The Islamophobia Industry | Sojourners

The Islamophobia Industry

How evangelicals see Islam as sexist but support abusers in the U.S.
Image via Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm

The controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court makes one thing clear — it’s not American Muslims but white evangelicals and the GOP political elite they support who have problems taking a moral and theological stand against sexual assault and violence.

A common Islamophobic trope is the belief that Islam oppresses Muslim women and thereby stands opposed to the gender values of the West. It’s a trope firmly embedded in foreign and domestic policy. The need to save oppressed Muslim women has fueled wars "over there" and justified restrictive laws targeting Muslims "over here."

In 2001, President Bush promised to save Afghan women from the “waking nightmare” brought on by the Taliban through the War on Terror. Sixteen years later, the Trump administration invoked “violence against women” as one of the reasons why a so-called “travel ban” on select Muslim-majority countries was necessary. Across the Atlantic, one European country after another has passed full-face veil bans to protect Muslim women from what many see as a backwards, patriarchal religion.

The Islamophobia industry makes its living in large part by casting Islam as uniquely oppressive of women. The noted anti-Islam activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, blames Islam for the sexual and physical violence Muslim women endure throughout the world, contrasting this with the freedoms and respect women experience in the West — a concept known by many as imperial feminism. A few months ago, she demanded that when men with a Muslim background are suspected of rape, “the culture and religion of the rapist … must be addressed” in order to put an end to such “primitive behavior.” This apparently does not apply to white Christian men accused of sexual assault. Hirsi Ali has asked no questions of Kavanaugh’s religion or culture. In fact, she supports Kavanaugh despite the allegations against him.

To be sure, Muslim women are among the survivors of sexual assault and violence. But narratives of oppressed Muslim women suffering from a violent and sexually abusive religion have often functioned as a distraction, a means of keeping the attention of our elected leaders on the presumably greater threat posed by lecherous Muslim men so that they need not come to terms with the full extent of the physical and sexual abuse women in the United States experience, nor with the ways white evangelicals contribute to the conditions facilitating this abuse.

One in four women in America have experienced violent abuse from an intimate partner, while one in five women have experienced attempted rape. Of the women who are murdered in the United States, 55 percent are killed by a current or former male intimate partner. In 2018, the Thomas Reuter Foundation put the United States on a list of the top ten most dangerous countries for women in the world. All of this, along with the swift rise of the #MeToo movement, cannot be explained by recourse to Islam. Muslims scarcely make up one percent of the U.S. population.

We live in a nation in which many conservative politicians, particularly white men in the GOP leadership, cannot dwell on these statistics or take the stories behind them seriously because the stories and data point to perpetrators arising from a culture of toxic masculinity with enabling ties to white evangelical Christianity.

It’s not American Muslims but white evangelicals who have overwhelmingly found a way to make sexual predatory behavior fit into their theological and moral scaffolding. Let’s not forget that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, a man caught on tape bragging about sexual assault and grabbing women’s genitals, not to mention a man who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment many times over. Only 8 percent of Muslims voted for Trump.

Almost one year ago, 80 percent of white evangelicals in Alabama voted for Roy Moore, a GOP Senate candidate who faced multiple allegations of molesting young girls.

In a recent poll, almost half of white evangelicals indicated they would support Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination even if the allegations leveled against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford were proven true. Two of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., dismiss the allegations against Kavanaugh and stand 100 percent behind him and the president who nominated him. 

What we've seen these past couple of weeks is a colossal failure in political and moral courage by a cadre of male political elites, many of them Republican senators supported and empowered by white evangelicals, who cannot tell truths about women who tell truths about their most horrific experiences — especially after the confirmation of Kavanaugh. They cannot point to Islam or anything else, including their Christian faith or the faith of their evangelical base, to distract us from their failure to stand by and with women who are survivors of sexual assault and violence. We have seen these men and their evangelical enablers for who they are, and in doing so, we increasingly see our nation for what it is and what it still needs to become.