“Vaccinate” against Sharia; demands to “publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws”; and Islam “is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” are a few recent statements by US political leaders pointing to the level of toxicity and bigotry directed at Muslims in the country.
As American Muslims mourn the loss of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, important questions arise as to the link between the vitriolic rhetoric directed at Muslims in western civil society and violence targeting members of this religious and powerless minority group.
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How to understand what is taking place and should we be more alarmed about the violent turn of events or is this only an isolated incident by a mentally unstable person and no further conclusions should be deduced from it?
The isolated incident, as the media and political leaders emphasise, has to be dispensed with immediately as the trail of hate motivated attacks is evident in Wade Michael Page mass murder at the Sikh Gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, and the Anders Breivik’s Norway slaughter in July 2011.
More alarming on the individual level is the readiness of a 31-year-old New York woman on December 27, 2012 to push Sunando Sen, a 47-year-old immigrant from India, in the path of an incoming train. The woman admitted to purposely pushing Sen off of the subway platform stating: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims.”
Make no mistake about it. Wade Michael Page, Anders Breivik, Craig Stephen Hicks and Erika Menendez are all responsible for the actual murders; however the political leadership and media talking heads provided the racist and bigoted atmosphere by daily engaging in problematising Islam and Muslims.
Yes, we can speak of crimes committed by terrorists in the name of Islam around the world; however, the media and western political elites have constructed a propaganda machine that epistemologically “otherises” Muslims while relegating them to sub-humanness status and as savages at the gates of civilisation.
The status and position of Muslims within American and European civil society is deteriorating rapidly and immediate remedies are needed to counter it.
Without doubt, events involving Muslims in various parts of the world have contributed to the collapse of the Muslim status but there is much to be said about the role of right-wing politicians whose careers depend upon racist and “otherising” xenophobic rhetoric.
The list of political parties and figures that employ Islamophobia to gain votes include Austria’s National Freedom Front, France’s Le Pen-National Front, Netherlands’ People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Germany’s National Democratic Party, Norway’s Progress Party, Britain’s Independent Party (UKIP), Switzerland’s People’s Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, Poland’s Congress of the New Right Party and the US’ Tea Party.
The politically sanctioned bigotry towards Muslims living in the aforementioned countries stems from leaders and established parties who have made strategic calculations as to the documented success of this messaging and the ability to win votes at the ballot box. Events involving Muslims, such as terrorist attacks at home and abroad, are packaged into racist campaign advertisements.
Rising fascist state
The rhetoric has led to the externalisation of Muslims, while demanding greater levels of state intrusion into their religious and private space, supposedly to secure the motherland from their collective harm. Consequently, a comparison must be made as to the early formative period of Nazi Germany campaign against the Jews and whether the right-wing machinery is rewriting the history today but with Muslim names and faces attached to it.
In Nazi Germany, starting immediately after Hitler came to power in 1933, Dr Joseph Goebbels was appointed minister of propaganda and national enlightenment in charge of constructing the “civilised” image for the rising fascist state.
Months after coming to power, the Nazi Party was emboldened to organise public burning of books that did not correspond to Hitler’s racist and distorted Aryan ideology. Goebbels set up an infrastructure that on the one hand monitored anything that strayed from the prescribed nationalist narrative while on the other hand worked to produce “literature, music, films, radio programmes and newspaper” articles that promoted the Nazi ideology.
These tactics had devastating consequences by 1938. A straight line can be drawn linking nationally produced racist political propaganda and the death and destruction visited upon the Jews and countless others in the Holocaust.
Germany's Nazi history and what it unleashed on the world with its well-oiled propaganda machine is well documented but unfortunately the lessons ... are downplayed, forgotten or completely obfuscated.
Germany’s Nazi history and what it unleashed on the world with its well-oiled propaganda machine is well documented but unfortunately the lessons from the racist and xenophobic rhetoric directed at minorities are downplayed, forgotten or completely obfuscated.
There are clear parallels to the experience of Muslims living in western countries today and Nazi Germany.
Let’s be clear that we are not at a “1938 moment” of Hitler’s Nazi Germany but the basis of comparison today is one of approach and structure to the rhetoric deployed against Muslim citizens of western countries. Certainly, Islamophobic rhetoric has become normal, pervasive and even “dignified” in public discourse.
One can hardly pick a newspaper without reading negative stories involving Muslims. Likewise, radio and TV programming are filled to the brim with Islamophobic content masquerading as “real news” or “informed opinions” with an avalanche of bigoted and essentialist content focusing on Muslims.
The link between bigoted speech and violence is well established but forming the right policies and setting up the preventative infrastructure is difficult to come by at a time when the political elites are themselves producing it.
Currently and at the federal level, a hate crime law is on the books but Daryl Johnson, author of a DHS report on right-wing extremism, illustrates the challenge faced by his office: “In the face of enormous media and congressional criticism, DHS made the decision to cancel all of its domestic terrorism-related reporting and training for law enforcement.”
The lack of institutional support because the political leadership itself and the national media are intent on otherising Muslims and minorities, leave the possibility of racist and bigoted attacks a possibility in the future, with communities left to fend for themselves.
Hatem Bazian is co-editor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.