Todd Green is a professor of religion and the interim director for the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement at Luther College. He is also a former advisor on Islamophobia in Europe with the U.S. State Department. He is the author of The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West and Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.
Islamophobia has a long history among Christians. Its roots are both theological and political.
Theologically, medieval European Christians viewed Muslims as rivals and ultimately heretics, particularly after the First Crusade. Christians in this era became familiar enough with the basics of Islam to recognize it as a monotheistic religion that shared common figures and overlapping vocabulary with Christianity.
This theological overlap led Christian theologians to categorize Islam as a perversion of the true Gospel. While few of these theologians engaged in any in-depth study of Islamic texts and traditions, they were nonetheless quick to view the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a false prophet, one who deliberately corrupted the witness of the Old and New Testaments to spread false messages and usurp power. These same theologians also developed a cadre of shallow stereotypes of Islam that persist to this day, including the notions that Islam is violent and harmful toward women.
These same theologians also developed a cadre of shallow stereotypes of Islam that persist to this day, including the notions that Islam is violent and harmful toward women.
The lurking theological threat posed by Islam to Christianity was supersessionism. Muslims claimed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the last and final messenger from God, and that the revelation contained in the Quran was the final revelation. For Christians, Jesus was God’s perfect and final revelation, the divine vehicle for reconciliation with God and the one truth path to salvation. Christian exclusivism could find no place for a religion that both recognized Christians as People of the Book yet claimed to have surpassed Christianity in terms of access to ultimate truth.
Alongside the theological animosities were political ones. These tensions are best understood under the rubric of imperialism. Islamic empires materialized already in the Middle Ages and quickly came into contact and conflict with European Christian kingdoms and empires. Until the eighteenth century or so, Islamic empires had the upper hand in this rivalry. They were more advanced culturally and militarily. But fortunes changed by the nineteenth century as European empires were on the ascendency and began imposing some form of imperial rule over many Muslim-majority regions.
American Christians not only inherited many of the negative theological stereotypes circulating among European Christians for centuries, in time, they also inherited Europe’s imperial impulses. American Christians translated this inheritance into support for U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority regions after the end of World War II in the context of the Cold War.
American Christians translated this inheritance into support for U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority regions after the end of World War II in the context of the Cold War.
While many American Christians viewed “godless communism” as the primary obstacle to U.S. global dominance during the Cold War, by the end of the twentieth century, violent Islamist movements became public enemy #1. As a result, Muslim populations within the United States became symbolic stand-ins for the perceived Muslim enemy abroad. This resulted in a wide array of exclusionary and discriminatory policies aimed at Muslims in the post-9/11 era, from registration systems to government surveillance and profiling to the Muslim ban.
What should not be lost in these political and imperial dimensions of Islamophobia is the pivotal role played by white Christians in general and white evangelicals in particular. The church has long served as an arm of empire, as was clear during the European civilizing missions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. White evangelicals in America adopted this enabling role for U.S. imperialism. With the war on terror, white evangelicals formed much of the political base for a government bent on invading and occupying countries under the banners of “freedom” and “democracy.”
In the initial stages of the war, political leaders relied on both theological and political rhetoric to tap into underlying white evangelical hostility toward Muslims and Islam. President Bush infamously referred to the war as a “crusade.” General William Boykin claimed that Muslims attacked America because it was a Christian nation. He labeled Islam’s god an idol, an agent of Satan, in contrast to the one true God of Christianity.
With the war on terror, white evangelicals formed much of the political base for a government bent on invading and occupying countries under the banners of 'freedom' and 'democracy.'
Such hostile language from prominent white evangelicals not only persisted but intensified in the two decades that followed. Franklin Graham, son of the renowned evangelist Billy Graham, claimed that Islam is bent on the extermination of Jews and Christians, meaning that the Christian West has no choice but to be at war with Islam. Jerry Falwell, Jr., former president of Liberty University, suggested that if more “good people” (presumably Christians) had gun permits, then “we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” Robert Jeffress, the senior minister of First Baptist Church in Dallas, insisted Islam is an oppressive and violent religion that promotes pedophilia.
This anti-Muslim hostility has been matched by many rank-and-file white evangelicals. White evangelicals were among the most significant voting bloc for Donald Trump, with 81% of them voting in 2016 for a man who proclaimed that “Islam hates us.” Their support for Trump’s White House bid later translated into solid support for his anti-Muslim proposals and policies, including the Muslim ban, with three-quarters of white evangelicals expressing support for the ban just one month after Trump took office. Broadly speaking, white evangelicals continue to harbor negative opinions of Muslims at higher levels than pretty much any other faith community, with 44% holding such views compared to just 13% of Jews according to a 2019 poll conducted by the Institute for Social and Policy Understanding.
What we have been witnessing for quite some time is the instrumentalization of and support for racial and religious bigotry by many white evangelicals in an effort to embrace and defend a white Christian America. White evangelical support for discriminatory policies and practices that have targeted Muslims—detentions, deportations, extraordinary renditions, torture, surveillance, profiling, the Muslim ban—must be understood as both an extension and a manifestation of this white Christian nationalist project.
White evangelical support for discriminatory policies and practices that have targeted Muslims must be understood as both an extension and a manifestation of this white Christian nationalist project.
There can be no healing between Muslims and white evangelicals until we confront the racism that drives white Christian Islamophobia, including the effort to preserve a white Christian nation. It’s racism that animates Islamophobia among white evangelicals and many other white Christians. It’s racism that gives Islamophobia its legs and its life.
Of course, Islam is not a race, nor are Muslims. But Muslims are treated as a race, as a monolithic entity collectively presumed guilty of harboring violent impulses. They are viewed as a suspect population deserving of discrimination. It’s a form of racism that is based on both skin color and assumed cultural and religious attributes.
Racism is not peripheral to understanding Islamophobia, including the toxic relationship between white evangelicals and Muslims. Racism is the disease, the cancer that has metastasized into extensive anti-Muslim hatred, discrimination, and violence. No significant progress toward putting this cancer into remission can be made until the following actions are taken:
- the widespread deployment of an anti-racism framework, one that addresses the very real power imbalance between white Christians and Muslims and that borrows from successful anti-racist tactics from the Civil Rights era, including non-violent protests and economic boycotts, in order to pressure politicians and other entities to reject the systemic practices that exclude, discriminate, and/or perpetuate violence against Muslims;
- the dismantling of U.S. imperialistic and militaristic projects that persistently racialize and target Muslim populations, thereby casting Muslims as enemies at home and abroad;
- the acceptance of greater responsibility among white Christian leaders and communities to challenge Islamophobia and to build bridges and relationships with Muslims.
These three actions are no doubt “big asks.” They may even seem unrealistic. Yet we’ve already seen some progress, if only a little, particularly on the third point. Amongst white evangelicals, figures such as Joshua Graves and Bob Roberts, Jr., and organizations such as Neighborly Faith have been outspoken in calling upon their co-religionists to reject anti-Muslim hatred and to view Muslims as their neighbors.
Racism is the disease, the cancer that has metastasized into extensive anti-Muslim hatred, discrimination, and violence.
The third point also holds the most promise for Asma Uddin’s proposal that religious liberty serve as a unifying issue between white evangelicals and Muslims. A shared commitment to religious liberty can potentially function as a vehicle by which white evangelical communities cultivate relationships with Muslims. These relationships in turn can become game changers as there is a correlation between knowing a Muslim and lower levels of Islamophobia, all the more important given that white evangelicals are the least likely to know a Muslim.
Even with this progress and such intriguing proposals, white Christians have considerable work to do to make up for their complicity in stoking and sustaining anti-Muslim discrimination and racism. And we all have our work cut out for us in regards to the other two points, including the daunting task of tackling U.S. imperialism. The United States’ place atop a global hegemonic order depends heavily on Islamophobia and the racializing of Muslim populations. It will not be easy to convince the political establishment to relinquish its imperial ambitions and the racist ideologies that undergird them.
Healing the divide between white evangelicals and Muslims is a noble and necessary endeavor. But there will be no lasting healing or interfaith harmony until we situate the fight against Islamophobia within an anti-racist framework, until we end U.S. imperial and militaristic projects that disproportionately target Muslim populations, and until we see more white Christian leaders and communities step up and take greater responsibility for combating Islamophobia.