The late Palestinian academic giant Edward Said, whose groundbreaking book Orientalism still illuminates how Arabs and Muslims are viewed in the Western world, once wrote, “I have not been able to discover any period in European or American history since the Middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice, and political interests.” Although much of the meteoric rise of Islamophobia (and anti-Semitism) within American politics today squarely rests within the ideological political platform of the Republican Party, any intellectually honest conversation about Islamophobia must also concede that there also seems to be great disdain for Muslims within some prominent liberal political circles as well.
Even before Donald Trump’s election, Islamophobia was firmly entrenched within the ideological political platforms of many Republican presidential hopefuls. Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in a 2015 Washington Post column about growing Islamophobia within the Republican Party. (Disclosure: Gerson and I both serve on the national advisory board for the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes this journal.) In addition to highlighting the Islamophobia of Donald Trump, Gerson reminded readers that 2012 GOP candidate Newt Gingrich once called sharia law a “mortal threat to the survival of the United States” and 2016 Republican candidate Mike Huckabee publically described Islam as a “religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet.” In the past, other Republican candidates have proposed requiring a loyalty oath for Muslims (pizza magnate Herman Cain) and even said that Muslims should not be allowed to run for president (Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson).
While the vast majority of conservative Islamophobia in the United States generally centers itself around an overall hatred of Islam, the specter of liberal Islamophobia seems to revolve around a disdain for the religious freedoms of Muslim citizens when they supposedly contradict with culturally relative Western liberal orthodoxies.
For instance, consider the 2010 controversy over the Park51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, which became pejoratively known in the media as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which was interesting since it was neither at Ground Zero nor simply a mosque. The Manhattan building in question was already serving as a prayer space for Muslims. The Park51 project was actually going to tear down the original building and construct a larger $100 million community center for New Yorkers of all religions, where there would be bookstores, restaurants, art galleries, and yes, even a Muslim prayer room. Needless to say, we saw the indignation from the usual anti-Muslim voices on the far right. However, even liberal Democrats like former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean also both publicly (and bizarrely) came out against protecting the First Amendment rights of more than 7 million American Muslims.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” Reid’s office said in a statement at the height of the controversy. “Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.” In a radio interview posted on YouTube, Dean stated that the Ground Zero mosque is “a real affront to people who lost their lives” and “I think another site would be a better idea.”
Even Democratic Party stalwarts like Hillary and Bill Clinton have not been immune from their own political forays in Islamophobia. For instance, during his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton told millions of Americans: “If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make the future together. We want you.”
During the third presidential debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton said that the United States needs “to work with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent [terrorist] attacks.” Again, this was not a new talking point. In the first and second debates, she said, “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines” against terrorism. Yet framing American Muslims within the context of terrorism perpetuates this anti-Muslim trope, and it has had an insidious political effect of marginalizing 7 million American Muslims.
“It’s weird how politicians keep telling me I’m on the front line of fighting terrorism when I’m just trying to get through a sugar detox,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan told Quartz during the 2016 race. “I’m not being flippant about the role American Muslims should play about reporting anything dangerous they hear whether in a mosque or anywhere else. We all bear that responsibility. But I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. And, I don’t hear candidates telling white Americans to be on the front lines to fight school shootings.”
According to Deepa Kumar, a media studies professor at Rutgers University and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, the critical distinction between conservative Islamophobia and liberal Islamophobia is “[t]he way liberal Islamophobia works is that it roundly criticizes Islam-bashing, thereby preempting charges of racism, but then it goes on to champion programs that target and vilify Muslims.” For instance, a liberal might condemn hate crimes against Muslims, but also support illiberal policies like the New York City Police Department’s long-time spying program on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities after 9/11.
Of course, there is no doubt that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are the greatest purveyors of political Islamophobia in America today. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump infamously told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in March 2016. In addition to his Muslim travel bans, Trump has also insisted on telling a complete lie that he once saw thousands of American Muslims in New Jersey cheering the 9/11 attacks on TV (PolitiFact called this fabrication a “pants on fire” lie).
Fast forwarding to the recent tenures of the first two Muslim congresswomen in American history, Democratic U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, we can also clearly see that even powerful Muslim legislators are not immune from attacks based on anti-Muslim animus. “I know this would be somewhat shocking for some, but I think Islamophobia is very much among the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party,” Tlaib said during a March 2019 interview. A few months later, in June 2019, Tlaib tearfully read aloud death threats that she had received during a congressional hearing to illustrate the vitriol many American Muslims receive on a daily basis. One person referred to Tlaib and Omar as “ragheads,” said that they were pleased to hear about the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 people. “This is a great start. Let’s hope and pray that it continues here in the good old USA. The only good Muslim is a dead one.”
Omar has been the target of Islamophobia from many angles. After Donald Trump tweeted a video showing images of the 9/11 attacks intercut with Omar’s comments and the words “WE WILL NEVER FORGET” accompanying the image, her Democratic congressional colleagues were mostly been tepid in their support, according to HuffPost. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response didn’t even mention Omar. “The memory of 9/11 is sacred ground, and any discussion of it must be done with reverence,” she tweeted. “The President shouldn’t use the painful images of 9/11 for a political attack.”
That same article also noted that in March 2019, politicians from both sides of the aisle accused Omar of anti-Semitism in response to comments she made about the pro-Israel lobby―which many advocates have argued were misinterpreted in bad faith. Top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and many other Democrats have all sharply criticized Omar for her statements.
But, if we are going to condemn Islamophobia and anti-Semitism when it comes from right-wing political actors, so too, must we condemn that same anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic political animus when it comes from our liberal friends as well.
Arsalan Iftikhar is founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, senior research fellow for the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University and author of the book Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies & Threatens Our Freedoms. He was awarded the 2013 Distinguished Young Alumni Award from Washington University School of Law and currently serves on the national advisory board for the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.