Nathan Lean – The Islamophobia Industry [Feature Review]

March 29, 2013

 

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0745332536″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/410mFvOeS-L._SL110_.jpg” width=”69″]Page 2: Nathan Lean – The Islamophobia Industry

 

The Monstrous Religious Other. First, the author’s choice of the metaphor of monstrosity is significant for the subject matter. A variety of scholars have noted America’s obsession with the creation of monsters, a process of “sociophobics,” the cultural and social process through which others can be labeled, demonized, and controlled. Here the problem is not sightings of alleged sea monsters in our harbors or Bigfoot roaming forests, but the construction of social monsters that are used as scapegoats as the supposed causes of America’s woes. From the Illuminati to the Communists, various groups have had their time in America’s spotlight as the monster of the moment. Religion has also drawn upon the monster, not only within religious traditions and their scriptures and conceptual world, but also in the construction of monstrous outsiders to be targeted and destroyed. In America’s past this has involved fears of Catholics, witches and witch-hunts (continuing today with Evangelical stereotypes of Paganism), Mormons, and Muslims.

 

Lean does his readers a service in pointing out that often our understanding of Islam is a carefully crafted construction of monstrosity, which naturally results in fear and desires to eradicate the threat. It is only by stepping back and reassessing this construction through additional sources of information considered in careful reflection that we can come to a better understanding. Monsters have their place in entertainment, but in political as well as religious rhetoric they are dangerous conceptions.

 

The Internet and Democratization of Authority. Lean’s chapter on the use of the Internet to shape public opinion against Islam is also worthy of note. In his discussion he considers the example of the Park51 Muslim community center that was to be built near the place where the Twin Towers stood. Early on the Lower Manhattan Community Board approved the project, local business owners were appreciative of the concept, and even family members of those who died in 9/11, as well as conservative media personalities, all expressed their support.

 

But this positive assessment would take a dramatic shift toward opposition. Lean discuses how right-wing Islamophobic personalities like blogger Pamela Geller, used the Internet as a platform that shifted much of public conceptions of the Park51 project to the “Ground Zero Mosque:” a symbol of jihadist victory over the U.S.

 

The ability to reach a worldwide audience through the Internet is well known, but other features are also significant. One important aspect is the democratization of authority. In past forms of communication and media, an individual or organization had to demonstrate a level of authority to speak credibly about a given issue. Whether through appropriate levels of education and/or relevant expertise, something had to be pointed to in order for a voice to be given credibility. With the Internet this has changed. Now we have a democratization of authority where anyone and everyone can speak as a self-proclaimed expert on any topic. Despite a lack of any form of credentials that would substantiate a claim to appropriate authority, the right-wing Islamophobia industry draws upon the democratization of authority through the Internet as a legitimizing force in sustaining their message. In this context, a troubling situation arises wherein the opinion of the fear mongers is given as much weight as a scholar specializing in Islamic studies or religious diplomacy.

 

Evangelicals, an Eager Audience for Islamophobia. One of the longest sections in Lean’s volume comes in Chapter 4, “We Come Bearing Crosses: The Christian Right’s Battle for Eternity.” This chapter considers some of the personalities within American right-wing Christianity who craft anti-Islamic messages for a Christian audience. These individuals parallel a segment of Evangelicalism that specializes in negative portrayals and confrontational ways of engagement with minority religions. This “counter-cult” form of ministry is expressed with a number of different emphases, two of which are relevant to Islamophobia. The first is the “former member testimony” approach, and the second emphasizes particular “end-times prophecy” perspectives.

 

In the first instance, there are former members of given religious groups who have become Christians and who offer exposés of the “real” teachings and practices of their past religious affiliations. This perspective has been used by former Mormons, Pagans, Wiccans, “New Age” adherents, Satanists, and most recently, former Muslims. Each of these former members write for and speak to an Evangelical audience eager to learn the allegedly hidden secrets and agendas of religious groups laid bare by former insiders.

 

Another strand of “counter-cult” apologetic draws upon a particular interpretive prophetic framework. In this scenario great emphasis is placed upon the significance of the modern state of Israel, and in the context of post-9/11 this has tended toward an emphasis among Evangelicals for Israel often at the expense of Palestinians. The point to be remembered here is that dominant views of prophecy and eschatology have shaped Evangelical perspectives on minority religions and world religions, including Islam.

 

When the former member testimony and end-times prophecy strands of the “counter-cult” approach are utilized in application to Islam, the result is a negative one. But in the case of the treatment of Islam, it is not limited to the small counter-cult community, but often finds a much larger voice through an influence on more significant voices within Evangelicalism. These include Evangelical personalities such as Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Al Mohler, and William “Jerry” Boykin, each of whom have shared strongly negative and one-sided portraits of Islam, surely built at least in part by problematic Evangelical treatments of the religion.

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