American Evangelicalism and Islamophobia

On April 15, 2013 two young men placed explosives near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, walked away, and then the two bombs detonated. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother, Tamerlan, murdered three people and injured nearly 200 more. Although recent posts by CNN and The Huffington Post report that the brothers likely did not have radical Islamic terrorist connections, Muslims in American have continued to receive alienating attention from certain conservative talking heads and their audiences since word got out that the boys are Muslim.

The fact that the brothers practiced Islam is all that some loud voices on television and radio need in order to blame such violence on a peaceful religion. But what makes this such a volatile issue is that the US and many countries around the globe have suffered great violence and loss at the hands of radicalized men who a very small minority interpretation of the Quran. However, irrationally generalizing hatred and prejudice for an entire religious population of the world remains inexcusably ignorant. And that is exactly what Islamophobia is.

As an extension of xenophobia (the irrational fear of that which is considered different or unknown), Islamophobia is any prejudice or hatred toward Muslims without cause or reason. Unfortunately for Muslims, people with prejudice against Islam often justify their position by conflating the heinous work of militant Islamist organizations (such as Al Qaeda) with the entire religion of Islam. But this is no more appropriate than conflating the views and behavior of NRA member Timothy McVeigh with the entire organization of the National Rifle Association.

In the wake of national tragedies such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings even political news pundits show how easy it is to discriminate an entire religio-ethnic population because of a minority of extremists. On April 22, on an episode of a show called “The Five” on Fox News, Eric Bolling and Greg Gutfield expressed their desire to install wiretaps and other secret listening devices in mosques around the country. Not only would that be an explicit act of illegal search and seizure as guarded against by the fourth amendment of the US Constitution, it is a gross distortion of nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, about 1.6 billion people.

The worst example of Islamophobia since the Boston bombings, however, comes from evangelical televangelist Pat Robertson. In his most recent tirade given on Monday, April 22nd during an airing of The 700 Club, Robertson denigrates Islam by calling it “an evil system that is bringing death and destruction throughout the globe.”[1] While trying to illustrate what a grave concern this must be for our country, Robertson compares Islam and its global influence to Hitler’s National Socialism. And Robertson thinks that remaining firm and speaking about these “truths” even when opponents label him a “fanatic” or a “bigot” is a work of great bravery. In fact, it is simply ignorant. And bigoted.

So is this the view of just one crazy man that we can ignore? Why does it matter (beyond the ethical ramifications, of course) that Pat Robertson slander Muslims? Or, why this article? Well the answer goes like this: Pat Robertson certainly is not the source for Islamophobia, neither in the church nor in wider society. However, he is one of the most visible evangelicals in America and he wields a great deal of influence in evangelical circles. Furthermore, Robertson represents the strong history that conservative Protestants have had in American politics.

There is a spectrum of influence that this has in evangelical circles. Very few will completely agree with Pat Robertson, while fewer will explicitly and publicly state the same things as Robertson. But a larger majority of his audience may be influenced by Robertson in many of the same ways that his 700 Club assimilates many stereotypically “evangelical” notions to a wider audience. In other words, explicit Islamophobia may not be part of larger American Evangelicalism, but the small doubts and the prejudice that it fosters can make its way into any congregation. This kind of influence is heightened when we consider the history that evangelicalism has had in American politics.

Many evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, James Robison, and Pat Robertson often registered as Democrats, but as Michael Lindsay puts it, “their uneasy alliance with the Democratic Party finally came apart when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965.”[2] Situations like this would inevitably lead to the anecdotal relationship between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. In 1988 Robertson entered his candidacy for the presidency, and although his campaign lost all its strength after the New Hampshire primary, evangelicals were increasingly mobilized and encouraged. After the failed campaign Robertson created the Christian Coalition in 1989, a successor to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (founded in 1979). The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are conservative religious advocacy groups. Because of their interpretation of the Bible, evangelical members of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition generally agree on legislation for which they are widely known: strong traditional family values, anti-abortion legislation, and (in the ‘60s) opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are two examples of solidified political organizations, products of the more general Christian Right which broadly encompasses Christian political groups characterized by socially conservative, right-wing policy.

So in general, evangelicals have been interested in conservative government policy for many decades – but in each and every instance they (as with the rest of the country) are simply responding to the circumstances of their day. Thus from the time of the Gulf War, Islam has gained increasing attention that ultimately came to a volatile and emotional head on September 11, 2001. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks Muslims have been viewed by Americans with more prejudice and hatred than at any other time in modern history. But this is not simply because of conservative Protestant advocacy groups. Indeed, President George W. Bush – admittedly, a conservative Protestant – addressed the nation after the 9/11 attacks and expressly stated that the terrorists who wish to harm Americans “practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.”

Even in light of such explicit statements marking the difference between the religion of Islam and the fringe extremists, many evangelicals, including Pat Robertson, still choose to equate the two. This is what makes me realize that the problem does not stem as much from politics and religion as it does from the fundamental inability or neglect of persons to think critically.

For more information concerning Islamophobia, check out some of the articles at Islamophobia Today.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/23/pat-robertson-islam-nazism-evil-video_n_3134711.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

[2] David Michael Lindsay. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 53.