Muslims, Stereotypes and Fears of

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Stereotypes and fears of Muslims—adherents to the Islamic faith—have, as with stereotypes and fears of other peoples over the centuries, played a part in many Americans' support of an increased military role in the Middle East, including two major wars against Iraq.

Although most U.S. officials acknowledge that violence is not inherent to Islam, the idea that Muslims are a people continually involved in conflict and violence continues as a prevailing stereotype in the United States. However, over the centuries, Western countries have experienced far more warfare, instability, and intolerance than has the Muslim world, and there has traditionally been a marked preference by Muslims for order and non-violent solutions to conflicts.

Most conflicts in the Islamic world over the course of the twentieth century were not the result of anything inherent within the faith. Rather, conflict has stemmed from competing nationalist claims emerging from the collapse of empires exacerbated by artificial colonial borders, dependent economies, foreign military intervention, and an influx of armaments from advanced industrialized countries.

The Islamic concept of jihad refers to a "holy struggle" of both the individual and the Muslim people as a whole to do God's work. Unfortunately, popular stereo-types depict jihad solely as a "holy war," even though most Muslims believe that a jihad requires violence only under the most extreme circumstances.

In Islam, as in most major religious faiths, the killing of innocent civilians is considered a major sin. Similarly, there is nothing in traditional Islamic teachings that justifies suicide in any situation, much less suicide bombings. However, also as in most major religious faiths, many of the high ethical principles have been distorted by a minority to support a particular political, social, or economic agenda. This has included anti-American movements that have challenged the United States and its allies through a variety of means, including terrorism.

Some of the Muslim nations and entities that have found themselves in conflict with the United States have been led not by Islamists but by secular nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who have themselves been seriously challenged from within by radical Islamic movements. The United States has at times even supported Islamic extremists when their goals have coincided with perceived American interests, such as the mojahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Indeed, the most fundamentalist Muslim state in the world today, Saudi Arabia, is an important and long-standing U.S. ally.

As a result of key events in the Middle East, radical Islamic groups have come to be seen as a major threat to the interests of the United States and its allies in the region and beyond. These events include the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which overthrew the U.S.-backed shah; the rise of Islamic radicalism in Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion and subsequent U.S. military intervention; and the emergence in the 1990s of Islamic terrorist groups in Palestinian-controlled areas of Israel. These developments, and, most dramatically, the terrorist attacks against the United States by Islamic radicals of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001, have reinforced many of the most negative Muslim stereotypes in American society.

Some political and religious factions in the United States have used these stereotypes, which equate all of Islam with its most extremist elements, in part to promote a more bellicose relationship with the Islamic world. Many Americans remain unaware of the faith's close similarities to Judaism and Christianity. The belief that Muslims have an intractable and irrational antipathy toward the United States and Western values, driven by a fanatical religious ideology, can lead to the idea that negotiations, compromise, incentives, and other diplomatic means are unrealistic and that only military force can ultimately challenge such a threat.

Radical Islam, like extremist movements elsewhere in the developing world, has tended to arise as a result of war, economic inequality, authoritarianism, and the denial of the right of self-determination. Many analysts have argued that U.S. policy in the Middle East has often perpetuated such perceived injustice. Popular stereo-types and fears of Muslims—at least to the degree that they reinforce U.S. policy—may therefore have the ironic effect of encouraging the very negative manifestations of Islamic movements that are now so widely feared. The use of stereotypes, whether in the war on terror or in previous wars, is a powerful tool to shape public attitudes toward the nation's enemies. In times of war, such stereo-types test the fabric of American cultural values, which support its principles of civil liberties, fairness, and tolerance.

Stephen Zunes

See also:Al-Qaida and Taliban; Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981; Israel and the United States; Kissinger, Henry; Multiculturalism and Cold War.

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Muslims, Stereotypes and Fears of

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