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Trump’s Islamophobia: the Persistence of Orientalism in Western Rhetoric and Media

This past weekend, President Donald Trump took to a podium in front of dozens of leaders of Muslim-majority countries in Saudi Arabia to discuss their role in the fight against “Islamic Terrorism.” During his visit, we heard a noticeably different tone compared to his previous rhetoric, regarding his administration’s attitude towards the Islamic faith and the relationship it has with the United States. No longer was Trump calling for the ban of all Muslims, but rather, asserting that “this is not a battle between different faiths…” [1].  The entire speech illustrated a new rhetorical approach for the president, who had previously taken to blanket attacks on Muslims and Islam. Trump preached the rhetoric of diversity and respect, stating that “we must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again, and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.” But he also embraced paternalistic rhetoric that lectured Muslims about being soft on terrorism, announcing that “Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combating radicalization” and that “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.” Such language reinforces a broader discourse in America that is misinformed about and prejudiced toward the Islamic faith.

Western media have long been an accomplice in purveying Orientalist stereotypes against Muslims. The way in which religion and theology are used to generalize about massive numbers of individuals throughout the world is an enduring concern in modern politics and political discourse. Two of the most prominent targets in Western media include Islam and followers of the Islamic faith. In a recent study of the British media reported on by Aljazeera, imbalanced reporting on Muslims in the media was found to contribute significantly to “hostility” and Islamophobia in western political discourse [2]. Countless other studies have exposed anti-Muslim discourse in the American media as well. These findings are consistent with the theory of Orientalism, pioneered by the famous intellectual and scholar Edward Said. One of the most common associations made in conjunction with Islam in Western culture is to associate it with “terror” or “terrorism.” This conflation of “Islam” with “terror” is an egregious distortion. With the rise of Islamophobia in the west, it begs the question of the precise role of the media, particularly regarding attempts to link Islam and “terror.”  Accompanying the rise in Islamophobia worldwide, associations between “Islam” and “terror” in the media have increased significantly in recent years. In contrast, the use of the term “terror” in relation to other religions, such as Christianity, is far less common, revealing a clear double standard.

To measure Orientalism in American discourse, I analyzed use of the word “terror” in conjunction with Islam over several years. The 2 time frames I examined were the five years from 2000-2005 and the five years from 2012 to 2017. These periods were selected to document the changes in rhetoric over time, at first immediately before and after September 11, and more recently in the early-to-mid 2010s. From 2000 to 2005, CNN produced 73 web reports and 103 transcripts in total including the word “Islamic” within five words of “terror.” In most cases, the two terms appeared side-by-side, in reference to “Islamic terror” and terrorist acts committed by people reported to be followers of the Islamic faith. In comparison, over the last five years (2012-2017), CNN produced 184 web publications and 380 transcripts in total containing “Islamic” and “terror.” This represents a clear increase in journalists’ efforts to link Islam to extremism over time.  For other news outlets, we see a similar trend. From 2000-2005, USA Today produced 26 reports associating Islam with terror, compared to 106 reports from 2012-2017. The Washington Post produced 85 reports from 2000-2005, compared to 116 reports from 2012-2017. All these news outlets demonstrated a similar trend in reporting in terms of their growing reliance on Orientalism.  The only exception was the New York Times. The Times produced 180 reports associating Islam and terror from 2000-2005 compared to only 116 reports in the last five years. Granted, a significant number of these stories were still produced in the last half-decade, but much of the context has also changed. A significant shift in tone is taking place at the “paper of record.” As the most liberal newspaper in America, the Times is apparently becoming more cognizant of the dangers of blanket stereotypes against those of Islamic faith. This awareness is seen, for example, in a recent Times commentary piece by Richard Stengel, the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama. Stengel warns of the backlash against Islamophobic rhetoric. In his piece, “Saying ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ Isn’t Enough,” Stengel reflects that “the reason” why the [Obama] administration avoided the term “Islamic terrorism” was practically driven; it was an effort to avoid alienating an entire region of people based on the actions of the few [3]. The findings from the New York Times do raise questions about how uniform Orientalism is in the news. Still, the decline in such rhetoric in a single paper does not negate the larger Orientalist trend in the U.S. media.

I also examined how often the words “Islamic” and “Terror” were used in comparison to “Christian” and “Terror.” Over the last year, the New York Times produced 28 articles associating “Islamic” with “terror.” USA Today produced 52 stories, the Washington Post produced 24, and Fox News produced 33. Such language was common across all news outlets in question. Interestingly enough, the words “Christian” and “terror” appeared not a single time in the New York Times and USA Today, only once in the Washington Post, and just four times on Fox News. Upon closer inspection, the single article in the Washington Post did not involve condemning any “Christian” acts of “terror” at all. In fact, the only time the association appeared was in a line describing “Christians fleeing war and terror.” A similar trend was at work in the Fox News articles as well. Using more specific terms to measure media content yields comparable results in terms of documenting the imbalance in how Islam and Christianity are portrayed in the news. Looking at the terms “Islamic terror” and “Christian terror” over the last five years, I find that “Islamic terror” appeared in 29 New York Times publications, 22 Washington Post pieces, and 16 articles in USA Today. As expected, both the Washington Post and USA Today published no stories with the term “Christian terror” while the New York Times published only one.

Contrary to Orientalist stereotypes, there is no shortage of terrorist crimes committed by Christian perpetrators. Many mass shootings are committed by Christians, despite the media’s efforts to play down the Christian identity of the assailants. The Charleston Church shooter in 2016 is just one of the most recent examples. Despite these attacks, there is a persistent reluctance in the media to label crimes committed by Christians as acts of terror. But for acts of violence undertaken by Islamic perpetrators, such as the recent bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, or the San Bernardino shootings (2016), the media do not hesitate to link Islam with extremism.

Reactionaries and Islamophobes would respond to these findings by arguing that Islamic terror is referenced more often because it is a larger threat than Christian terrorism. But this claim is difficult to take seriously considering that religious violence and terror come in many different forms. One need look no further than George W. Bush, who believed he was on holy mission from God to fight the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As Bush boasted to a Palestinian delegation four months after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.” But in addition to the complete destruction of Iraq, various estimates suggest that the death toll from the war was in the hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million, by the time the U.S. withdrew in 2011. Such devastation is a reminder that Muslims hold no monopoly over violent religious extremism.

It seems likely that the rising association of Islam and terror in western rhetoric and media is contributing to a global rise in islamophobia. This trend is alarming. It shows how effective propaganda and the rhetoric of hatred are in poisoning public discourse. The rhetoric of “they are outsiders” is perpetuated by politicians to advance their own agendas. And this propaganda begins to influence the thoughts of mass publics. With Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, we can be sure that Orientalism is alive and well in western political discourse.

Notes.

[1] Donald J. Trump, “Transcript of Trump’s Speech in Saudi Arabia,CNN, May 21, 2017,

[2] Anealla Safdar, “U.K.: Poor Reporting, Media Illiteracy Fuel Islamophobia,” Aljazeera English, March 29, 2016,

[3] Richard Stengel, “Why Saying ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ Isn’t Enough,” New York Times, February 13, 2017,

 

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