First published by the Washington Post
By Frankie Martin
The dismissal of Juan Williams’ from NPR once again exposes the difficulty America is having discussing Islam in a cool or rational manner. Williams’ exchange with Bill O’Reilly featured much of the usual ignorance, with both agreeing that, although undefined “good Muslims” do exist, all Muslims must be considered potential soldiers in an Islamic war against America. This ludicrous belief is not only a distortion of reality, but also poses a serious threat to the well-being and security of the United States. In adopting this position, Williams and O’Reilly were reflecting the climate of hatred against Muslims that is fueled by prejudice and lack of knowledge.
The controversy comes in the context of the conflict around the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Pastor Terry Jones’ desire to burn the Quran, a growing belief that sharia law is being imposed on America by Muslims, and increasing attacks on mosques in the United States. The interminable wars in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the upcoming midterm elections, in which campaigns have employed heavy doses of anti-Muslim bile, also contribute to the darkening storm.
Today’s high anti-Muslim antipathy is the latest wave of xenophobia in a nation that has seen many, especially when a threat was perceived to the country. While current anti-Islamic voices, like the hatemongers of previous eras, frequently attempt to co-opt the Founding Fathers’ ideals to support their agenda, there can be no reconciling the vision of a pluralistic nation with the spewing of hate against a particular ethnic or religious group, in this case Muslims. While the debate stirred by these hateful voices is on one level about Islam and how to depict and understand it, it is also about the very definition of American identity.
Much of this bigotry and misinformation can be traced directly to what I am calling the infrastructure of hate, an industry which connects venomous anti-Islamic blogs, wealthy donors, powerful think tanks, and influential media commentators, journalists, and politicians. The most visible component of the infrastructure is the hate blogs, which have recently grown exponentially in number, influence, and stature.
From my position as a research fellow working with American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies, Professor Akbar Ahmed, I have watched with horror as the hate blogs have begun to diffuse from their online cesspool to infect mainstream media, political rhetoric, and the larger discussion about Islam in America. There are hundreds, if not thousands of such blogs on the Internet.
To the hate bloggers, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims represent an insidious, inherently violent force seeking to enslave the United States by overthrowing the government and jettisoning the Constitution in favor of sharia law. Frequently the bloggers include caveats such as claiming that they are only talking about “Islamists,” “Islamofascists,” or those supporting “sharia,” but by tying terrorism explicitly to the Prophet Muhammad and to the Quran, they equate it with Islam. Under this simplistic, warped logic, every Muslim is a potential, if not-fully formed, terrorist and every one of America’s seven million Muslims a potentially treasonous enemy. Such crass, demonizing generalizations constitute hate speech.
I will focus on one such blog post to illustrate how the infrastructure of hate works, and how easily lies and slander can spread rapidly to achieve influence.
Last month, Laura Rubenfeld, an analyst at the Investigative Project on Terrorism headed by Steven Emerson, published an article in Pajamas Media tiitled “No, Professor Ahmed, the Founders Were Not So Fond of Islam.” In it, Rubenfeld attacks Professor Akbar Ahmed, who has been speaking in the media about his new book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, for which he traveled to over 100 mosques in 75 U.S. cities. I participated in this study with Ahmed, traversing the country during fieldwork and spending weeks in the library researching the history of Islam in America. Since Ahmed’s media statements reflect the contents of the book, Rubenfeld not only impugns the scholarship of Ahmed, whom the BBC calls the “world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” but also myself and the other four researchers who spent several years working on this project, three of whom are continuing on to PhD programs. Continue reading