Combating Fear and Hatred
MAAS student Nathan Lean talks about his new book on the Islamophobia industry, and suggests ways forward to tackle American fear of and antipathy towards Muslims.
Interview by Nicholas Hilgeman
A second-year Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) and editor-in-chief of AslanMedia.com, Nathan Lean has dedicated himself to researching the network of writers and activists who have played upon Western anxieties about Islam particularly since the events of September 11, 2001. At Georgetown, his research has focused largely on North African political and cultural systems, Islam, Islamophobia, cultural diplomacy, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. In addition to The Islamophobia Industry, Lean has also co-authored (with Jalil Roshandel) Iran, Israel, and the United States: Regime Security vs. Political Legitimacy (Praeger, 2010). CCAS interviewed Lean about his new book as Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa began protesting a video criticizing Islam on September 11, 2012. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.
Why did you choose to write this book? What drove you to explore the Islamophobia industry?
I started writing in 2010 about the controversy over the Park51 Islamic Community Center in Manhattan that overnight became known as the Ground Zero Mosque (which was not at Ground Zero and was not a mosque). I was fascinated with the way in which some of these far right, anti-Muslim activists were able to monopolize the narrative about the community center and were able to turn the story into something that was frightening. The more I read about the Park51 controversy and began to research and investigate the people that were behind that, I began to discover that they were connected to one another in many different ways. Ultimately, this research led me to identify what I have termed the Islamophobia industry, in which certain individuals and groups are actively involved in producing and promoting materials that foster fear of Muslims in our society.
Scholars such as John Esposito, Yvonne Haddad, and Karen Armstrong have written balanced books explaining the foundations of Islam and relations between Muslims and Christians, and in the process exposed American prejudice against Muslims. How are you adding to the literature?
I think the main goal is to show people that Islamophobia is a social cancer, but it is one that we can overcome if we address its sources. I want to explain to people that if this sickness does not have a name, we cannot find and promote its cure. I still do not feel like we have reached a point in our society where people think of Islamophobia as being as big a problem as racism and anti-Semitism have been. If someone were to go on a television show and say the same things about African Americans or Jews that they say about Muslims, that individual would be condemned by society—shamed and scorned across the political spectrum for racist and anti-Semitic language. By exposing the people who promote this fear of Muslims, I hope to contribute to a body of discourse that is trying to advance the idea that the real “enemies” (if they exist) are people who are promoting hatred of Muslims and trying to spread division in our society.
Common sense seems to dictate that anti-Muslim sentiment would be at its highest immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Citing various studies and statistics, however, you provide evidence to the contrary. Islamophobia is actually stronger now than it was in the early parts of the last decade. What accounts for this trend?
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, 59 percent of the American population expressed favorable views of Muslims. One might expect that it would be the exact opposite, given the trauma Americans were experiencing. At that time, however, the Islamophobia industry was just beginning to emerge. People like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney, and David Yerushalmi all presented themselves as experts on Islam and terrorism. The sad reality is that a lot of Americans bought into that narrative. It was an emotional time, a time when people were especially anxious about their security, and the Islamophobia industry exploited those anxieties. Spencer, Geller, Gaffney, and others have written books, spoken at public events regularly, appeared on Fox News, and provided material on Islam for the NYPD, the FBI, and the CIA. Personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck all amplify the message that Muslims are the enemy. This all happened in the last decade, and that is why we see the American population becoming increasingly Islamophobic.
Other than Muslims, which community is most impacted by the Islamophobia industry?
The Islamophobia industry strongly influences the views of middle-of-the-line, moderate Americans. To be certain, the industry thrives on the right: polls and the statistics clearly show that to be true. But a lot of mainstream folks are unfortunately buying into these Islamophobic narratives. Maybe they are on the right side of the political spectrum but do not harbor much prejudice against Muslims. Yet they want to learn something about Islam, and so they pick up a book written by Robert Spencer, who has no educational background in Islam. These individuals may also be tense politically, worried about the elections or the poor economic situation in the country. They are susceptible to this anti-Muslim sentiment, and that is where the danger lies.
Your book is especially timely, considering the anti-American protests currently spreading in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen due to the publicity of the video “Innocence of Muslims” on the Internet. Should policies be established to combat anti-Muslim sentiment? Is there a way to rein in the media to contain the spread of hatred?
There’s such a fine line between free speech and hate speech. I do not think it is the responsibility of the United States government or any other government to dictate what people should or should not say, as that sets a dangerous precedent. On the other hand, I view free speech rights the same way I view gun rights. You have a right to own a gun in our society under the Second Amendment, but that does not mean you can take your rifle out into the streets of your neighborhood and start indiscriminately shooting your neighbors. You are responsible for what you do with your gun, just as you should be responsible for your words and your language.
How should the US respond to international pressure to punish those who criticize Islam?
What I would call for, instead of moving in the direction of censorship, is countering hatred and fear with overwhelming calls for pluralism and tolerance. It is not only the responsibility of the government to do that, but also the responsibility of society to decide we want to reach a point where we live in peace with our Muslim neighbors. Americans need to speak in their defense when Muslims face prejudice, even when non-Muslims do not agree with the tenants of the Muslim faith. Religious differences do exist, and it is perfectly reasonable to talk about them in a constructive way. But we should also be ready and eager to come to the defense of Muslims any time they encounter hatred.
What we need to overcome Islamophobia is an outpouring of support for those that are being attacked. These voices of hate need to be drowned out of public discourse—not through censorship, but through an overwhelming call for pluralism. When that happens, people will look at those in the Islamophobia industry with the same sense of scorn, derision, and mockery that they give to the Ku Klux Klan or others who in the 1960s blatantly discriminated against African Americans.
What are your predictions for the future? Do you see Islamophobia increasing or decreasing over time?
Unfortunately there are signs that the Islamophobia industry is thriving. When you look at the report “Fear, Inc.” released last year by the Center for American Progress, seven organizations over the past ten years have donated more than $42 million to the Islamophobia industry. These authors and activists have every reason to continue their hate. They are being paid millions of dollars to do so. When Robert Spencer can earn an annual salary of $140,000 from writing anti-Muslim blog posts, travelling around the country speaking, and writing New York Times bestsellers, he is already doing better than most Americans. There is every incentive for him and others like him to continue. Only when Americans refuse to buy these books or attend these speeches, and when the government decides to not have these people training law enforcement, will the incentives begin to disappear.