Unless you’ve been asleep for the past 10 years (or write book reviews for the Wall Street Journal), you may have noticed that anti-Muslim sentiment in the past decade has recently spilled out into some of this country’s nastiest displays of hate.
In August, a Sikh temple was shot up in Oak Creek, Wis.; the gunman couldn’t distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims, and so, frightened just the same by the presence of brown-skinned Americans with foreign names and beards, killed seven people.
That same month, as Muslims prayed inside a mosque in Hayward, Calif., four teens drove by the house of worship, hurling lemons and firing shots from a BB gun. In Panama City, Fla., a Mason jar filled with gasoline was thrown at the home of a Muslim family.
Two months later, in Ohio, Randolph Linn, a white, middle-aged Muslim hater, upped the ante on the lemon and Mason jar throwers, entering a Toledo mosque, pouring gasoline on the prayer area, and torching the building. Later, he said that all he knew about Muslims came from Fox News (surprise, surprise!).
More recently, commuters on buses and metros in some of the nation’s major metropolitan cities have comes across advertisements by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Muslim hate group. The ad campaigns equate Muslims with “savages” and cherry-pick violent verses from the Quran, plopping them alongside some predictable gory imagery of 9/11.
No wonder, then, in late December, Sunando Sen, a Hindu man living in New York, was pushed onto the tracks on of oncoming subway train and killed by a woman who later admitted that she hated Muslims and Hindus.
The FBI has reported that hate crimes against Muslims in the United States, which include vandalism, intimidation, assault, rape and murder, have continually risen in the past few years. In 2011, 157 cases were reported — an insignificant drop from the some 160 cases reported in 2010.
Any reasonable person would look at this growing phenomenon and conclude that we’ve reached an ugly new level of prejudice against religious minorities in this country. But not Jonathan Schanzer, a hawkish Bush-era terrorism analyst whose predictable (and unethical — I’ll get to that later) review of my book, “The Islamophobia Industry,” in the Wall Street Journal last week denied the existence of Islamophobia entirely. These episodes of violence against Muslims are, for him, apparently unimportant and easily justified by the continued political ferocity of Islamist groups acting overseas.
Schanzer apes the extremist voices on the right (including hate group leader Robert Spencer) and calls Islamophobia a “vaguely medical sounding term” that is “simply a pejorative neologism.” Strikingly, he doesn’t suggest that we should be concerned about increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., and seems to indicate that because some people may abuse the term “Islamophobia,” we should simply dismiss it altogether. That’s a dangerous deficiency in logic. Some people also abuse the terms “anti-Semite” and “racist,” but imagine his outrage if those terms were swiped from usage.
As I point out explicitly in my book, Islamophobia is a complicated term and one that has been parsed thoroughly throughout history. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we have and is the only real word that exists in public discourse to describe an irrational fear of an entire religious faith, Islam, based on the actions of a fraction of zealots. There’s not a person in this world — myself included — who would conclude that every critique of Islam or the violent actions of some Muslims constitutes Islamophobia (of course, that point didn’t configure in Schanzer’s review because it obviously undermined the attack that he hoped to level).
But what the Wall Street Journal doesn’t seem to get is that at the core of Islamophobia is the belief that there is something about the religion of Islam itself that is evil and dirty and bad — that groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah and others are motivated only by the tenets of their faith and not by their political grievances or ambitions. That unbalanced view places the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims under the magnifying glass, and that’s not OK.
It is also that belief — that Muslims possess, as a result of their religious faith, some inherently violent characteristic — that links discussions of racism and Islamophobia. Schanzer scoffs at the possibility that Islamophobia may be a distant cousin of racism.
But what does he say about Ahmed Sharif, the New York City cab driver who was slashed in 2010 because of his brown skin? How does Schanzer explain Sunando Sen, the brown-skinned Hindu who was pushed to his death in New York City subway station? Or how about the brown-skinned man from Queens, who in November of last year, was beaten to a bloody pulp by two attackers who asked if he was Muslim or Hindu? There was also a trio of shootings in Brooklyn that same month that killed an Egyptian Jew, an Iranian Jew and an Egyptian Muslim. According to law enforcement authorities, the victims, all shot by the same .22 caliber gun, were targeted as a result of their Middle Eastern descent.
Schanzer is silent on these issues. And his inability to grapple with these serious questions is just as unsurprising as the fact that his review does not even address the central thesis of my book to begin with: that there exists within this country an active and well-funded cottage industry of anti-Muslim fear mongers. Schanzer does not critique that uncontestable point; he does not deny the money lines, the relationships, nor does he reject my contention that Islamophobia is largely a fixture of the political right. (Consider, for instance that in 2011 and 2012, 78 Congressional bills or amendments aimed at interfering with Muslim religious practices were considered in 31 states; Of them, a whopping 73 were introduced by Republicans, four were bi-partisan, and only one by a Democrat.)
That’s because Schanzer is a part of that right-wing industry — a product of the grandfather of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, Daniel Pipes. It’s a relationship he doesn’t mention (one must believe, intentionally) in his review. In the spirit of fair journalism, the WSJ could have at least added that line of disclosure, especially since I attack Pipes in my book. But given that Fox News tycoon Rupert Murdoch owns the paper, such an expectation is merely a pipe dream.
Speaking of pipes, Daniel Pipes once employed Schanzer as a researcher at the Middle East Forum (he is still listed on the site as “staff”), his neoconservative think tank, and he wrote the foreword for Schanzer’s 2008 book. The two have authored numerous articles and appeared in public together.
Ironically, while Schanzer throws a public temper tantrum about the linkage between Islamophobia and racism, his former boss, Pipes, is the author of what is, perhaps, the most blatantly racist sentence ever uttered by someone claiming to be a serious scholar of these issues:
“West European societies,” he once wrote, “are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.”
(Since that time, Pipes has tried to wriggle his way out of that statement, practically begging his audience to just see things his way — he’s not really a racist, just someone who misplaced a quotation mark or two!)
The great irony in all of this is that Schanzer, by the very nature of his career as a neoconservative terrorism analyst and vice president of a hawkish pro-Israel think tank in Washington, actually depends on these types of “all Muslims are suspicious” narratives. It’s what prevents his paycheck from bouncing each month. The more he, and others like him, can dismiss Islamophobia as some imagined mental state and continue to conflate the actions of a few violent Muslims with all adherents of the global faith, the more he can legitimize his presence within a neoconservative clique that thrives on such discrimination.
If there ever was proof of the existence of the “Islamophobia Industry,” Jonathan Schanzer is it.
This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on January 14, 2013.