Sunni Islam, deriving their teaching from the Hanbali school. Others lump Salafism with Wahhabism — the ultraconservative Islamic teaching of Abd al-Wahhab that was institutionalized by the Saudis before being radicalized by al-Qaeda and used against their nation and other Muslims. Wahhabis adhere to takfiri beliefs, which lead adherents to target non-Wahhabi Muslims — mainstream Muslims, Sunnis, Shi’as, Sufi, etc. Salafis assert they are a broader movement than Wahhabis, but certainly the two are parallel developments and share much in common in terms of radical doctrine and violent, extremist, practice. Salafis seek to purify Islam, which features a built-in brutality toward non-Muslims. 

Many Muslims in the U.S. are attracted to Salafism or take a “Salafi detour” in their religious lives at some point in time, this is especially true for recent converts. Salafis are Islamic reformists who view their movement as a return to the roots, to the ways of the 'as-Salaf as-Saliheen', the first three generations of Muslims — the pious “predecessors” or “ancestors” of Islam. They hold to a literalist and individual interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah and a strict science of tawhid — the oneness of Allah. Their theological idealism leads them to contest and combat what they see as contaminated innovations (bida’) in Islam — such as veneration of saints, visiting graves, various forms of Sufism and Islamic mysticism, and even other Muslim schools of thought (an extreme view of taqfir, which leads ISIS to murder other Muslims they do not see as “pure” or “authentic” enough).

Salafis could be said to have a superiority complex, emerging from their understanding of their reform movement as a pure and perspicuous manifestation of Islam. As Roel Meijer said, “the basic power of Salafism lies in its capacity to say ‘we are better than you.’” And so, for many new Muslims becoming a Salafi — or even a Wahhabi, which is a sub-sect of Salafism — is a way to claim authenticity, authority, and power within their newfound religious community and to contest feelings of inferiority in the wider culture. 

MP: Do you think such groups are a threat to America’s national security? If so, why is the United States’ relations with Saudi Arabia keeps expanding?

Ken Chitwood: As far as international relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia go, this isn’t really my area of expertise. Nor are governmental responses to perceived threats in the U.S. However, I can comment on Wahhabism and Salafism as a “threat”:

The Salafi “superiority complex” bleeds not only into thoughts on theology, but also in terms of discourse and action. For Salafis, right thought must lead to right moral acts. Not all Salafis are violent and in fact, the vast majority are not. They may be politically quietist or politically active, but they do not view violence as a means of effecting change. For those Salafis who are violent — Jihadi-Salafists — however, their superiority complex is on steroids because of the ultimate demands their philosophy makes of its adherents. 

In the end, blanket statements about whether “Salafis are the fastest growing form of Islamism” in a given country or that they “are a threat to America’s national security” do little to help us understand the Salafist spectrum in the U.S., in Europe, or across the globe. There is a need to understand these individuals and groups from the inside. This will require researchers and journalists who listen and learn from them, know what they are about and why they believe and practice Islam the way they do, and also to see them as part of that broader Muslim counterpublic I mentioned earlier. 


Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar at the University of Florida studying Religion in the Americas and a graduate student fellow with the Center for Global Islamic Studies. His academic work focuses on Islam in the Americas, Puerto Rican Muslims, Latina/o Muslims, hemispheric American religion, translocal religion, intersections of religion & culture, Christian-Muslim relations, global Christianity, Muslim minorities, & ethnographic methods and manifestations of religion beyond religion in a global and digital age.