5 Questions With . . . Religion’s Peter Gottschalk

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This issue we ask “5 Questions” of Peter Gottschalk, chair and professor of religion and co-author, with Gabriel Greenberg ’04, of the book Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (Rowman & Littlefield).

Q. How did you become interested in studying Islam?

A: My interest arose entirely by serendipity. While in college, I hadn’t any interest in studying Islam but, because I was planning on visiting my parents who had just moved to Saudi Arabia, I took an introductory course on Islam. Fortunately, John Esposito, one of the few American specialists in Islam at the time, taught the class. From Saudi, I continued on to my first trip to India, where I lived in an area with a mixed Hindu, Muslim, and Christian population. I didn’t go to India for the sake of learning about the local religions, but the similarities and differences among the religious practices there, and between the forms of Islam practiced in Saudi and India, piqued my interest. After my return to the U.S., following other career pursuits, the lure of understanding more about both Islamic and Hindu traditions grew until it finally overtook me, and I shifted my attention.

Peter Gottschalk, chair and professor of religion, is the co-author of the book Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. The book aims to better publicize the existence of an accepted – and corrosive – social prejudice. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Q: Much of your scholarly work has been focused on Islam in the Asian subcontinent, but your book Islamophobia is decidedly focused on the Western World. How did this come about? 


A: Following the tragedies of 9/11, it wasn’t hard to guess that the prejudice that Muslims historically had faced in the United States would heighten. Of course, the hijackers religiously justified the violence they unleashed against their victims, but this clearly resulted from an entirely marginal interpretation of Islam held by a fraction of Muslims so small that they would be insignificant, if not for their ability to inflict such devastation by sacrificing their lives. Nevertheless, many Americans blamed Islam indiscriminately, and by implication suspected all Muslims. Even before 9/11, I had used images to portray Islamophobic sentiments to my students. A professor in my graduate school, John Woods, had given a lecture using such pictures and it had deeply moved me that anti-Muslim sentiments – which I harbored myself – could be as normative and as little challenged today as anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism have been in the past.

Just as I had been influenced by a lecture, so one of my students, Gabriel Greenberg ’04, became interested in the issue through one of my presentations on the theme. As his senior honors thesis advisor, I saw how persuasively he demonstrated that despite historical changes in the specifics of anti-Muslim sentiments, the general themes remain the same. For instance, the conflation of “Muslim” with “Arab,” the racism implicit in this association, and the stereotypes of the violent Muslim man and oppressed Muslim woman all have returned repeatedly over the last century, at least. Upon the completion of his work, we agreed to pull together our research and publish Islamophobia, hoping to better publicize the existence of this very accepted – and corrosive – social prejudice.

Q: What do you make of the attention being given to the “Ground Zero Mosque” – Islamophobia, pure politics, or something in between?

A: At least three dynamics have combined to create the controversy over the Cordoba House project. First, the emotional pain of those intimately connected with Ground Zero is understandably still raw and sensitive. Second, an unfamiliarity with the inestimable diversity among Muslims makes many Americans think of one Muslim as representative of all Muslims. Hence, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the initiative, becomes little less suspect in the eyes of some than any al Qaeda member. Third, and finally, the willingness of some politicians to play on these fears – and of many media outlets to sensationalize stories in ways that attract the attention of Islam-wary readers (e.g., “the Ground Zero Mosque”) – has turned a well-intentioned plan to build an interfaith Islamic center two blocks from the site into a nefarious scheme to build a “victory mosque” on sacred ground.

Q: How would you characterize perceptions of the U.S. population in general with regards to Muslims and Islamic nations?

A: The tragedies of 2001 compelled many Americans to learn more about Muslims and Islam. Some did so by engaging U.S. Muslims in conversations held at mosques and Islamic centers, as well as in churches, synagogues, and temples. However, many have relied on news reporting that often oversimplifies issues, stereotypes Muslims, and reinforces America’s endemic Islamophobia. Gabe and I found three broad dynamics that characterize U.S. perceptions. First, a very monolithic view of Islam assumes that every Muslim practices and believes in the same manner, overlooking the tremendous variety among them. Second, many Americans expect that their reading of the Quran and Islamic history explains how all Muslims must read these resources, entirely foregoing consideration of how all texts are interpreted, and interpretations vary between individuals and cultures. Finally, many Americans equate all Muslims with the most Islamically conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban. They assume that the strictest Muslims must represent the “truest” form of the religion and overlook the inner debates among Muslims regarding the appropriateness of these Islamic expressions.

Q: Some people contend that an analogous “Westernphobia” exists in Islamic world toward the U S. and the Western nations based on stereotypes and misinformation, and that it is even more pronounced and volatile that any Western-based Islamophobia. How would you respond to this?

A: For a great many Muslims, the West represents economic success and democratic politics they’d like for their own societies, despite a general perception of Western moral laxity. Yet, there’s no doubt that a fear of the West exists among many predominantly Muslim cultures. At times, this wildly exaggerates Western influence on their societies. However, when Gabriel and I include the term “phobia” in our title to describe American fears of Islam and Muslims, we refer to an exaggerated social fear. It is difficult to say that many non-Western Muslims have not had good reasons to fear the West given two facts. First, Europeans violently conquered, oppressively ruled, and/or indirectly controlled most of their lands between 1800 and 1950. Second, presently the United States financially and/or politically supports undemocratic, repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while invading Iraq and Afghanistan to replace unfriendly governments.

Ultimately, whereas Americans rightfully fear a repeat of terrorist crime against them at home and abroad, the number of American fatalities caused by Muslims in the past decade pales in comparison with the number of innocents killed by Western forces in Iraq alone. So, while many non-Muslim Westerners and non-Western Muslims harbor stereotypes and misinformation about one another, the fantastic disparity in political and military power makes Western misperceptions far more consequential than Muslim misperceptions.