Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment? Uncovering the roots of anti-Muslim discourse

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Recently, I watched an interview on French TV involving the controversial Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan. The French journalist intentionally refused to use the word Islamophobia. She wrongly equated Islamophobia to one's right to criticize Islam, or its values, insinuating that Muslims have thin skins and can never accept freedom of speech (remember the controversies around the Danish cartoons or the Innocence of Muslims movie).

Personally, I never liked the word "Islamophobia" per se. It reminded me of a strange condition or a syndrome like claustrophobia or arachnophobia. The term is heavy, difficult to pronounce, and is totally ignored by the mainstream media for good or bad reasons.

While used by the European Union and in some UN publications and conferences, the term is contested and not really understood by the mainstream population.

But beyond the linguistic disagreement and philosophical debates over the term, a relevant question remains: do we have a problem with Muslims and Islam, and if yes, what are the roots of the problem?

In the October 3 issue of Maclean's, an Angus Reid poll indicates that 54 per cent of Canadians hold an unfavourable view of Islam, compared to 46 per cent in 2009. The article doesn't use the term Islamophobia but it clearly indicates that there is an anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada. Without pointing to any explicit reasons behind this sharp rise in statistics, the article alludes to the debate around the veil and the burqa, as well as to the raging debate with respect to the charter of values project in Quebec.

In his book The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, the American author Nathan Lean supports the thesis that in the U.S. there exists a real Islamophobia industry with shareholders, products and consumers. This murky industry is well funded by anonymous donors who are sometimes exposed through lengthy and complex journalistic investigations.

Lean identifies two main stakeholders of this industry: some groups from the Christian right and few other groups from the pro-Israel right. It is interesting to note that there is often a "holy" alliance between these various groups.

Lean's book is not based on a conspiracy theory that attempts to make Muslims look like the innocent victims of a dark machination concocted by marginalized cults or a bunch of Islam haters. Instead, his book is a compilation of statistics supported by facts which demonstrate that an elaborate anti-Muslim discourse does indeed exist, and it has its active proponents and funders.

Take the example of Brigitte Gabriel and her organization, the American Congress for Truth (ACT). In 2009, this organization -- at the beginning of the anti-Sharia wave in the U.S. -- had an annual budget of $1.6 million. Gabriel's annual salary was $180,000. In a 2007 speech she delivered at the Christian United for Israel annual conference, she bluntly declared that, "the difference, my friends, between Israel and the Arab world is the difference between civilization and barbarism." Later, she explained that her words were cited out of context.

Lean writes about the Clarion Fund, a pro-Israel organization that funded movies like Obsession (very similar to the movie Fitna by Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician turned filmmaker, another big player inside this industry) or Iranium (about nuclear activity in Iran). A reporter from Salon tracked the funding of these propaganda films to Barre Seid, a wealthy Chicago businessman who is part of another obscure fund named the Donors Capital Funds. From 2007 to 2009, this fund poured "nearly $21 million into anti-Muslim causes," reports Lean.

To give the anti-Muslim industry a less foreign connotation and make it seem an ordinary and legitimate business, there is always the story of a Muslim who "escapes" a horrific childhood or a tragic civil war and then becomes a fierce criticizer of the Islamic faith and its adherents. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the perfect example of this character. Hirsi Ali grew up as a Muslim but later renounced her faith and became a convinced atheist. She has been "recycled," immediately after her expulsion from the Netherlands, by a right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Hirsi Ali became an eloquent spokesperson for their ideas and agenda.

Another sort of character in this industry is the "good Muslim" (to use the same language of Mahmood Mamdani's "good Muslims and bad Muslims"), typically a smart and well-educated professional who would play the role of the "native informant" by approving all the information relied upon by the anti-Muslim camp. For instance, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser in the U.S. plays this role extremely well. "We've surrendered the Constitution to the jihadists," he testified at the infamous hearing, compared by many as a new Inquisition, on radical Islam initiated by the U.S. Congressman Peter King in 2010.

Some of the many deeper reasons underneath this anti-Muslim propaganda are to maintain a constant climate of fear where it becomes simpler for governments to introduce tighter security measures and legislations. Muslim issues became more and more easily used wedge politics to gain in the polls and distract people's attention from real economic and social problems. Maintaining an anti-Muslim discourse, where the Muslim is identified as the enemy, is also profitable for the arms industry and for many war supporters (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen). Moreover, for some Israeli settlers' groups, drawing parallels between Islamic terrorism as an ideology and the Palestinians' struggle to regain their rights, is certainly a way to justify their illegal occupation of the lands within public opinion.

In Canada, similar voices, organizations, characters and messages are conveyed to the general population. The debate around the veil or the burqa is not the real culprit behind the sharp rise in anti-Muslim "sentiments"; it is rather the symptom of a tense climate that is poisoned on a daily basis by an industry that is not easily identifiable. This industry has nefarious objectives with unspoken motives and interests to protect that sometimes travel far beyond our borders.

Nathan Lean will be speaking in Toronto on October 26 as part of a panel discussion titled "Fostering Fear: Examining the Roots of Anti-Muslim Discourse," with Doug Saunders, author of The Myth of the Muslim Tide. For information and tickets, go to:

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and in 2011, a novel in French, Miroirs et mirages.

Photo: Asterio Tecson/flickr

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