The “Othering” of Muslim Americans

The “Othering” of Muslim Americans

American flags. Signs saying “No Mosque, No Way, No Mosque” or “SHARIA” appearing to drip blood. More signs. “Stop the Racist War Against Muslim People” and “Islam Has Been in New York for 400 Years.” Serious faces, angry faces, people yelling. There were people wearing T-shirts that used the “I [heart] NY” brand with the Star of David, the Cross and the Crescent in place of the heart to signal that Jews, Christians and Muslims not only love NY, but love NY together as neighbors.

This year, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was marred by protesters in lower Manhattan expressing their competing views on what the media most often called the proposed “mosque at Ground Zero.” Except the “mosque” is not a mosque, it is a proposed Islamic Community Center called Park 51, and it’s not at Ground Zero but two blocks away. As the tolerance-themed Tshirts show – and despite the media focus on the opposition – many people in New York stood up for religious freedom and diversity. Despite the huge crowds, it was a largely “incident-free day,” and “a tremendous police presence” was credited for quelling potential disturbances. Of course, reports on the number of pro and con protesters varied, but a New York Post story noted “the estimated 3,000 pro-mosque demonstrators outnumbered the mosque opponents by about 500.”

Wait a minute. News sources like the New York Post are saying that the “pro-mosque” people outnumbered the “anti-mosque” people by almost 20 percent? People like those wearing the religious tolerance themed Tshirt were more typical of those who showed up at the pro/con mosque rallies than the screaming, angry, anti-Muslim demonstrators? Why wasn’t that a story about 9/11 this year, that by at least some credible estimates, religious tolerance is beating out religious intolerance in demonstrations in lower Manhattan? Instead, we had headlines such as these: “Three Reasons the Ground Zero Mosque Debate Makes No Sense.” Except, that particular blog post was examining why the opposition to the proposed Islamic community center is so ill-informed. In the age of the blogosphere, it still pays to read the text.

Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of effort going into creating a narrative of Muslims as dangerous, threatening aliens in the midst of American society. This “othering,” in the sense that I am using the term here, is deliberately creating the idea of an alien other to reinforce difference and promote social and political dominance over the one deemed other or alien.

The othering of Muslims is a narrative that has been carefully and steadily built since 9/11 by American conservatives and deserves careful attention. Like Dorothy in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, we need to look behind the curtain and see who is controlling the messaging on Muslims as aliens in their own country, the dangerous other.

This is not the first time in our history that Americans have been vulnerable to anti-immigrant, anti-religious sentiment that is at times directly in relationship to a perceived security threat. Yet, the religious and cultural arc of American history has simultaneously been toward greater religious pluralism and diversity. This has not been a smooth and easy historic trajectory. Indeed, the story is of much struggle by religious groups, immigrant groups, racial minorities and women of all races, religions and ethnicities. But progress is being made.

What is it going to take for Muslims in the U.S. and all the religious and humanist Americans who care about promoting tolerance and pluralism to push back against this well-orchestrated effort to cast Muslims as an alien other in America?


Like President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous speech warning of a “military/industrial complex,” we need to all be much more aware of a growing religious/media/ corporate industrial complex that is a welloiled machine churning out fear as a means of social control.

The kind of upsurge in Islamophobia that we have seen in the U.S. in 2010 hasn’t just happened; it is being carefully constructed. Several online news sources have been doing a good job in following the blogs-right wing news outlets-Fox TV news shows connections. Salon.com, for example, did an article on “How the ‘ground zero mosque’ fear mongering began: A viciously anti-Muslim blogger, the New York Post and the rightwing media machine: How it all went down.” The headline gives a tight summary of the “machine” character of this kind of “fearmongering” in action. The article by Justin Elliott expands on the theme that “the controversy was kicked up and driven by Pamela Geller, a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger, whose sinister portrayal of the project was embraced by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.”

So that’s how a cultural center that’s not a mosque, located not at Ground Zero but in an adjacent neighborhood, becomes a threat to America. There is an effective religious/ media/corporate industrial complex that has been built by conservative forces in the U.S. to create these storms in the media and engage in “othering” to gain political capital.

Progressive think tanks such as the Center for American Progress have been painstakingly “following the money” that has funded the conservative message machine for years. More recently, following the money in American politics in general has become more difficult since the Supreme Court decision in January 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, which lifted government restrictions on corporate political spending, but progressives are trying to unravel the connections.

A lot more work needs to happen to follow the money in terms of who is funding the creation of an Islamophobia machine, which kicked in so smoothly in the case of the Park 51 project.


There have been other moments in American history where religious difference has been seen to pose a specific national security threat. In 1951, a mainstream American Protestant publication, The Christian Century, ran an editorial called “Pluralism –National Menace.” The editors charged that a religious minority in the U.S. was a threat and should be seen as an effort “to subvert the American way of life.” The early 1950s was a time when an external threat to national security was making Americans very anxious. The reason, the editorialists argue, that religious pluralism is a national menace is because “the plural society becomes particularly vulnerable to communist propaganda.” The religious minority that they said made Americans more vulnerable to communism? Roman Catholicism.

We might find it shocking, but not surprising, therefore, to find Newt Gingrich making the same kind of argument at the American Enterprise Institute in July 2010. In his speech, America at Risk: Camus, National Security and Afghanistan, Gingrich argues that Americans are at risk as a nation not only from the violence of a “militant Islam,” but also from the cultural integration of Muslims in the West. This is the ultimate othering of Muslims – any Muslim American, Gingrich says, can be a stealth jihadi because she or he is subverting the American way.

Gingrich says the struggle of the West with Islam is like the struggle of the West with communism, and that there are important parallels. It seems to me, however, that the better analogy for Gingrich’s approach is with the hysterical backlash against communism that tore America apart and actually succeeded in identifying very few communists. McCarthyism has come to mean making charges of disloyalty or even subversion without regard for adequate evidence. In his address, Gingrich offered a lot of anger and fear, but very little actual evidence to support his claims about Islam and the West, or even his claims about the ineffectiveness of President Obama’s approach to national security.

Joseph McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin who, as chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, launched investigations designed to document charges of communists in government. His often unsubstantiated charges, and the so-called blacklists that were created, suppressed American traditions of political dissent and retarded cultural creativity for many years. McCarthy was censured by the Senate on Dec. 2, 1954, for behavior that was “contrary to senatorial traditions.”

Ultimately, Americans did reject McCarthy and the fear-mongering of seeing a communist behind every bush. It took concerted action by concerned citizens to do so, however, and a courageous journalist in the new medium of television. Edward R. Murrow, celebrated for his radio broadcasts in World War II, used his half-hour TV program, See It Now, to do a special called “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy.” Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy’s own speeches and proclamations to show the contradictions in the senator’s words. The broadcast is a significant moment in the history of television, and is often cited in helping to create a backlash against McCarthyism.

One of the most famous statements by an American television journalist comes from this broadcast by Murrow. It is a lesson in how to resist othering and why it is a part of the American democratic experiment that we must do so.

We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.


The Park 51 controversy and the rising tide of Islamophobia has contributed to an upsurge of positive interfaith work, pushing back at the othering of Muslims and the fear-mongering. In 2010, Jewish leaders, for example, put together preaching resources for Sept. 11 that were designed to encourage Jews “to use this season of turning to reflect on our own fears and prejudices, on ways we might educate ourselves about Islam, and the role we might play in helping to create a more inclusive and just society.” These Jewish educators recommend starting with the website of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement with its growing number of resources.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders came together not only to denounce the anti-Muslim bigotry in the anti-Park 51 rhetoric, but also to announce a “new era of interfaith cooperation.” I attended the meeting in Washington D.C. where we drafted the statement, Beyond Park 51, and then presented it at a well-attended news conference. Some of the language of the statement is incredibly important as it connects the recent anti-Muslim rhetoric with the historic experience of other religious minorities, and makes a strong claim that the original vision of the “Founders” of this democracy had a very different vision than religious discrimination and demonization. This statement suggests the outline of what we as an interfaith community need to do to counteract the othering of Muslims in the U.S.

As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation’s capital to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community. We bear a sacred responsibility to honor America’s varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all. In advance of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we announce a new era of interfaith cooperation.

The statement goes on to acknowledge the strengths of the American way and the real history of discrimination that characterizes the nation.

The United States of America has been a beacon to the world in defending the rights of religious minorities, yet it is also sadly true that at times in our history, particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.

Another example of where “the Other becomes Neighbor” is the work of The Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit founded by Eboo Patel that is dedicated to building religious pluralism through campus-based leadership training of young people to create momentum for religious tolerance through movement-building. According to its homepage: “Religious pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance for diversity and requires that we build positive relationships and work with one another. It is a state in which we respect one another’s religious identity, develop mutually enriching relationship with each other and work together to make this world a better place.”

Interfaith Youth Core teaches pluralism not by words, however, but by deeds. Young people learn how to engage in service projects with those of other faiths to build relationships, learn about each other’s religions or humanist views, and develop strong bonds to resist the messages of fear and intolerance. It is a nonprofit that works to help young people actually live in pluralism and teaches them how to replicate the model.


Ironically enough, the Cordoba Initiative, in attempting to build an Islamic community center, is doing what religious groups before them have done. Catholic and Jewish Americans, for example, built schools and hospitals and other institutions to get a foothold in the mainstream American cultural scene, and they have certainly succeeded.

Movements for the creation of tolerance or intolerance do not just spring up out of the ground, fully formed. Othering is a mechanism for creating political and social capital that involves money, time and effort; so too are movements that are being created to promote religious tolerance and service to others. We need to realize that where we put our energy, time and money (or where we don’t) ultimately determines the kind of society we live in and pass on to our children.

The question is not an abstract one: Which is the America you want to live in?

Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is a professor of theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

The United States of America has been a beacon to the world in defending the rights of religious minorities, yet it is also sadly true that at times in our history, particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.

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