Evidence of Islamophobia has spiked in the United States—with 78 anti-Islam mosque incidents recorded last year alone—according to a new report that suggests the tone of the 2016 election has triggered anti-Muslim hostility.
In the final two months of last year, 17 mosque incidents were reported—that’s almost as many as were reported in all of 2014. They include the firebombing of a mosque in Coachella, California; the hacked-off pig head left in a Pennsylvania mosque; and the marring of a mosque in Austin, Texas, where vandals covered the door with feces and tossed torn pages from the Quran.
Islam has become a central issue in the 2016 election, perpetuated by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s call for a ban to prevent all Muslims from coming to the United States “until we can figure out what’s really going on.” The report notes the correlation between the uptick in violence and the political rhetoric, and says Trump has played a role in boosting the influence of 74 groups and organizations forming inner and outer cores of what it refers to as the “U.S. Islamophobia Network.”
“Islamophobia has been monetized into votes at the ballot box, and right wing politicians for the most part understand the utility function of Islamophobia in political campaigns,” says Hatem Bazian, UC Berkeley professor of philosophy and Islamic Studies. He directs the university’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, which released the report this week along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says he’s surprised to see political leaders who are supposed to be representative of civil society using anti-Muslim rhetoric “without even flinching.”
“I’m expecting that during the next four months up until the November election, we’re going to be on a roller coaster ride for the targeting and the use of Islamophobic rhetoric as a way to gain stable ground in the presidential and possibly congressional election,” he says.
More recorded mosque incidents happened in 2015 than any year since 2009, when the report made its debut. The last big flare-up in mosque incidents occurred in 2010, when Manhattan’s Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center became a point of controversy. The report noted that both spikes occurred during a time of election politicking, suggesting that “levels of anti-Muslim sentiment follow trends in domestic U.S. politics, not international terrorism.”
The report just issued by the UC Berkeley Islamalso calls out Florida and Tennessee for having passed laws revising which textbooks are allowed in classrooms as a “direct result of anti-Islam campaigns,” and it bemoans an increase in armed anti-Muslim demonstrations, and businesses that won’t hire or serve Muslims.
The “U.S. Islamophobia Network” it outlines contains an inner core of 33 organizations that the report claims produce content consisting of what Bazian calls “the systematic defamation of Muslims.” Those organizations include ACT! For America, American Public Policy Alliance, Clarion Project, David Horwitz Freedom Center, Jihad Watch, Citizens for National Security, and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. The outer core—which shares inner-core content with a wider audience—includes media organizations such as Fox News, Glenn Beck Program, The Washington Times, World Net Daily, and FrontPage magazine.
Trump has appointed eight different advisers who have connections to the Center for Security Policy, a think tank that the report lists as part of the inner core of anti-Muslim activity. “You can see where the influence of the Islamophobia Network is also shaping a particular discourse from Trump,” Bazian says. “Now, whether Trump needs to be influenced or not on those issues is to be debated—but at least we could identify where the roots of the argument are coming from.”
Critics argue that labeling someone as Islamophobic or implying they are engaging in hate speech risks shutting down legitimate—even crucial—debate about the consequences of Islamic extremism.
“CAIR has a systematic campaign to go around and target anybody who speaks publicly about the threat of militant Islam as Islamophobic. And they do this time and time again,” said human rights attorney Brooke Goldstein in a Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly. In the segment they discuss Honor Diaries, a film by the Clarion Project that documents Islam’s “systematic institutionalized misogyny” and female genital mutilation.
The Clarion Project is described in the Islamophobia report as a “nonprofit group that produces and distributes anti-Muslim propaganda films.”
“CAIR operates as the Islamic speech police, it goes around bullying and intimidating anyone who is brave enough to speak publicly about the threat of Islam and Islamic terrorism and violence in the Muslim world,” Goldstein says.
Another individual accused in the Islamophobia report is Bill Maher, who was cited in the study as a “broad-brush” attacker on Islam. “If we talk about them at all, or criticize them at all, it’s [as if we’re] somehow hurting or humiliating Muslims. It’s ridiculous,” Maher said in an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where he interviewed Richard Dawkins. In that same episode, Dawkins also notes that Islam is often confused with racism and that “an incredible number of people think Islam is a race.”
The Islamophobia report itself acknowledges: “It is not appropriate to label all, or even the majority, of those who question Islam and Muslims as Islamophobes. Equally, it is not Islamophobic to denounce crimes committed by individual Muslims or those citing Islam as a motivation for their actions.” Nonetheless it says its authors have determined that the included incidents are, indeed, examples of Islamophobia, and it offers a four-point strategy to combat that, including uniting marginalized communities and doing outreach to society as a whole.
“Whether we talk about Islamophobia as identical to other forms of prejudice, or intersecting with them, or related to them—it’s clear that any commitment to combatting anti-Muslim racism must be substantive, significant, and structural,” contends Keith Feldman, professor of comparative and ethnic studies at Berkeley.
The report calls for eroding the Islamophobia Network in the same way that the “progressive erosion” of the Ku Klux Klan took place. “It took deliberate and systematic work to make sure the KKK no longer had any respectability in American society,” Bazian says. “And the civil rights movement made it possible to cause a shift.”