The phrase “Muslims are the new blacks” has become a popular mantra since September 11. Despite the vast differences between the experiences of these two groups, the euphemism points to the fact that increasing anti-Muslim bigotry in the West has made Muslims the new enemy-Other.
Commenting on this trend, Karine Walther, professor of history at Georgetown University, suggests that Islamophobia is rooted in centuries of Western antagonism against the Other, who through cultural and religious differences is perceived to be stuck in a barbaric past that the West has long since overcome.
In America, this tradition began with the earliest days of European colonialism, when native tribes were depicted as primitive beings deserving of extermination. It continued with European colonialists subjugating countless black slaves for economic and social gains. Today, Western approaches toward Muslims are inspired by similar beliefs, namely, that Islam’s values are inferior to Western civilization’s achievements.
What many Muslims face today is, in other words, a historical trend, both specific to Muslims, but also similar to what Native Americans, members of the black community, and other disenfranchised groups have faced in the past and continue to experience in the present. Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University notes that Western perceptions about Muslims emerged out of “a systematic body of ideas which make certain constructions of [the Other]—that they are prone to violence, that they are misogynistic, that they are driven by rage and lack rationality—appear natural.” In Kumar’s words, this is why Islamophobia is “tied to a set of practices that sustain and reproduce empire.”
Against this backdrop, degrading Muslims, like degrading other groups, represents an attempt to enhance the West’s sense of superiority. Media coverage of Muslims regularly reflects this, in particular, by depicting the hijab as an oppressive Islamic obligation for women. By presenting the hijab in this light, media outlets imply that the Western woman is, by contrast, liberated. Since many of those engaged in this discourse are often the same ones who use crass, sexist language to speak about women, these critiques are pure demagoguery.
Where Native Americans were once considered savages for wearing revealing clothing (or being nude), Muslims now face comparable scrutiny for choosing to dress conservatively. In this way, today’s Islamophobia is both a continuation and a new chapter in the larger story of how the West approaches “Otherness” and that which it chooses not to understand.