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Islamophobia: The Atrophy of Western Society

Today Muslims are increasingly pressured to demonstrate that the principles of Islam, a religion of peace, are not what ISIS stands for. Recent terror attacks have been filtered by the media and consumed by the public as the wrongdoings of Muslims across the globe.
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Co-authors: Christopher Eric Lomax, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi

In the recent past, many Muslims have been discriminated against in the name of "fighting terror." Islamophobia in America is a political construct which politicians, like Donald Trump and the leaders of various factions in Europe, hope to use to rise to power. It is a new, sugarcoated way of expressing racism and discrimination against Muslims.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has advocated for "a total and complete shutdown" on Muslims gaining admission to the country. But his right-wing populism is not exclusive to the US. In Europe, France and Hungary have also used boldly threatening rhetoric against Muslims. This narrow-mindedness results from a popular narrative that associates Muslims with terrorism. Indeed the only thing rising faster than the threat of Islamic terrorism in the world is the output of racist discourse by American and Western European leaders.

The language used in political rhetoric has the same ability to divide as it does to unite. Politicians like Donald Trump see anti-Muslim rhetoric as a backdoor to the presidency, and hope to use it to make the general population feel protected from the threat of terror groups like ISIS. As UC Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian writes, these politicians live in an imaginary world, and their ideology simply presents racism in a polite manner.

Islamophobia is emotionally charged and politically motivated. It is spread through entertainment-based media, like television. Homeland, for example, is a gripping and highly-acclaimed TV show focusing on the CIA's relentless pursuit and eradication of terrorist threats in the US. A conventional definition of a 'terrorist' is someone who harnesses violence and intimidation for political purposes. But Homeland's definition of a terrorist seems to solely include Muslims. Thus, amidst the pervasive climate of fear that now spans across the US, this show - and American pop culture more broadly - has become a medium through which negative stereotypes of Muslims can be perpetuated.

Sergeant Brody, the protagonist, is a US marine who was held captive and tortured by Islamic terrorists for 8 years, during which time he adopts their faith. After his anticipated return home, the CIA is led to believe that he has 'turned' and become radicalized. When his family comes to learn of his conversion to Islam, their reactions are characterised by disbelief - potentially making them stand-ins for many Americans today, for whom being white and Muslim are mutually exclusive.

Homeland excuses narrow-mindedness in its viewers. The Muslim terrorists that the CIA operatives are shown tracking down are only ever depicted in two lights: planning attacks against the US and in prayer. Such portrayals could strengthen audiences' prejudices and suggest that terrorism is always linked to Islam. This pattern begs the question: why do the producers of this show, as well as the international media, so often overlook the potential for terrorists to be white men or women - and not necessarily Muslim?

In Western scholarship, every terrorist attack since the beginning of this century will have been in the name of Islamist extremism. These include 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombings, the 2005 London bombings, all the way up to the attacks in France and Belgium over the past two years. Due to this blind focus on the actions of Islamists, far-right radicalism rarely earns the right to be called an act of terrorism - for example, the horrors of July 2011, when right-wing extremist Anders Breivik murdered 77 people on the island of Utøya in Norway. Why can't the entertainment industry or the media portray a terrorist as a fascist white radical Christian?

Unfortunately, the present-day world associates Islam with ISIS. Many reports of the attacks that people reference to justify their Islamophobia are misleading. The man responsible for a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Omar Mateen, was hurriedly labelled as a radical Muslim due to his Middle Eastern origins. There are reports stating that he was potentially a closet homosexual. But authorities have yet to determine if he had any links to ISIS. Incidents like the tragedy in Orlando can cause many Americans to blame lax immigration policies for letting would-be terrorists into the US. What these people fail to consider is that Mateen's parents migrated to the US in the 1980s from Afghanistan. During those years, the US had allied with local Afghan militias to fight the Soviet forces stationed there.

The Bastille Day killings in Nice in July, carried out by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, have also caused an uproar about the threat of Islamic terrorism in France. Trump has used Bouhlel as an example to showcase the need to halt the influence of Islam around the world. Muslims will suffer because of what he has falsely deemed to be an act of Islamic extremism. In fact, Bouhlel was always very disinterested in religion. Neighbours and friends in Nice claimed that he never attended the local mosque, and he was known to consume drugs and alcohol - forbidden to Muslims. French officials have reported that more than a third of victims of the Nice massacre were Muslim. Perhaps it is more fitting to call him a mass murderer than a Muslim terrorist.

It is high time that the Western world realizes that the war on terror is not about fighting Islam and Muslims. It is about fighting the ill-informed and corrupt ideology perpetuated by terrorist groups - that is, that Islam is under attack, and Muslims must rise to defend their religion. But if this is the narrative terrorists are selling, Islamophobia plays right into their ploys. By embracing Islamophobia, American society will take on the work of radicalizing Muslims for these terror groups, and will then blame resultant terrorist attacks on ISIS or any other group that forms alongside it. After Trump announced in November 2015 that he would ban Muslims in the US, he became ISIS' best recruiter.

Today Muslims are increasingly pressured to demonstrate that the principles of Islam, a religion of peace, are not what ISIS stands for. Recent terror attacks have been filtered by the media and consumed by the public as the wrongdoings of Muslims across the globe. We cannot live in a world where people increasingly adhere to the language of Islamophobia. It is indeed a truism that words are more powerful than violence. We should, therefore, be cognisant of how prejudice may inform our choices and shape the language we use in reference to each other. Let us not become the evil that we deplore.

*Christopher Lomax is a BA International Relations student in the War Studies Department at King's College London. He is currently a Research Intern at Next Century Foundation, a London-based think tank.

*Khairuldeen Al Makhzoomi is a researcher at the Near Eastern Department of UC Berkeley. He holds a degree in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Literature from UC Berkeley. Currently working on a research " Obstacles to National Reconciliation in Iraq ", the founder of "United 4 Iraq" Facebook page. Khairuldeen also writes for Berkeley Political Review.