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Islamophobia in the United States:
A Case of the Three 'I's

Nathan Lean


Few subjects today animate discussions on religion and public life as wildly as Islamophobia.1 Debates rage about its definition, manifestations, consequences, and even the utility of the term itself. Notwithstanding the most extreme fringes of society, however, there seems to be consensus that Muslims do suffer from a sustained climate of prejudice. In the United States, polling data (from Gallup, Pew, and others) consistently show negative public opinions about Muslims and Islam—a reality that has resulted in episodic assaults, arsons, vandalisms, and other hostile acts that target the faith community. Why is that?

Of the causes that contribute to Islamophobia, violence on the part of Muslim extremists is chiefly among them. But the fraction of radicals whose beliefs compel them to harm others are not solely responsible for ensuing bouts of paranoia and prejudice. Various societal actors believe that these interpretations accurately reflect the teachings of Islam. Consequently, they magnify them in service of advancing views or policies that bring the world's 1.6 billion Muslims under the microscope.

Below I will outline three of Islamophobia's modi operandi within an American context. I call them the "Three 'I's": Imperialism, Institutionalization, and Industry. While other factors exist, this trio is important because it configures Islamophobia as a political and ideological construction. Instead of a naturally occurring response to global events, it is an idea that is planted in society's various strata—from the highest halls of power to the bowels of the Internet—where it is rooted, nurtured, and spread.


Throughout the course of history, a variety of events have contributed to the rise of Islamophobia, not the least of which is America's journey from a small cadre of thirteen colonies to a political and economic powerhouse with interests in every corner of the world.

Prior to 1979, foreign policies directed at the Middle East yielded to those aimed at limiting the spread of Communism. The Iranian hostage crisis and Islamic Revolution changed that. As the Cold War neared its end, a new boogeyman was already on scene. The Ayatollah Khomeini, a commanding figure who called the United States "the Great Satan," came to represent the newest threat. Before long, "Islamism replaced secular nationalism as a security threat to U.S. interests, and fear of a clash between Islam and the West crystallized in the minds of Americans."2

Blurred lines between national interests and national security made conflict inevitable. Decreased access to oil and strategic territory, though in the former category, were presented as risks to the latter. In his 1980 State of the Union Address, Jimmy Carter illustrated this conflation, saying, "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."3

Throughout the 1980s, the United States military intervened twice in Lebanon to contain the fallout of the Israeli invasion; provided military support for Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War (1980–1983); sold arms to Iran during the Iraq-Iran War (1983–1985); raided Tripoli in 1986; and entered the Persian Gulf to prevent Iran from cutting off Iraq's oil shipments (1987). Operation Desert Storm, an American-led campaign to defend Kuwait from Iraq's invasion and annexation, inaugurated the 1990s.4

By the beginning of the twenty-first century Americans were met with a plethora of narratives that justified interventions and desensitized their consequences. Muslim women and children fulfilled the roles of powerless victims who required "saving."5 Pictures of angry Muslim men burning American flags begged a bold response. Terrorism became synonymous with the Middle East and its Diasporas, and in the 2000s was the primary concern of American policies which reinforced that view.

The administration of George W. Bush used the attacks of 9/11 to intensify imperialistic undertakings. Bush's statements that "Islam is peace" and that terrorism "violates the fundamental tenets of Islam" were nominally significant given his subsequent decisions. The war in Afghanistan morphed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq to form the more ideological "Global War on Terrorism" (GWOT) and the struggle against what Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dubbed "Islamic fascism."6 For many Americans, this rhetoric confirmed that terrorism and fascism possessed an "Islamic" component. Those labels bred the idea, as Mahmood Mamdani artfully points out, that there were "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims." Therefore it was the responsibility of all Muslims to demonstrate which side they were on: "But this could not hide the central message of such discourse: unless proved to be 'good,' every Muslim was presumed to be 'bad.'"7

The global "War on Terror" was about more than holding 9/11's perpetrators accountable. Nation building, democratization and humanitarianism were all components. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was not connected to 9/11 in any identifiable way yet he succumbed to a drumbeat of war that situated him as the guardian of weapons of mass destruction. In an interview with Meet the Press, Dick Cheney told moderator Tim Russert: "If we can stand up a good representative government in Iraq, that secures the region so that it never again becomes a threat to its neighbors or to the United States, so it's not pursuing weapons of mass destruction, so that it's not a safe haven for terrorists, now we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."8

The war in Afghanistan was justified on one level as having liberated Afghan women from the Taliban.9 That the war often made things worse for women did not figure into the logic of those who touted it. In 2013, the United Nations reported a 20 percent increase in the number of women killed or injured compared to 2012 and women's organizations inside Afghanistan regularly challenged the war's effects.10

Despite overtures of change from Barack Obama, imperialistic adventurism in the Middle East has not ended, though it has been repackaged. Acknowledging the problematic rhetoric that had come to characterize America's engagement with the region, Obama set a new tone by avoiding references to things "Islamic." In his 2009 Cairo speech, he emphasized the values of pluralism and peppered his oration with quotes from the Quran. But a change in rhetoric did not mean a change in policy. Deepa Kumar notes that, "As significant as these comments are in challenging the racist and Islamophobic rhetoric under the Bush regime, Obama's policy in the Middle East and South Asia does not signal a break with the policies of previous administrations."11

One of Obama's first foreign policy decisions was to expand the war in Afghanistan by increasing troops and funding. His diffidence on the issue of Palestine while simultaneously threatening Iran with possible military action suggests that whether refugees or radicals, the plight of Middle Eastern Muslims is destined to be one of despair. The expansion of international intelligence and surveillance, as well as the exponential growth of the CIA's drone program (which according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has killed between 2,412 and 3,701 Pakistanis since 2004) evidences a more covert attempt to advance America's imperial aims.12 Whether covert or overt, Obama's speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September of 2013 revealed that the goal is the same: "The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War. We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world."13

The outcome of programs that secure national interests with military force is that the lives of its intended and unintended targets—most of them Muslims in the case of the Middle East—are viewed as less valuable than the lives of Americans and their place in the current world order.


American policies abroad have had consequences at home. Military operations in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as diplomatic entanglements with Iran, translate concerns over Muslim extremists in those places to fears of America's Muslim citizens. Exacerbating this are flashpoints of violence carried out by Muslims in the United States. Research by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that in 2013, sixteen Muslim-Americans were charged with terrorism offenses.14 Despite the low numbers (Since 9/11 American-Muslim terrorism has killed 37 people, compared with 190,000 murders in the same period), policies that presuppose Muslim inclination to violence have been institutionalized at federal, state and local levels.

The first legislative consequence of 9/11 was the USA Patriot Act, which grants sweeping powers to domestic and federal law enforcement organizations. It authorizes surveillance of suspected terrorists through wiretaps, sanctions the indefinite detention of immigrants, and permits home searches without the consent or knowledge of the suspect. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reports that "civil liberties of ordinary Americans have taken a tremendous beating with this law, and none more so that Muslims, South Asians and Arab Americans."15 The majority of complaints to the Department of Justice over the law's application have come from Muslims, many of whom claimed that they were beaten or verbally abused while in detention, or blacklisted by banks solely on the basis of their names.16 Other abuses of the Act include airport profiling, arbitrary no-fly lists and investigations of crimes unrelated to terrorism. The construction of the domestic "Muslim threat" as a serious concern of homeland security meant that it could justify these practices with public support: Ten years after it was signed into law by George W. Bush, a Suffolk University poll showed that 58 percent of the American public viewed the Patriot Act as a necessary measure to prevent terrorism.17

Other federal initiatives crystallized the presumed equivalency between Muslims and terrorism. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the FBI and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) collaborated on a clandestine program that delayed immigration benefits to Muslims and stalled their citizenship applications based on a system that flags individuals who travel or wire money overseas, attend certain mosques or fit the profile of someone the government would consider a security threat.18 Additionally, the FBI infiltrated American mosques, paying undercover informants to record their interactions with attendees and guide them toward discussions about terrorism. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, one mosque-goer was told that his green card would be revoked unless he spied on overseas relatives.19 In Irvine, California an ex-convict was paid more than $11,000 to disguise himself as a convert to Islam and attempt to have sex with Muslim women in hopes of extracting information from them.20 These undertakings resulted in little or no information. Still, tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013 led some politicians, including Representative Peter King (who led a series of Congressional hearings on the "radicalization" of American Muslims), to maintain that the Muslim community required continued monitoring.

At the local level, the situation is similar. The New York Police Department (NYPD) spied on Muslim American citizens in New York and New Jersey without evidence of wrongdoing. Their clandestine program labeled mosques as "terrorist organizations" and used undercover "crawlers" to observe worshipers. They also snuck an agent into a university rafting retreat where he reported on the prayer habits of Muslim students.21

In other communities across the country, the construction of mosques has come under fire from local city governments. The ACLU's "Nation-wide Anti-Mosque Activity" Project found that

Government officials in some areas of the country have yielded to religious bigotry, treating mosques and Islamic centers differently than other proposed houses of worship and/or denying zoning permits without the compelling interest that is required by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (a federal civil rights law that affords heightened legal protection to the use of property for religious purposes).22

In some cases, city councils found loopholes for mosque opposition by changing zoning laws related to traffic flow, noise and land use.

Lastly, a growing number of state legislatures have introduced anti-Sharia laws since 2010. This is despite the fact that Muslim jurisprudence is rarely invoked in family courts and that there is not a single instance in which a subsequent ruling based on an interpretation of the law was allowed to stand. Persistent speculation that Muslims hope to overthrow the Constitution and replace it with Sharia, however, led 29 states to introduce 78 bills or amendments from 2011-2012 that sought to ban the use of Islamic law. In 2013, 37 bills were introduced in 16 states, seven of which were passed and signed into law.23 These legislative measures and government programs normalize disdain for Muslim Americans by presupposing their malice and thus placing them outside legal boundaries that determine what is good and bad in society.


Another consequence of 9/11 was the sudden proliferation of voices writing and speaking about links between Islam and terrorism. Americans sought answers to their questions about the attackers and their motivations. In this climate of vulnerability emerged a cottage industry of individuals and groups claiming to have special knowledge and insight. Comprised of pseudo-scholars, bloggers, clergy, politicians and others, they built lucrative careers by confirming popular preconceptions of Islam and playing on fears of another terrorist attack.

Bookstores stocked dozens of sensational titles by individuals whose emotive personal stories masqueraded as expertise. Examples include: Because They Hate (Brigitte Gabriel), A Battle For the Soul of Islam (M. Zudhi Jasser), Unveiling Islam (Ergun Caner), The Trouble With Islam Today (Irshad Manji), The Caged Virgin (Ayaan Hirsi Ali), Now They Call Me Infidel (Nonie Darwish), A God Who Hates (Wafa Sultan) and Why I Left Jihad (Walid Shoebat).

In addition to these anecdotal accounts, other volumes appeared that claimed more scholarly origins though their authors had no formal training in the subject matter: The Al-Qaeda Reader (Raymond Ibrahim), The Legacy of Jihad (Andrew Bostom) and Thirteen Lessons on Political Islam (Bill Warner) were written by a research librarian, a heart doctor and a university physics professor, respectively. At the forefront of this group is Robert Spencer, a former homeschool administrator whose twelve books on Islam (including two New York Times best-sellers) bolster an intellectual pretense that draws legitimacy from devotees of his online diary, Jihad Watch. In 2011 the weblog reported $238,000 in revenue and Spencer's salary, furnished by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, increased by 17 percent from the previous year to $161,206.24

Wide readership and generous financial backing moved anti-Muslim narratives beyond bookshelves and blogs and into communities where more formal organizations were created to spread them. In 2010 Spencer and Pamela Geller, a former financial analyst who operates the blog Atlas Shrugs, founded the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a group whose stated goal is to resist the "Islamization of America."25 AFDI spawned two other interconnected organizations, Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) and Stop the Islamization of Nations (SION), which shared funding and board members.26 All three are designated "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.27 Their activities have included public protests over the construction of mosques, rallies with members of the English Defense League (EDL), and a series of advertisement campaigns on city buses ("Leaving Islam?" and "Is There a Fatwa on Your Head?") and in metro stations (which characterized opponents of Israel as "savages" and featured violent verses from the Quran). One batch of four-week ads beside clocks in a New York City metro stop cost $70,000.28 Much of the money was raised from Spencer and Geller's websites where readers contributed directly through PayPal or through crowd sourcing platforms like Indiegogo.

Apart from individual donations, an extensive funding network sustains the Islamophobia industry.29 The Center for American Progress reported in 2011 that over the course of the previous ten years, seven charitable organizations funneled more than $42 million to eight groups that propagate anti-Muslim views.30 A portion of that money ($4,623,700) went to the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a Washington, DC think tank founded by Frank Gaffney, a man who claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the United States and aim to supplant the Constitution with Islamic law. In 2011, Gaffney was paid more than $278,000 in contracting fees by various groups and since 2009, has liaised with AFDI's attorney, David Yerushalmi, to develop anti-Sharia legislation (That year, CSP paid Yerushalmi more than $153,000 in consulting fees; in 2012 he earned $110,823).31 Other beneficiaries of this multi-million dollar industry include the David Horowitz Freedom Center ($8,380,500), the Clarion Fund, which produced the anti-Muslim film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West ($18,093,600), and Daniel Pipes's Middle East Forum ($5,963,246).32 The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that between 2008 and 2011, 37 groups raked in a combined $119,662,719 in total revenue.33 The heads of these organizations are often salaried hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not surprising that in this climate of "get rich quick," dozens of other similar groups sprang up, offering services that ranged from security consulting to political organizing. Some of them include: ACT! For America, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the Forum for Middle East Understanding, the Strategic Engagement Group, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), the Center for the Study of Political Islam (CSPI) and the Shoebat Foundation. Their members lobby local and federal lawmakers to implement much of the aforementioned legislation, campaign against Muslim-led initiatives and spread misinformation in op-eds, lectures to government officials, and within their communities.


What is the net result of all of this? Since 9/11, eight surveys, most of them conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, show that "unfavorable" views of Muslims have increased. Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, writes that "Before 2006, all five surveys found "unfavorable" rates of 26 percent or lower; in the four surveys between 2006 and 2012, only one found "unfavorable" rates that low."34 Moreover, studies carried out since 9/11 by Pew, the Arab-American Institute, and others show that from 2001 to 2006, "unfavorable" views of Muslims declined, while from 2006 onward they spiked upwards from 21–24 percent in 2006 to as high as 63 percent more recently.35 When it comes to Muslims writ large (as opposed to Muslim Americans) and Islam, the numbers are worse. The American National Election Studies' "feeling thermometer," which uses polling data to measure the "temperature" of certain views, the rating for Muslims fell by 9 points between 2004 and 2012 and of the nine minority groups mentioned, only two were viewed more negatively than Muslims: atheists and illegal immigrants.36

It is not difficult to see how an inescapable circle evolves: imperialism in Muslim-majority countries, the institutionalization of policies that present Muslims as a threat, and an industry that disseminates misinformation all foster negative views of Muslims. Those negative views then legitimize the continuation of the aforementioned practices and policies. Lasting improvements are doubtful as long as Muslims are used for the political or financial benefit of others, rather than treated with the equality and human dignity they deserve.

Nathan Lean is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on Islam, Islamophobia, the Middle East, Muslim-Christian relations, and other issues. He is the co-author of Iran, Israel and the United States (Palgrave 2010), author of the award-winning The Islamophobia Industry (Pluto 2012), and the co-editor of The Moral Psychology of Terrorism (Cambridge Scholars 2013). His fourth book, The Changing Middle East: Power and Politics in an Age of Revolution will be released in 2014.


1I define Islamophobia as: An unfounded hostility towards and/or exaggerated fear of Muslims that is fueled by repeated negative stereotypes of the Islamic faith.

2Fawaz Gergez, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 43.

3The American Presidency Project, "The State of the Union Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress," http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=33079

4Melanie McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

5Lila Abu-Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others," American Anthropologist 104, No.3 (2002): 783-790.

6Juan Cole, "Islamophobia and American Foreign Policy Rhetoric: The Bush Years and After," In John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, eds., Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 129.

7Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2004), 15.

8NBC News, "Transcript for Sunday, September 14, 2003," http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3080244/#.UxCwuoXY-pk

9First Lady Laura Bush said at the time: "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet, the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

10Reuters, "Women, Girls Increasingly Victims in Afghan War, U.N. Says," February 19, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/19/us-afghanistan-un-idUSBRE91I0E520130219

11Deepa Kumar, "Obama's Cairo Speech: A Rhetorical Shift in U.S. Imperialism," June 13, 2009, http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/06/obama%E2%80%99s-cairo-speech-a-rhetorical-shift-in-us-imperialism/

12Bureau of Investigative Journalism, "Drone Strikes in Pakistan," http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/drones-pakistan/ (accessed on February 28, 2014—figures may change since that date.)

13The White House, "Remarks By President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly," September 24, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/09/24/remarks-president-obama-address-united-nations-general-assembly

14Triangle Center for Terrorism and Homeland Security, "Muslim-American Terrorism in 2013," Report. Available online at: http://sites.duke.edu/tcths/files/2013/06/Kurzman_Muslim-American_Terrorism_in_2013.pdf

15Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, "The U.S. Patriot Act: Impact on the Arab and Muslim Community," 2004. Report.


17Paul Bedard, "Public Backs Torture, Patriot Act," US News and World Report, May 25, 2011, http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2011/05/25/public-backs-torture-patriot-act

18American Civil Liberties Union, "Muslims Need Not Apply," August 2013, Report, Available online at: http://www.aclusocal.org/CARRP/

19Paul Vitello and Kirk Semple, "Muslims Say FBI Tactics Sow Fear and Anger," New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/us/18muslims.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

20Paul Harris, "The Ex-FBI Informant with a Change of Heart: 'There is no real hunt. It's fixed,'" March 20, 2012, Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/20/fbi-informant

21Nathan C. Lean, "Since 9/11, U.S. Policy Enforces Islamophobia," September 11, 2013, CNN Belief Blogs, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/11/since-911-islamophobia-legislated-and-enforced/comment-page-1/

22ACLU, "Map: Nationwide Anti-Mosque Activity," https://www.aclu.org/maps/map-nationwide-anti-mosque-activity

23Council on American-Islamic Relations, "Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States," September 2013, Report, Available online at: http://www.cair.com/islamophobia/legislating-fear-2013-report.html

24According to 2011 I-990 forms from the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Persistent requests for 2012 I-990 forms have been ignored.


26I use the term "organizations" loosely. These groups exist primarily on the Internet, share funding and board members and have no physical address or full-time staff. In essence, they are online campaigns with the veneer of a more formal enterprise.


28Matt Flegenheimer, "Controversial Group Plans More Ads in Subway Stations," December 13, 2012, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/nyregion/controversial-group-has-new-anti-jihad-subway-ads.html

29Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, (London: Pluto Press, 2010).

30Donors included: The Donor's Capital Fund, Richard Mellon Scaife foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Becker foundations and charitable trusts, the Russel Berrie foundation, the Anchorage Charitable Foundation and William Rosenwald Family Fund, and the Fairbrook Foundation. See: Wajahat Ali, Eli Clifton, Matthew Duss, Lee Fang, Scott Keyes, and Faiz Shakir, Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, (Washington, Center for American Progress, 2011), available at: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/pdf/islamophobia.pdf

31Council on American-Islamic Relations, "Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States," Report, 2013, available at: https://www.cair.com/islamophobia/legislating-fear-2013-report.html

32Ali, Clifton, et. al., Fear, Inc.

33Council on American-Islamic Relations, "Legislating Fear."

34Charles Kurzman, "Anti-Muslim Sentiment Rising in the U.S: What Is Happening to Religious Tolerance?," February 13, 2014, IslamiCommentary, https://islamicommentary.org/2014/02/anti-muslim-sentiment-rising-in-the-u-s-what-is-happening-to-religious-tolerance/


36American National Election Studies, 2004 and 2012 Time Series Study Datasets, http://www.electionstudies.org.

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