Islamophobia is thriving in the United States and elsewhere in the West. In the U.S. its essence was distilled – and its get-out-of-jail-free-card issued – in 2016 when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announced that he was “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
By then, nine states had banned Islam’s Shariah law from their courtrooms, and in 2017 Montana – and 12 other states – nearly approved anti-Shariah statutes.
Trump’s demand and Montana’s near miss were more affirmation than creation, of course. Islamophobia was already a trope with long legs.
First it was ridicule: Muslims were “ragheads” and “sand n---s.” Older folks will remember Ray Stevens’s 1962 hit “Ahab the Arab,” in which Ahab is an Arab – pronounced “Ay-rab” so as to rhyme with “Ahab” and be ridiculous – who has a tryst with an equally ridiculous Fatima. (Sidebar: The original Fatima was the daughter of Mohamed and the wife of Shia Islam’s founder, Ali; her veneration in Islam is similar to Mary’s in Christianity.)
By the time Trump’s “total and complete shutdown” had replaced Stevens’s “Ahab the Ay-rab,” however, the mood had darkened. Between Stevens and Trump came Al Qaeda, 9/11 and ISIS. To augment ridicule (which target silliness) came fear and loathing (which targets a menace). No time to ask if our better angels were frowning on the derisive mockery of another belief and culture. Time enough, only, to conclude that Islam was – is – scary and repugnant. It is the “anti.” It is the “them.” Islamophobia, I repeat, is ascendant. Look around you. Listen up.
In Montana, elsewhere in the U.S., in Europe, and beyond, it has become a commonplace.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth. Put differently, 23 in 100 living humans are Muslims. Some of them know – but may not care – about 9/11: The violence that has marred their lives often dwarfs the horrors of that September day. Those who live in the Middle East or in North Africa may themselves have been the most horrific victims of Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorism. As for the rest, they’re too busy with their busy lives. Does the West fear and loathe them? They may not know; they may not have time to care.
The alert among them must be baffled, though. Viewed from their perspective, the West has things inside-out and upside-down. Viewed from their side of the prism, reality looks different. What these folks are wondering is: Who should fear whom?
From the end of World War I until the middle of the 20th century huge swaths of the Middle East and North Africa were colonies or “protectorates” of Western nations. No Western nation has been colonized or “protected” by an Islamic power since the 15th century when Muslims were driven from Iberia.
In the late 1940s the West sponsored the creation of Israel and since then it has supported the state’s occupation of Palestine. No Islamic power has ever established and maintained a Muslim state in the West.
In 1953 the West overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran and replaced it with a pro-Western monarch who governed for a quarter of a century as the West’s viceroy. No Muslim power has ever overthrown a Western government and established a regime of its own choosing.
Since 2001 and 2003, respectively, the United States and a Western “coalition of the willing” have occupied Afghanistan and Iraq … 18 and 16 years and counting. No Islamic power has occupied Western land since the 16th century, when Ottoman schemes of conquest began to crumble at the gates of Vienna.
Since 2002 The United States has incarcerated as few as 40 and as many as 250 Muslims in Guantanamo Bay. All have been imprisoned without due process, some with prospects so slim that authorities have begun to ponder the geriatric implications of the facility’s continuation. Muslim powers – most notoriously Iran – have incarcerated Westerners, of course, but the scope and notoriety of these imprisonments is eclipsed by Guantanamo.
And so on.
These examples are not “alternate facts.” They are truths, albeit complicated ones. Truths that puzzle thoughtful Muslims who wonder how the West syncs its fear and loathing with would appear to be fearful and loathsome aggression. Is it not we, thoughtful Muslims ask, who should fear? Is it not we who should loathe? Truths, too, that should give pause to many in the West who seem to wear Islamophobia like a badge of honor.
It’s not a matter of either-or. And less a matter of neither-nor. To repeat, each example has its complications. There is a dangerous tendency, though, to smear the story with “us” and “them” connotations. To invoke the American Declaration of Independence, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires” us to consider views from the other side of the prism. Not least here, where Islamophobia is alive and well. Fewer than 375 Muslims live in all of Montana. There is already enough Islamophobia to go around.
Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge.