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A CONVERSATION WITH SOPHIA SHAFI


At the time of the interview, Sophia Shafi was a Ph.D. student at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

BERLET: What do you believe are the roots of Islamophobia in the U.S.?

SHAFI: The roots of Islamophobia in the West and in the United States go back to the Middle Ages. In my research I found that they have not changed much. They’re usually focused on the Arab, but also sometimes on the Persian. These two often serve as the stand–in for all Muslims, even though Arabs are a minority of the world’s Muslims (about 14 percent) and most of the world’s Muslims are Asians or Africans. What I found is that these static stereotypes have had a constant repetitive structure over the past 1,400 years, and they seem to mostly focus on sex and violence. Usually the Muslim is [either] oversexed or sexually repressed and violent. Hypersexualized and hyperviolent imagery are quite common.

BERLET: How did this preexisting set of stereotypes play out after 9/11?

SHAFI: There were some themes or images that seemed to be dominant. One of them was the veiled or burkaed woman. Another was the kind of hyperviolent Muslim terrorist or South Asian terrorist. Then another theme that was very popular was this idea that the hijackers committed these crimes to get these 99 virgins in heaven.

BERLET: In terms of your own personal experience, have you run into situations where either consciously or unconsciously people talked to you using stereotypes about Muslims?

SHAFI: I have. When I lived in New Mexico I would go to the bank and they'd say "Shafi...what kinda name is that?" I've gotten the, "Why aren't you wearing a hijab?" When I was married (I'm not married anymore), I'd get, "Your husband lets you work?" So...those things were quite common. I live in a fairly educated, progressive community [now], so I don’t get that as much these days.

BERLET: When you look on TV, it must be dishearten­ing to see the repetitive stereotyping and hyperbole used to talk about, not just Muslims but Arabs as the "Other" that threaten the United States...what Huntington used to call the clash of civilizations. That argument helped generate not only Islamophobia, but also broader themes of xenophobia, nativ­ism, racism, and national chauvinism. What has the impact of Huntington's thesis been on the Muslim experience?

SHAFI: Huntington's thesis was used by Milogevic to explain or validate his ethnic cleansing of not only Croatian Catho­lics but even Bosnian Muslims. His argument was that if they weren't stopped they'd take over Europe. It's ... a repeat of the battle at the end of the [Early] Middle Ages, and he was...Charlemagne or something. That’s probably not a good analogy, but he saw himself in that role.

BERLET: So there is a good "us" and a bad "them," and in terms of America the projection appears to be that all Muslims are tempted by terrorism, and most are likely to be recruited by it. That seems absurd.

SHAFI: [Especially] if you look at the number of Muslims in the world. The estimates of Al Qaeda...it is a very, very small number. Another thing that the media does a lot is they tend to group all these [Islamic] groups together. And so someone who's in Al Qaeda has the same ideology as Hezbollah or Hamas or Ikwhan, the Muslim Brotherhood. In actuality, these are very, very different groups. Some have national goals. Al Qaeda is an international, translocal organization that has goals that include everything [from] ending global warming to establishing a caliphate, a global caliphate that never existed. So they're quite different from a group that is interested in establishing a Palestinian state, or thinks Mubarak is an oppressive tyrant.

BERLET: It would seem that in terms of...unraveling these issues, it seems like an overwhelming problem to try and untangle.
SHAFI: I think one of the best ways to try and untangle it is to look for sources outside of American media conglomer­ates. You can go to the BBC or to Al Jazeera or Alarabiya. It's probably going to help [sort out] some of these dynamics a little bit better because American media generally does not do a very good job at this, they just don't.

 


 

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