The Surge in Islamophobia

09/02/2011 11:53 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

If you didn't know the history of the United States -- a country born largely in objection to religious discrimination -- the extent of religious persecution being carried out against Muslim-Americans today might not be so hard to understand.

A recently released report co-conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Race and Gender and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America's largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, found that vandalism, Islamophobic rhetoric and violence targeting Muslims and their places of worship has risen considerably -- and in some cases more than doubled -- between 2009 and 2010.

According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the public's favorable rating of Islam actually decreased 10 percentage points to 30 percent between November 2001 and August 2010. The same study found that at the end of 2010, 45 percent of Americans shared the view that Islam is at odds with American values.

But studies show that Americans don't hold the same sentiments toward other major religions. A Time poll carried out late last year found that the majority of Americans hold positive views of Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, yet only 44 percent held favorable views toward Muslims -- despite the fact that the majority of respondents admitted they didn't personally know any Muslims.

The fact that Americans on the whole hold unfavorable views toward Muslims yet at the same time admit to not personally knowing any, has some wondering why the negative feelings toward the reported 3 million Muslim-Americans -- and approximately 1.6 billion worldwide -- continue to rise a decade after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The answer, at least partially, lies in anti-sharia legislation swirling across the nation. The legislation has been described as the newest push by Islamophobes to stoke the distrust of Americans toward their fellow Muslim-Americans. Anti-sharia legislation proposed by David Yerushalmi, a Hasidic Jew who is credited with starting the national movement to ban the foreign law that has to date never overshadowed U.S. Constitutional Law, is being promoted as "preemptive" legislation. Yerushalmi, whom the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes as "anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black," himself acknowledged that Muslims aren't advocating sharia over U.S. law. Yerushalmi himself says the issue is one of heuristics -- he wants the issue of sharia to be brought to the attention of Americans. "If this thing passed in every state without any friction," he told The New York Times, "it would not have served its purpose." The purpose: Seemingly to raise fear about something that Yerushalmi himself agrees is not currently even an issue.

Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director and spokesperson for CAIR, explained, "Unfortunately, in the last year and half there has been a tremendous rise in the level of anti-Islamic sentiment and this Islamophobic rhetoric has moved towards the mainstream. Mr. David Yerushalmi's bizarre anti-sharia campaign nationwide is unfortunately being used by politicians to gain cheap political support."

Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, author of the book "The Future of Islam and Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century," explained:

"The anti-Shariah movement is simply the latest wave of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice. Organizations like ACT (which describes its mission as mobilizing Americans in response to "the multiple threats of radical Islam") and Mr. Yerushalmi, who has been the major force behind the anti-Shariah movement, politicians in mainstream parties, particularly Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Christian Zionist preachers exploit what in fact is a non-issue. Shariah has never superseded US constitutional law. ... Moreover, there has been no Muslim movement nor major Muslim organization who has advocated implementing Islamic law in place of American constitutional law."

This growing Islamophobia and distrust of Muslims comes at a great cost and was evident during the recent Norway bombings; before any evidence was found, the media reported that initial thoughts were that the attacks had been carried out by Muslim terrorists, as a recent report by The New York Times highlighted. Evidence later found that the radical, self-proclaimed Christian Anders Behring Breivik confessed he had carried out the attacks on July 22 because of his growing fear -- a fear heightened by right-wing, anti-Islamic rhetoric -- of a Muslim takeover of his country.

But the people who stoke and perpetuate Islamophobia remain blind to the consequences of their rhetoric and actions. Before Breivik carried out the bloody terrorist attacks in Norway, he cited anti-Muslim hate speech by radicals like Pamela Geller and Robert Spenser, who co-founded the controversial Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America.

It's important to realize that all religions, including Islam, contain a range of followers. It is generally accepted that there are four groups of Muslims: Fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists and pragmatists.

Fundamentalists advocate a strict adherence to the fundamentals of their religion and follow a literal interpretation of both the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad). This group wants strict sharia to effectively be the law of the land.

Traditionalists, who are typically scholars of Islam, are religiously conservative and largely disapproving of the Western lifestyle. But unlike their fundamentalist counterparts, traditionalists tend to be apolitical and don't advocate violence, as do the fundamentalists.

Modernists, as opposed to the above-mentioned groups, want to promote their version of Islam -- one of tolerance and social justice. Modernists believe that science and Islam can exist together and they prefer a secular state to an Islamic one. Pragmatists, the final group of Muslims, are seen by some Muslims as pseudo believers because they don't believe following the traditional practices of Islam is necessary for being a true Muslim.

The majority of Muslims fall into the latter two more moderate groups, despite the fact that oftentimes those on the fringe are more vocal. But by lumping all Muslims into one group, the smaller and more radical fundamentalists and traditionalists are given disproportionate recognition and legitimacy. These more radical groups then claim to represent all Muslims, while the more moderate groups lose their voice.

Many may not realize this, but the majority of Muslims are victims of these fringe believers who have all but hijacked Islam, drowned out the religion's message of peace and fundamentally changed the way people view its believers. But it is important for their message of hate not to overshadow the true message of Islam, which is peace.

In the same way that radical Jews like Baruch Goldstein -- who massacred 29 Muslims and injured 125 more in 1995 while they prayed in Hebron -- are not representative of Judaism and self-proclaimed Christians like Anders Behring Breivik -- responsible for the fatal bombings in Oslo in July -- are in no way representative of the majority of peace-loving Christians, radical Muslims responsible for carrying out fatal bombings and other terrorist-activities in no way represent Islam.