John L. Esposito

We live in a world in which two great world religions with Semitic origins are often under siege, the objects of discrimination, hate crimes, and acts of violence and terror. For one, the 14-18 million Jews of the world, we have a powerful term, anti-Semitism, and a global awareness and sensitivity that can be mobilized against anti-Semitic attitudes and acts. As history and recent experiences affirm, the term anti-Semitism is a key antidote for this disease that continues to infect our societies.

However, we have had no comparable effective way to counter the hostility, prejudice and discrimination directed towards Islam and the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based independent think tank on ethnicity and cultural diversity, coined the term ‘Islamophobia,’ to describe what they saw as a two-stranded form of racism – rooted in both the ‘different’ physical appearance of Muslims and also in an intolerance of their religious and cultural beliefs. Kofi Annan at a UN conference, “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding,” in December 7, 2004 addressed the international scope of its impact: "[when] the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry — that it is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with 'Islamophobia'…. Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, many Muslims, particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment and discrimination…. Too many people see Islam as a monolith and as intrinsically opposed to the West … [The] Caricature remains."

How Serious is the Problem?

While Islamophobia has been used in Europe, in America it has not yet gained wide recognition. Due to the lack of a collective consciousness regarding the reality of ‘Islamophobia’ in the U.S., a variety of commentators engage in a form of hate speech that would never appear in print or media to describe Jews, Christians or established ethnic and racial groups in America.

A few examples:

Ann Coulter, author and syndicated columnist, said "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."

Michael Savage, host of the The Savage Nation, stated: I tell you right now - the largest percentage of Americans would like to see a nuclear weapon dropped on a major Arab capital. They don't even care which one ... I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity. It's the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings." 
“The Michael Savage Show.” Savage Nation. 12 May 2003.

Rush Limbaugh, reacting to criticism of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graeb, commented, “They're the ones who are sick... They're the ones who are perverted. They are the ones who are dangerous. They are the ones who are subhuman. They are the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and not our prison guards.”

On PBS’s Religion & Ethics, Franklin Graham stated, “The God of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or the Judeo-Christian faith. It is a different God, and I believe a very evil and a very wicked religion.”

On Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, Pat Robertson said, “This man [Muhammad] was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they're carrying out Islam…I mean, this man was a killer. And to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent." Robertson also called Islam "a monumental scam" and claimed the Quran, Islam's revealed text, "is strictly a theft of Jewish theology."

Jerry Falwell referred to the Prophet Muhammad as a "terrorist" on the CBS news program "60 Minutes." At a pro-Israel rally, Benny Hinn declared, “This is not a war between Arabs and Jews. It’s between God and the devil.”

Increased Hate crimes

Islamophobia leads to actions beyond destructive words, into hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities of Asian and Middle Eastern descent. In 2005, the Muslim civil rights advocacy organization reported a 49 percent increase in the reported cases of harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2003, which marked the highest number of Muslim civil rights cases ever reported to CAIR in its eleven year history. In this month (September 2006) alone, three different mosques in Michigan, New York and California were vandalized. The Los Angeles La Mirada mosque was vandalized twice in one week

Growth of this Modern Epidemic

Although only a few decades ago, Islam and Muslims were almost invisible in our schools, universities, publications, media, think tanks, and government, today Islam and Middle East often dominate the negative headlines. Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the third largest religion in America, and American Muslims are an integral part of the American mosaic in the 21st century. Yet, the acts of terrorists over the last three decades and the sensational coverage they receive, coupled with our general lack of knowledge about Islam or events in the Middle East, have fed the growth of Islamophobia in this country.

The catastrophic events of 9/11 and continued attacks in Muslim countries and in Madrid and London have obscured the many positive developments. Islam is often viewed as the cause rather than the context for radicalism, extremism and terrorism. Islam as the culprit is a simple answer, easier than considering the core political issues and grievances that resonate in much of the Muslim world, (the failures of many Muslim governments and societies, American foreign policy of intervention and dominance, Western support for authoritarian regimes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or support for Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon).

Without coverage that tells the whole story, that provides the full context for Muslim attitudes, events, actions, that reflects the diversity of Muslim practice, Islam and all Muslims have been demonized. As a result, as I travel across America speaking at universities and to civic groups as well as in conversations with government and corporate leaders, similar questions continued to be raised: “Is Islam a violent religion?” “Does the Quran condone terrorism” “Are there Muslim moderates?” “Why don’t more Muslims speak out against global terrorism?” “Why are women treated so poorly in Islam?” “Why is Islam so intolerant towards non-Muslims?” Islamophobia has affected the prism through which Muslims are viewed domestically. Mainstream Islamic institutions, (civil rights groups, political action committees, charities), are indiscriminately accused of raising money for extremism by individuals and sometimes governments without the hard evidence that would lead to successful prosecution. Significant minorities of non-Muslim Americans show a great tolerance for policies that would profile Muslims, require special identity cards and question the loyalty of all Muslim citizens

The Quest for Moderate Muslims

An increasingly common practice, reflecting widely accepted Islamophobia, has been a ubiquitous use of the term "moderate Muslim". As government officials, reporters, policymakers, terrorism experts or religious leaders try to find Muslims who are acceptable and "safe", they ask me to review and vet them. At the same time, it is never really clear what determines an acceptable, moderate Muslim. Some cite association with violence/terrorism; others want Muslims to be liberal, secular, even non-believing; and for others, a Muslim’s position about the Palestine-Israeli conflict is the critical criterion. Bottom line, in our pluralistic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, we risk requiring that “moderate Muslims” be just like us -- whoever "we" are. As in other faiths, the moderate Muslim mainstream is a very diverse and disparate group who religiously and politically can span the spectrum from conservative to liberal reformers. Moderate Jews and Christians can range from reform to ultra orthodox and fundamentalist and, at times can bitterly disagree about theological and social policies (gay rights, abortion, ordination of women, American foreign and domestic policies) So too can moderate Muslims.

Minimally, moderate Muslims can be defined as those who live and work “within” societies, seek change from below, and reject religious extremism, illegitimate violence and terrorism. Often, in differing ways, they interpret and reinterpret Islam to respond more effectively to the religious, social and political realities of Muslim societies and to international affairs. Some seek to Islamize their societies but eschew political Islam; others do not. Politically, moderate Muslims constitute a broad spectrum, including those who wish to see more Islamically oriented states as well as “Muslim Democrats,” comparable to Christian Democrats in the Europe.


Like the quest for the moderate Muslim, another emerging term both reflecting and strengthening Islamophobia is “Islamofascism.” After 9/11, President George W. Bush drew a sharp distinction between the Muslim majority’s religion of Islam and a minority of Muslim extremists. However, his more recent use of new terms to recast the global “war on terror” as a war against fascism blurs this distinction and implies that Islam, not just its misuse by extremists, is the root cause of the problem.President Bush, joined by members of his cabinet and congress as well as neo-conservative political commentators, is using Islamic fascism or Islamofascism to strengthen waning support for their international policies.

After the August 10, 2006 transatlantic bomb plot was foiled by British police in London, Bush emphasized that the plotters “try to spread their jihadist message—a message I call, it’s totalitarian in nature—Islamic radicalism, Islamic fascism, they try to spread it as well by taking the attack to those of us who love freedom.” “It is the great challenge of this century… As young democracies flourish, terrorists try to stop their progress…. This is the beginning of a long struggle against an ideology that is real and profound. It's Islamo-fascism. It comes in different forms. They share the same tactics, which is to destroy people and things in order to create chaos in the hopes that their vision of the world become predominant in the Middle East.”

Members of Congress have followed suit. Senator Rick Santorum "We're at war with Islamic fascism...These people are after us not because we've oppressed them, not because of the state of Israel...It's because we stand for everything they hate." [7]) Neo-conservative columnists and talk show hosts (Daniel Pipes, Stephen Schwartz, Michael Savage, and Christopher Hitchens) and bloggers have used and promoted the use of Islamofascism. At the same time, conservative Republican Patrick Buchanan has charged that “neoconservatives, whose roots are in the Trotskyist-Social Democratic Left, are promoting use of the term. Their goal is to have Bush stuff al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran into an “Islamofascist” kill box, then let SAC do the rest.

Does Islamofascism Clarify?

Webster’s American Dictionary definition defines fascism as “a totalitarian government system led by a dictator, used historically for the totalitarian ideology of Mussolini and Hitler.” Neither Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda nor much of global terrorism fits this definition. Moreover, the use of the term “fascism” is so fluid, has been used in so many diverse ways and contexts by former President Harry Truman, Martin Luther King, or by the liberal left that the word has lost any meaning or use other than a denunciation.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism will not be eradicated easily or soon. We all (governments, policymakers, the media, educational institutions, religious and corporate leaders) have a critical role to play in transforming our societies and influencing our citizens and policies to contain the voices of hate and the exclusivist theologies (of militant religious and secular fundamentalists alike) if we are to promote global understanding and peace.

So too, the substantial challenges facing Muslims requires that they support broadbased self-criticism and reform. Clearly, many Muslims have responded but such efforts are nowhere near as widespread as necessary in today’s environment. Muslims need to address more effectively the existence and consequences of exclusivist theologies, their impact on pluralism and tolerance within the Muslim community and their impact on non-Muslim communities. Exclusivist theologies, though not in themselves violent, can easily lead to or be transformed in the hands of militants into theologies of hate and violence. Muslims must also continue to loudly critique the illegitimate use of force and acts of terrorism by Muslims in Muslim countries and the West.

At the dawn of the 21st century, there were many reasons to be positive about the future of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. Despite continued attacks by Muslim extremists and warnings of a clash of civilizations, in many parts of the Muslim world there was a continued push from below for greater political participation and the rule of law. Coverage of Islam in the West, in schools, publications, and the media had increased exponentially. Islam and Muslims were more and more visible and institutionalized, as was seen in the growing number of mosques, Islamic centers and Islamic schools, NGOs and Muslim publications. In America, many Muslims had become more prominent in the professions and more prosperous. Muslim thinkers in the West were making significant contributions to Islamic reform, free to develop new ideas and perspectives in their writings and in training of students. Their impact was growing not only in the West but through the globalization of communications in the Muslim world as well.

Post 9/11 has changed our world dramatically and significantly affected relations between the West and the Muslim world, the lives of many Muslims in the West, and the state of Muslim-Christian relations. The war on global terrorism is often seen in many parts of the Muslim world not simply as a legitimate attempt to make the world safer but an excuse to redraw the map of the Middle East and Muslim world, to create a new American global order or a new American-dominated century. Terrorism has increased not decreases and anti-Americanism has grown exponentially in the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world. 
Anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes have proliferated. Legitimate concerns in America and Europe for domestic security have been offset by anti-terrorism legislation, indiscriminate arrests and imprisonments that compromise the civil liberties of Muslims. The net result is a growing climate of suspicion, deterioration of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the growth of Islamophobia. Muslim leaders have been hard pressed to assert their faith and rights as citizens in the West, affirming freedom of expression while rejecting its abuse as a cover for prejudice. They have been challenged to draw a sharp line between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force and violence, between acts of resistance and acts of terror, legitimate forms of dissent and violent demonstrations or attacks that inflame the situation, and reinforce Western stereotypes.

Globalization and an increasingly multicultural and multireligious West test the mettle of our cherished democratic principles and values. Islamophobia, which is becoming a social cancer, must be recognized and be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life. It is imperative that political and religious leaders, commentators and experts, and yes, the media, lead in building and safeguarding our cherished values of religious pluralism, tolerance, and civil liberties for all. Pluralism and tolerance today demand greater mutual understanding and respect from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The continued threat and response to global terrorism in a post 9/11 world must walk the fine line between distinguishing between the faith of Islam and violence and terror in the name of Islam, between the majority of mainstream Muslims and the acts of a minority of Muslim extremists and terrorists. Blurring these distinctions risks the adoption of foreign and domestic policies that promote a clash rather than co-existence of cultures. They play into the hands of preachers of hate (Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and political leaders, and political commentators) whose rhetoric incites and demonizes, alienates and marginalizes. Islamophobia is not simply a Muslim problem, it is “our” problem.

John L. Esposito is the University Professor and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.