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It's not just Trump: Islamophobia in America is spiraling out of control

On the Tuesday after the Paris terror attacks, a Virginia civil engineer named Samer Shalaby carried a few poster boards into Spotsylvania County's small, low-ceilinged community forum room to present plans to replace Fredericksburg's aging Islamic center. Shalaby's presentation was meant to formalize his application for a zoning permit — the very dullest sort of dull civic meeting — but as a crowd filed in, filling every seat and standing shoulder to shoulder along the walls, it became clear that they were not there to discuss zoning.

"Nobody wants your evil cult in this town," one of them shouted at Shalaby, pointing an outstretching finger. Many in the crowd clapped and cheered their affirmation.

"And I'll tell you what," he went on, "I will do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen. Because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists. I don't care what you say. I don't care what you think." He later added, to cheers, "Every Muslim is a terrorist, period. Shut your mouth."

As the crowd grew more hostile, a city official stepped in, first to ask them to calm down and, when they wouldn't, to abruptly cancel the meeting.

Three days later, on November 20, Donald Trump told an NBC News reporter that he would "certainly" implement a system to register and track Muslims in the United States. Later, on December 7, he proposed a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" — including Muslim-American citizens.

Trump was widely and correctly criticized for this, accused of wanting to reproduce discriminatory policies like those of prewar Europe, when Jews were forcibly registered. But looking at the timeline of events since the Paris attacks, and indeed in the months before them, it becomes clear that Trump isn't actually the problem here. Rather, he's merely indulging a sentiment that was already widespread.

Both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz had, weeks earlier, called for accepting refugees from Syria only if they are Christian — thus effectively banning Syrian refugees who are Muslim. The distinction between their Muslim-banning plan and Trump's is largely one of scale, not of kind. Yet the fact that only Trump drew widespread outrage shows how accustomed we have become to out-in-the-open anti-Muslim prejudice in this country, and the extremes that now tolerate.

"In 20 years I have not heard such intolerance and hatred from political leaders in this society," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Guardian.

This didn't come out of nowhere — it's been building for months, in American politics and media and popular discourse. Trump is just the tip of an iceberg that runs much deeper than many Americans would like to believe. America's climate of anti-Muslim hatred and fear, a form of bigotry known as Islamophobia, is rampaging out of control. And it has very real and legitimately scary implications for the millions of Americans who follow Islam.

Anti-Muslim bigotry in America is becoming violent

The day after Trump's registry comments, a makeshift militia, wearing military-style camo, some of them masked, showed up outside an Islamic center in Irving, Texas, carrying assault rifles and announcing they had come to stop the "Islamization of America."

The militia later published the home addresses of dozens of local families they said were Muslims and "Muslim sympathizers." The militia leader responded to criticism of the list by writing on Facebook, "If we had a hit list and wanted to run down that list, you would have already seen it on the news."

The day after the Texas militia incident, Trump claimed that "thousands" of Muslims in New Jersey had cheered the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a claim he has repeated over and over despite it being frequently disproven. It was his claims that got all the attention, and indeed they do matter, but Islamophobia manifested itself in other and scarier ways that week. It's not that Trump caused anti-Muslim violence, but rather that his comments — widely believed and legitimately popular among a slice of Americans — are the leading edge of an Islamophobic movement that is also violent.

On Thanksgiving, just a few days later, a cab driver in Pittsburgh who is also an immigrant from Morocco picked up a passenger who accosted him with questions about his background and about ISIS. When they arrived at the passenger's destination, he went inside for what he said was his wallet, and then emerged carrying a rifle. The driver saw what was coming and sped away, but the passenger was still able to raise the rifle and fire, hitting the driver between his shoulder blades.

The United States does not officially track the number of citizens who are Muslim, but it's likely a few million. A 2010 Pew survey estimated the Muslim American population at 2.6 million and predicted that by 2030 it would rise to 6.2 million, or about 1.7 percent of the population. These Americans increasingly live in a climate where they face not just hateful and discriminatory rhetoric but also violence and the threat of violence.

The threat of violence often has the same theatrical point as violence itself: to terrify and intimidate, to inflict psychological suffering on the targeted group in the form of fear and alienation, to force that targeted group to live a little bit less in the open and more in the shadows. Obviously, actual attacks on Muslims are worse than implicit or explicit threats — and, make no mistake, when militias stand outside an Islamic center, even if they have no intention of using violence, they are conveying a threat — but they serve the same goal of inflicting suffering on Muslims meant to drive them into the shadows or out of public society altogether.

Thankfully, so far most of that violence has targeted Islamic buildings rather than people — a series of mosques and Islamic cemeteries have been vandalized — though even this is rightly perceived by Muslims as a threat of more deadly attacks.

In November of 2014, someone opened fire on a California mosque as several worshipers prayed inside. That December, a man in Kansas City wrote on his SUV that the Quran was a "disease worse than Ebola," and then drove the vehicle into a 15-year-old Muslim boy in front of a local mosque, severing his legs and killing him.

The January terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Paris, provoked a wave of Islamophobic violence in France as well as many threats to Muslims here in the United States. Tellingly, Vox's coverage of that Islamophobia has drawn us more threats of violence, including threats of sexual violence against women writers, than any other subject I have ever covered. (Our decision to publish inflammatory Charlie Hebdo cartoons that mocked Islam drew zero threats or complaint.) These threats have expressed hatred of Muslims and outrage at Vox's criticism of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Then, in February, came the Chapel Hill murders: A man known for both his anger problems and his hatred of religion shot to death three university students, all Muslim, in his apartment complex.

When national media was slow to pick up the story of what had happened in Chapel Hill, many Muslim Americans used the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to call attention to the murders and, just as crucially, to the growing hatred toward Muslims in this country.

The hashtag asked Americans to acknowledge the climate, one that many non-Muslims still refuse to see, in which Muslims are treated with open fear and suspicion. It was this climate, they argued, that had allowed the murders to happen and that let them go initially ignored. It's a climate that was already quite severe and has, in the months since, gotten a lot worse.

The politics of Islamophobia are everywhere in America

Islamophobic attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dog-whistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but have been resurfacing more recently.

A February poll showed that 54 percent of Republican respondents believe that Obama "deep down" is best described as Muslim. By September, an Iowa poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans there believed that Islam should be legal, with 30 percent saying it should be illegal and 21 percent "unsure." Among Trump supporters in Iowa, hostility toward Muslims was higher but not that much higher: 36 percent said Islam should be outlawed. A November nationwide poll found that 56 percent of Americans see Islam as at odds with American values. Fifty-seven percent of Americans, and 83 percent of Republicans, say that Muslims should be barred from the presidency.

State legislatures are passing laws banning "Sharia" or "foreign law," a barely veiled expression of official legislative hostility toward Islam and Muslim American communities.

In late January, a Texas state legislator protested the state capital's Muslim Capitol Day, meant to promote tolerance, by demanding that any Muslim "publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws" before entering her office. "We will see how long they stay in my office," she said.

Though her stunt likely seemed silly to many Americans — another far-flung legislator saying something outlandish — it was neither isolated nor fringe, but rather part of a concerted and deliberate campaign to promote anti-Muslim fear and hatred that has coincided with anti-Muslim violence.

That campaign is not just coming from nutty state legislators. Elements of the Republican Party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. Groups such as the Center for Security Policy, which argue that "nearly every" Muslim American group, including campus student groups, are extremist sleeper cells bent on launching "stealth jihad" and subverting the Constitution, have raised tens of millions in donations, which they use, along with preexisting connections to conservative media institutions, to push anti-Muslim hysteria and conspiracy theories.

While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Gov. and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where Sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."

This has come through especially clearly in the American political controversy over accepting Syrian refugees.

America's refugee debate isn't really about refugees. It's about immigration and Islam.

Turkmen children
Turkmen children at a displaced children's camp. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

In the first days after the terror attacks in Paris, American politics became consumed in debate over whether the attacks showed that the US should slow or altogether halt its already-small program to admit Syrian refugees. Many Americans presumed that the Paris attacks had been conducted by people who'd arrived from Syria and feared the same happening here.

But then something curious happened. As French authorities identified the attackers, each turned out to be not Syrian at all, refugee or otherwise, but rather a European Union citizen who was French or Belgian. So you might think that Americans would see this and drop their Paris-based fears that refugees lead to terrorism. But in fact the opposite happened: The more information that came out showing Syrian refugees had played little or no role in Paris, the more vigorously Americans debated blocking Syrian refugees in response.

As the debate developed, it became clearer why this was: The backlash against Syrian refugees wasn't really about Paris, but rather about a deeper fear of Muslims that has been building for some time.

And it's not just Donald Trump. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs; he has also said that Muslims should be barred from the presidency and has falsely claimed, among other things, that Islamic law requires that "people following other religions must be killed."

This goes beyond "outsider" candidates, too. Chris Christie has said that the US should not accept a single Syrian refugee, even "orphans under [age] five." This policy does not make sense unless you see these refugees as threats purely for their demographic background.

In part, this is about hostility toward immigrants, irrespective of their religion — a central issue for Trump and his campaign for months, and one he's pressed on Latin American immigration as well. But the reaction against Syrian refugees, for all its similarities to other anti-immigration movements, also has a clear and consistent religious element to it.

It's hard to ignore the appearance that the focus on refugees, though refugees played no currently known role in the Paris attacks, is at least in part about generalized anti-Muslim fear. Both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have proposed barring refugees but making special exemptions for Christian refugees — again, a policy that only makes sense if you see refugees as threats not because they are refugees or foreign but because they are Muslim.

The conversation has at moments drifted, tellingly, away from the refugee issue entirely and more explicitly into what it was always about: a desire to treat Muslims as dangerous threats who must be controlled. Hence Trump's suggestion that he would support a federal "database" of all Muslims in the US and might even require Muslim Americans to carry special identification.

Trump also suggested support for closing some mosques. Marco Rubio, when asked on Fox News about this, said he might go even further. "It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down anyplace — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — anyplace where radicals are being inspired," he said.

How American media creates a climate of anti-Muslim hate and fear

The story of America's resurgent Islamophobia is in many ways a media story. Over the past year, much of the media has treated the rise of ISIS in the Middle East as an indictment of Islam itself, a sign that Muslims are somehow less human and more violent.

Cable TV news has been promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion that is to blame for ISIS.

CNN has promoted a kind of "he said, she said" conception of Islam, in which it is valid and worthwhile to debate whether Muslims make for inferior people and societies, thus mainstreaming more overt bigotry. Host Chris Cuomo, for example, called Muslims "unusually violent" and "unusually barbaric." The network has run chyrons such as "IS ISLAM VIOLENT? OR PEACEFUL?"

Hosts have repeated bigoted falsehoods, for example that female genital mutilation is an inherently Muslim problem (in fact, it is a regional practice that crosses religious lines) or that restrictions on women driving are "commonplace" in the Muslim world (in fact, it is restricted to one country, Saudi Arabia, that represents 2 percent of the global Muslim population). In one bizarre segment, during an interview with Muslim-American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, CNN host Don Lemon interrupted him mid-sentence to ask, for no obvious reason at all, "Do you support ISIS?"

This is a problem that includes the left. HBO host Bill Maher frequently rants against Islam and its adherents, saying, for example, that "vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea" and share "too much in common with ISIS."

But what is worst is arguably not these incidents of over Islamophobia on cable news, but rather the degree to which American media treats the question of whether Muslims are inherently violent or backward as a valid debate in which both sides should be aired. When CNN came under fire for asking if Islam promotes violence, several hosts countered that they were just following their journalistic responsibility to "ask the question."

Because many in the media continue to indulge Islamophobia as a valid position, they implicitly tell their audiences that it is acceptable to hate Muslims and indeed important to question whether Muslims are inherently inferior.

This shows up in popular culture, as well. In January, Warner Bros. released American Sniper, an Iraq War film that portrays Iraqis as an undifferentiated mass of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers who can only be confronted with violence.

In one scene, the film's protagonist and namesake shoots an Iraqi woman and child to death — an act the film tacitly approves by later showing them as having been carrying a grenade. The morality of killing Iraqi civilians is raised only so the hero protagonist can shout down whoever has had the gall to question his decisions by explaining that those civilians were no innocents.

(Cryanne)

The film went on to become one of the most successful war films in American history, to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and to inspire a wave of death threats against Muslims and Arabs.

How right-wing media is mainstreaming violent Islamophobia

Fox News has taken this media treatment of Islam to the next logical step, telling its millions of viewers over and over that Muslims are a threat who must be feared and dealt with forcefully, even violently.

For example, Fox News's Andrea Tantaros, in making a point about "the history of Islam," argued, "You can't solve it with a dialogue. You can't solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It's the only thing these people understand." Bill O'Reilly has declared that "Islam is a destructive force" and that the US is in a holy war with certain groups of Muslims.

Host Jeanine Pirro once issued a breathtaking seven-minute monologue calling for the United States to arm death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill all Islamists and members of Islamist organizations, though many of those organizations are avowedly peaceful and have millions of members, including women and children.

You will notice a theme in this coverage: It emphasizes combat, violence, and war. And not just as rhetorical devices for metaphorical struggles against extremism, but rather to describe a narrative of a literal, actual war against "radical Muslims" or "Islamists." Those terms are rarely defined but are said to encompass vast and terrifying enemies, giving viewers every reason to conclude they represent many Muslims, if not the bulk.

But there's another, much more dangerous way that Fox News mainstreams anti-Muslim hatred and even violence. You can see this, for example, in an incident with Donald Trump this September.

In September, at a Trump rally, the man who has led GOP polls for months paused to let a supporter, armed with a microphone, ask a question. Here's their full exchange. As you read it, know that Trump, beaming, nodded in vigorous affirmation throughout:

MAN IN AUDIENCE: We have a problem in this country, it's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American. Birth certificate, man!

DONALD TRUMP: We need this question!

MAN IN AUDIENCE: But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: when can we get rid of 'em?

DONALD TRUMP: We're gonna be looking at a lot of different things. And you know that a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.

The exchange mostly drew attention for the line that "we have a problem in this country" and Trump's seeming agreement. But in fact it's much worse than it looks.

The line about "training camps" referred to a conspiracy theory that has been festering for months and growing from the far-right fringes to the right-wing mainstream: that Muslim American communities throughout the US are sheltering secret terrorist training camps in the US.

"Fears of 'Muslim training camps' have simmered on the far right for years, especially since the rise of the Islamic State," Jenna Johnson wrote in the Washington Post, adding that right-wing media outlets sometimes claim there are dozens of such camps.

Fox News has pushed this conspiracy theory from the fringes to the mainstream. In January, Bill O'Reilly hosted a member of a far-right group who claimed that Muslim Americans are organizing secret paramilitary communes poised to commit acts of terrorism. O'Reilly and the guest discussed the supposed Muslim training camps at length.

On Fox Business, also in January, Lou Dobbs hosted the same group to repeat these claims. The guest, a member of an anti-Muslim group known as the Clarion Project (one of the groups, mentioned above, that has worked to mainstream extremist anti-Muslim ideas), suggested that seemingly peaceful Muslim American families were in fact hiding vast training facilities that, if left undisturbed, would be used to launch terror attacks across the US.

A viewer would be left to conclude that the normal-looking Muslim American families in their midst were in fact terrifying and imminent threats. It is not hard to see how such viewers, on hearing Trump's plan to forcibly register Muslims, might conclude this was a good idea. And it is not hard to see how some might conclude that the threat was urgent enough to justify taking action themselves.

This spring, the FBI arrested a Tennessee man named Robert Doggart who was plotting to lead a far-right militia on a killing spree against a heavily Muslim community in New York state. He appears to have been motivated in part by the "training camps" conspiracy theory.

Doggart believed the community was a "Muslim Jihadist Training Camp," according to a post he made on his website. He wrote, "Given the recent beheading of an American Journalist by the treacherous ISIS group, the Islamic networking that is underway in America, and the threats directed at us, there is no choice but to engage this topic, face-to-face, on location."

So when the Trump supporter warned of the "training camps" and said he wanted to "get rid of 'em," the thing he wanted to "get rid of" was not camps but rather peaceful Muslim American communities. He was calling for exactly what Doggart almost accomplished: violence to "get rid" of certain American families and neighborhoods.

It is hard to ignore that Trump's audience cheered this on, and that Trump nodded along. When the incident became a minor scandal — mostly over Trump's apparent support for the idea that Obama is Muslim — the Trump campaign responded by insisting that the question and Trump's "we're gonna look into it" were in fact about the "training camps." In other words, the campaign deflected criticism that it had indulged anti-Obama conspiracy theories by instead saying it had indulged Islamophobic conspiracy theories that have, in the recent past, been the basis of attempted terrorist violence against American families.

America is working very hard to ignore this problem — even as it spirals out of control

ahmed cropped horizontal
Ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed being arrested in school.
Prajwol/Ru

When the Trump supporter demanded "when can we get rid of 'em," there was an odd reaction in the media: to note that the man had only been referring to fictitious "training camps" and not to all Muslims, and that therefore his statement was not an incitement to sectarian violence. But as the Doggart almost-massacre shows, these conspiracy theories are exactly calls to mass sectarian violence against innocent Muslim American families.

The fact that these conspiracy theories have nonetheless received two extended hearings on Fox News, and were the subject of a Trump rally, shows just how out of control America's Islamophobia problem has grown. It shows that this problem is much more than just nasty rhetoric or zany fringe candidates or politically incorrect media debates.

It is a climate of active and widespread hate that has included incitements to violence and actual violence against an American demographic group that is too small to compel political action on its own behalf, yet large enough to be nationally visible at a moment when being visible is dangerous.

This climate will continue to get worse until American society can recognize this problem in itself and begin to honestly address it — even if it is uncomfortable, even if many of us struggle to look past headscarves and prayer rugs to see human beings.

The murders of the three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, this February, took us a step closer to seeing the problem of American Islamophobia and dealing with it, but it did not get us there.

This September, when a Texas school had a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed arrested for bringing in a homemade clock, it again looked like a moment when Islamophobia had brought America to such absurd lengths that surely we would have to acknowledge things had gone too far. But instead, a movement on both the right and left emerged to discredit Mohamed, even attempting to link him to ISIS. In the months since, America's Islamophobia problem has only gotten worse.

It is frightening to consider what it would take, if a triple murder and the persecution of an innocent child did not do it, to force Americans to recognize its Islamophobia problem. Maybe the fever will break after the 2016 election cycle finally ends, 12 very long months from now. Maybe some sanity will finally emerge in our political discourse, or cable media will confront its own role and start pushing back on a problem it helped create. But if none of those do the trick, then it is probably just a matter of time until the rhetoric becomes something more than rhetoric.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Center for Security Policy believes that "all" Muslim American groups are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a "stealth jihad" to subvert the Constitution. In fact, a representative of the center clarifies that they believe "nearly every" Muslim American organization is implicated in this, but not literally all. We regret the error.

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