Demonizing the Other

Demonizing the Other


THE DEMONIZATION of minority populations in the United States is an unfortunate, but all too frequent chapter in the continuing narrative of American civil rights history. Although the American Muslim community is experiencing greater public and legal scrutiny because of recent events, its status as a targeted group must be seen within the broader context of the struggle for fair and equal treatment carried out by minority communities previously under the spotlight, including the African American, Jewish American, and Japanese American communities, among others.

The concept of nativism, which refers to the “sociopolitical policy, especially in the United States in the 19th century, favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants,”1 began as Irish Catholics emigrating to Manhattan were persecuted for their faith and immigrant status by the Protestant and predominantly Germanic “natives.” Many Americans were educated about nativism during its most recent pop culture encapsulation in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, “Gangs of New York.”

Nativism in the 19th century evolved into a discourse of racial marginalization in the 20th century and beyond with the advent of the American version of propaganda and its ability to marginalize minority populations in the United States.

The term “propaganda” was originally coined by the Jesuits in the 17th century as the “name of the Vatican committee charged with propagating the faith.”2 It did not, however, become part of everyday international vernacular until the onset of the First World War, when Western powers began to use new techniques of “mass advertising” and “public relations” to rouse popular support for their cause. Not to be outdone by our European neighbors and allies, our U.S. government entered into the propaganda fray shortly after our neighbors on the other side of the pond.

At the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson believed that he had only two options on how to handle the publicity of the war. He could either lean toward a policy of censorship or flood the media with only pro- war jingoistic propaganda. Since mass censorship clearly runs afoul of the ist Amendment protections of free speech and association, Wilson felt it to be politically (and legally) prudent to resort to the latter choice.

Wilson created the Committee on Public Information in 1917, better known as the “Creel Committee” (named after its chairman and pro-war journalist George Creel), which subjected Americans to a massive campaign of pro- war propaganda and public relations blitzes. It was known to quite a few historians as one of America’s first governmental propaganda machines. The committee’s pro-war advertising campaigns often depicted the German – “the Hun” – as a “bloodthirsty savage.”3 But what is by far the most enduring image of the committee’s work is the “I Want You” recruiting poster with a stern, finger-pointing Uncle Sam calling on Americans to join the U.S. Armed Forces.4

After the conclusion of WWI in 19 19, there were approximately 8 million Germans living in the United States, roughly 1 0 percent of the entire population.5 In addition to the jingoistic propaganda freely flowing on the pages of American newspapers, several legislative and judicial policies were implemented after World War I that in effect discriminated against those who protested against the war. More specifically, it discriminated against protests that were racially motivated in its attacks and vilification of innocent German Americans.

German Americans were especially affected by the work of the Creel Committee, which encouraged dropping German language instruction in many high schools around the country. The committee also tried to remove German words from popular usage, renaming sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” and German measles “Liberty measles.” As a more recent parallel, in response to France’s early opposition to the war on Iraq in 2003, there was an actual (albeit absurd) political movement in America, initially led by Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), to change french fries to “freedom fries.”
For the safety of their community in the United States, many German Americans began “Americanizing” the spellings of their last names, for example, changing “Schmidt” into “Smith.” A Cincinnati, Ohio, city law banned German pretzels from lunch counters. A Pittsburgh, Penn., city ordinance prohibited the playing of music by German composer Ludwig von Beethoven in public. In many situations, German language textbooks were removed from public libraries and burned.


During World War II, much of the West coast of the United States, particularly California, had a long history of antiAsian sentiment, which culminated into the denial of citizenship (naturalization) to Asian Americans. This was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ozawa v. U.S. 6 and the Immigration Act of 1 924,7 which barred Asians from attaining American citizenship.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many Americans reacted with fear and anger when the Japanese military attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1 941. In the aftermath ofthat attack, misleading and false reports of spying and sabotage by Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West coast combined with existing racial prejudices inflamed feelings of hatred against all people of Japanese ancestry. Japan’s military victories in Asia and subsequent erroneous reports of Japanese saboteurs in the news only intensified this racial crisis in the United States.

Similar to the rounding up of American Muslim, Arab and South Asian males after the 9/ 11 attacks, within 48 hours of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, 1,291 Japanese American men were arrested, most of whom would be incarcerated for the entire 4-year duration of the Second World War.

Then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said that “the decision to evacuate (Japanese Americans] . . . [was] based primarily on public and political pressures rather than factual data.”9

In making far-reaching decisions on how to deal with Japanese Americans, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt relied on the analysis of Gen. John Dewitt, Commander of the Western Defense Command, whose infamous quotes include: “Once a Jap, always a Jap”10 and “the Japanese race is an enemy race.”11

Because of Dewitt’s racially motivated recommendations, by June 1942, more than 1 10,000 Japanese (more than 70 percent of them American citizens)12 had been forced from their homes to 10 internment camps scattered in the more inhospitable desert regions of the West, where these hundreds of thousands of innocent souls would be forced to Uve for the complete 4-year duration of the war.

Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel is one of the best-selling American authors. Although now a household name, most people are unaware of Dr. Seuss’ early years as an aspiring editorial cartoonist when he demonized Japanese Americans for major American publications.

Dr. Richard Minear, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of “Dr. Seuss Goes to War,” says that “Dr. Seuss [drew] ‘Japan’ piggish nose, coke-bottle eyeglasses, slanted eyes, brush mustache, lips parted (usually in a smile).

“Perhaps it is no surprise that American cartoonists during the Pacific War painted Japan in overtly racist ways. However, it is a surprise that a person who denounces anti-black racism and anti-Semitism so eloquently can be oblivious of his own racist treatment of Japanese and Japanese Americans. And to find such cartoons – largely unreproached – in the pages of the leading left newspaper of New York City and to realize that the cartoonist is the same Dr. Seuss we celebrate today for his imagination and tolerance and breadth of vision: this is a sobering experience.'”3


As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a small jail cell in Alabama in April 1963, he wrote to his supporters that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Although America is over 40 years removed from the life of King, his courageous legacy is still a testament for Americans dedicated to continuing the battle for the equal protection of civil rights of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, sex, or socioeconomic status.
Thousands of volumes have been written on the African American Civil Rights Movement, and a cursory examination on the demonization of African Americans in our society would do it absolutely no justice. It is nonetheless essential to quickly analyze some of the major demonizing trends that served to empower and strengthen the African American civil rights community in the United States during the last century. There is no other minority in American history that will ever have to endure the centuries of atrocious societal treatment and demonizing depictions as the African American community has.

One of the first silent films, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), has long been highly criticized for its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan and its representation of Southern blacks – played by white actors in “blackface” – as uncivilized rapists.14 Originally titled “The Clansman,” many of the movie’s posters depicted a hooded Klansman atop his mighty horse ready to wreak havoc on his blackface victims.

The blackface minstrel act was a very popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America and continues to have a direct effect on the stereotypical depictions of African Americans in American society. Needless to say, it was also a highly racist depiction of African Americans, and unfortunately remained for decades in scores of films, television shows, and print ads depicting African Americans in a subhuman light.

From Aunt Jemima pouring maple syrup on our pancakes to the famous radio antics of “Amos n’ Andy,” which featured white actors impersonating blacks, aspects of American pop culture were derived straight from the racist minstrel acts, even though they eventually replaced Aunt Jemima’s “doo rag” with a more modern perm in later years.


Just as the number of interfaith events and religious dialogues has increased since the tragic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so too has there been an astonishing increase in the volume of antiMuslim rhetoric in certain media and political circles. Again, this is merely the next chapter of America’s civil rights history. Just as the Germans were painted as “bloodthirsty Huns” and Japanese Americans as “the enemy race” after World War I and II, there is a vocal minority in the media and political elite today that has used the aftermath of 9/ 1 1 to smear, caricaturize, and misrepresent Islam and Muslims in order to advance the “clash of civilizations” theory first coined by the orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis and later popularized by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington.
Notwithstanding the fact that the list of lslamophobic rhetoric (see box 1 above) could seemingly go on forever, it is important to highlight how this discourse is shaping public perception about Islam and Muslims at the grassroots level in the United States. Although these polemicists may see their rhetoric as being nothing more than mere political expression, the unfortunate reality is that Islamophobia is increasingly manfested as anti-Muslim hate crimes and discrimination. A sampling of the more troubling hate crimes since 9/11 include:

* On Sept. 17, 2001, a 29-year-old man smashed his car through the entrance of the largest mosque in Ohio. Police said Eric Richley of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, hurtled his white Ford Mustang at 80 mph through the front of the center shortly after midnight, landing on top of a fountain inside the unoccupied mosque.15 Richley was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for the mosque attack.

* On March 17, 2004 Abbas Salmi and his family filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Eric K. Nix for bombing the family’s van in Burbank, Ill. According to the lawsuit, Nix threw a large, mortar-type firework into the Salmi family’s van while it was parked in front of their home. The bomb exploded, causing irreparable damage to the vehicle and terrifying family members who were at home, including Salmi, his wife, two small children, and his parents.

In September 2003, Nix pleaded guilty to arson and hate crime. The 26-year-old was also convicted of criminal damage to property in 2001 for vandalizing an Arab-owned furniture store two days after the 9/ 1 1 attacks.

* On Aug. 5, 2005, Max L. Oakley, 50, of Toledo, IU., was arrested for making bomb threats on the national headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington D.C. According to the Religion News Service, Oakley was “accused of sending multiple email threats to CAIR’s headquarters in Washington during the early morning hours of July 29. Officers of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit searched CAIR’s headquarters with bomb-sniffing dogs but discovered no explosives.'”6

* On Nov. 9, 2005, 53-year-old Robert Blackburn allegedly fired more than 50 shots at two cars parked at a Philadelphia-area mosque. I? When the police caught up with him, he was dressed in his hunting gear with a .22-caliber rifle in his car along with several rounds of ammunition.

“We’re very glad that the ethnic intimidation charge was held. That’s the main charge that we were most concerned about,” said Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Flannery. “These people were being targeted because of their religion and that’s something we just cannot stand for.'”8

* In December 2005, CAIR-Cincinnati and other American Muslims in Ohio called on law enforcement agencies to investigate as a hate crime the double pipebombing of a Cincinnati area mosque.

“This community must come together. This kind of criminal activity cannot be tolerated in this community. That must be made clear,” Cincinatti Mayor Mark Mallory said during the news conference. ‘9


From the Crusades to the Holocaust, the demonization of the “Other” continues to play a central role in many global conIt is an unfortunate reality that society tends to isolate or religious groups that are perceived as foreign or different, instead of finding common ground with those of other beliefs, backgrounds, and cultures. In many cases these groups become the scapegoat for larger problems in society and more often than not, this process of vilification and demoleads to violence.

Almost 1,400 years ago, near the summit over Mount Arafat in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon – reminded in his final sermon to humanity that, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Lest we forget this message of human equality and pluralism rooted in the teachings of Islam, I fear that our global community will continue down a path characterized by extremism on all sides. It is time to regain our moral compass and recalibrate our orientation away from extremism and polemics. If we fail to succeed in this endeavor and repeat the historic and monumental mistakes of our past, then only God can help us.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on