In their new book, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy, coauthors Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg explore a largely unexamined phenomenon – the “deeply ingrained anxiety” some Westerners, and especially Americans, experience when considering Islam and Muslim cultures. Peter Gottschalk, professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of Beyond Hindu and Muslim, says that in times of crisis, such as the 1979 Iranian hostage situation or the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the long-simmering resentments and suspicions “inherited along with a European Christian heritage, manifest themselves.” Professor Gottschalk and his former student Gabriel Greenberg explore those anxieties through the political cartoon, the print medium with the most immediate impact.
In prejudices such as racism, sexism, and more recently Islamophobia, Peter Gottschalk says there are historical conditions that enable certain groups to feel an antagonism toward another group that seem to “justify” that antagonism. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, he explains that such attitudes form a “constantly reaffirming, re-substantiating perspective.” Gabriel Greenberg notes, for example, that from the time of the Crusades, Islam was experienced by surrounding cultures as a “competitor.” Some of the things many non-Muslim Americans today tend to associate with Islam are characteristics that are “negatively valued” Professor Gottschalk says, such as terrorism, the oppression of women, and associations with “Arabs” or the Middle East.
In the case of the political cartoon, it simultaneously amuses one group with its stereotypical presentation and simultaneously offends another. For example, two years ago Danish cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammed appeared in several European newspapers and deeply upset Muslim readers, bringing about a very public outcry. Gabriel Greenberg says political cartoons seem to have greater emotional impact than do newspaper editorials. In the process of stereotyping, Peter Gottschalk says, the cartoon takes the “presumed qualities of a whole people and broadcasts them by use of a single image” – for example, the “violence of Muslim men.” An effective antidote to that kind of belief, the authors point out, is first-hand experience – going to school with, or working with, people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds.
Professor Gottschalk and Mr. Greenberg say it is also important for leaders to use “less general and more nuanced language.” Instead of talking about “the Muslim world,” which comprises more than a billion people spread across the globe, one could be more specific and talk about certain people in country X. By contrast, in the United States, which is a majority “Christian country,” there is whole spectrum of views about the intersection of “Christianity” with personal faith, social identity, or political positions on various public issues. Similarly, Professor Gottschalk explains, there are a variety of movements within Islam that may be “authoritarian, revival, or reform” in nature. And that, he says, is quite different from what some people call “Islamofacism,” which tends to lump together the Taliban, terrorism, and the politics of a democratic country such as Turkey, thereby creating a “monolithic enemy.” Gabriel Greenberg notes that the media have a responsibility to inform people and to create “mutual understanding” rather than to spread fear of the “other.” So what individuals and groups need to cultivate instead is a sense of a “common humanity” rather than a contest of “us against them.”
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