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March 16, 2011
ISLAMOPHOBIA AND RADICALIZATION
by James Zogby
Let me state quite directly: Islamophobia and those who promote it are a
greater threat to the United States than Anwar Al-Awlaqi and his rag-tag team
On one level, Al-Awlaqi, from his cave hide out in Yemen, can only prey off
alienation where it exists. Adopting the persona of a latter-day Malcolm X
(though he seems not to have read the last chapters of the "Autobiography"
or learned the lessons of Malcolm's ultimate conversion), he appears
street-smart, brash, self- assured and assertive -- all of the assets needed to
attract lost or wounded souls looking for certainty and an outlet for their
rage. Like some parasites, Al-Awlaqi cannot create his own prey. He must
wait for others to create his opportunities, which until now have been
isolated and limited: a disturbed young man here, an increasingly deranged
Islamophobia, on the other hand, if left unchecked, may serve to erect
barriers to Muslim inclusion in America, increasing alienation, especially
among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to
one of the fundamental cornerstones of America's unique democracy, it
would simultaneously and rapidly expand the pool of recruits for future
I have often remarked that America is different, in concept and reality, from
our European allies. Third generation Kurds in Germany, Pakistanis in the
UK, or Algerians in France, for example, may succeed and obtain citizenship,
but they do not become German, British or French. Last year, I debated a
German government official on this issue. She kept referring to "migrants" --
a term she used to describe all those of Turkish descent living in her country
-- regardless of the number of generations they had been there. Similarly,
following their last election, a leading British newspaper commented on the
"number of immigrants" who won seats, without noting that many of those
"immigrants" were third generation citizens.
America has prided itself on being different. Being "American" is not the
possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any group define "America".
Not only do new immigrants become citizens, they also secure a new identity.
More than that, as new groups become American and are transformed, the
idea of "America" itself has also changed to embrace these new cultures.
Within a generation, diverse ethnic and religious groups from every corner
or the globe have become Americans, dramatically changing America in the
process. Problems remain and intolerant bigots, in every age, have reared
up against new groups, but history demonstrates that, in the end, the
newcomers have been accepted, incorporated and absorbed into the
This defines not only our national experience, but our defining narrative as
well. When immigrant school children in Europe learn French, German or
British history, they are learning their host's history. In the US, from the
outset, we are taught that this is "our new story" -- that it includes all of us,
and has included us all, from the beginning.
It is because new immigrants and diverse ethnic and religious communities
have found their place and acceptance in the American mainstream that the
country, during the last century, survived and prospered despite being
sorely tested with world wars, economic upheaval and bouts with internal
strife. During this time we had to contend with anti-black, anti-Asian,
anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-Japanese movements. In
the end, after creating their moment of pain, these efforts have always lost.
They lose, but they don't always go away. The Islamophobia we are
witnessing today is the latest campaign by bigots to tear apart the very fabric
of America. We know the groups promoting it. First, there is the well-funded
"cottage industry", on the right, of groups and individuals with a long history
of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim activity. Some of the individuals associated with
these efforts have been given legitimacy as commentators on "terrorism",
"radicalisation" or "national security concerns", despite their obvious bias
and even obsession with all things Arab or Muslim (in this, they remind me of
good old-fashioned anti-Semites who never tired of warning of Jewish
threats or conspiracies or who while always claiming to like individual Jews
rallied against any and all Jewish organisations).
If these "professional bigots" have provided the grist, the mill itself was run
by the vast network of right-wing talk radio and TV shows and websites, and
prominent preachers who have combined to amplify the anti-Muslim
message nationwide. Their efforts have done real damage. They have
tormented decent public servants, created protests that have shuttered
legitimate institutions, fomented hate crimes, and produced fear in the
In just the past two years, we have seen a dramatic upsurge in the activity of
these bigots. More ominously, their cause has been embraced by national
political leaders and by elements in the Republican Party, who appear to
have decided, in 2010, to use "fear of Islam" as a base-building theme and a
wedge issue against Democrats for electoral advantage.
In the past, only obscure or outrageous members of congress (like North
Carolina's Sue Myrick who expressed nervousness and insecurity because
of "who was owning all those 7/11's"; or Colorado's Tom Tancredo who once
warned that he "would bomb Mecca") were outspoken Islamophobes. After
the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee embraced
opposition to Park 51 as a campaign theme, it is hard to find a leading
Republican who has not railed on some issue involving Islam or Muslims in
The net impact here is that this current wave of Islamophobia has both
played to the Republican base while firming up that base around this agenda.
The polling numbers are striking and deeply disturbing. Some 54 per cent of
Democrats have a favourable attitude towards Muslims, while 34 per cent do
not. Among Republicans, on the other hand, only 12 per cent hold a
favourable view of Muslims, with 85 per cent saying they have unfavourable
views. Additionally, 74 per cent of Republicans believe "Islam teaches hate"
and 60 per cent believe that "Muslims tend to be religious fanatics".
The danger here is that to the degree that this issue has become a partisan
-- and in some cases a proven vote getter -- issue for the Republican Party, it
will not go away any time soon. The longer we are plagued by this bigotry,
and the displays of intolerance it breeds (the anti-mosque building
demonstrations or the anti-Sharia law efforts now spreading across the
country) the longer young Muslims will feel that the "promise of America"
does not include them, and they will feel like aliens in their own country.
It is this concern that has prompted many inter-faith religious groups and
leaders and a diverse coalition of ethnic and civil rights organisations to so
vigorously oppose Congressman Peter King's (R-NY) hearings that will deal
with the radicalisation of American Muslims later this week. They know, from
previous statements made by King, of his personal hostility to American
Muslims. They also know that what King is doing will only aggravate an
already raw wound, creating greater fear and concern among young Muslims
who have already witnessed too much bigotry and intolerance.
What they should also know is that in the process of targeting a religion in
this way, and engaging in this most "un-American activity", King and company
are, in fact, opening the door for increased alienation and future
radicalisation. Al-Awlaqi must be smiling from inside his cave.
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.