History Prof. Juan Cole examined the rise of Islamophobia in the Western world in response to recent waves of anti-Muslim sentiment following a series of attacks attributed to Islamic extremists. At the event, which was attended by about 50 students and hosted by the University's Muslim Students' Association, Cole kicked off the talk by defining the “American identity.” The identity, he said, truly began with the idea of manifest destiny — an ideology asserting that Americans in the 19th century were destined to expand the United States to the western coast — and the subsequent expansion into Western frontier. He also said he felt the centrality of the frontier in America’s identity was responsible for the centrality of the military.
“I think there was a 19th century sense,” Cole said, “that there was turbulence out there on the frontier, and it was important to the wellbeing of the nation that that turbulence be dealt with militarily.”
The new frontier of today, Cole said, is no longer the American Southwest but the Middle East. He noted the so-called frontier has shifted many times in American history, encompassing groups such as Native Americans, Roman Catholicism, communism and still others at different points at time.
He then made a point he would return to throughout the lecture, that there are two ways for politicians to motivate voters: promising things and making them afraid.
Cole said following the Camp David Accords of 1978, which led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the next biggest threat to Israel was Iraq, he said. As a result of this threat — which Cole noted he felt was exaggerated — neoconservative groups put pressure on the U.S. government to take military action against Iraq, culminating in Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign in Iraq in 1998.
Touching on terrorist groups in the Middle East, Cole compared their tactics to those of American politicians. Groups like ISIS, Cole said, are “the mirror image of fear-mongering in America.” He also noted that it was incorrect to call such groups “Islamic.” While they could be called “Muslim” because “Muslim” can describe any person of that faith, the word “Islamic,” he said, is used to describe a set of religious ideals with which terrorism is not consistent.
When Cole opened up the floor to questions, one student asked if he thought the prevalence of Muslims in professional fields like medicine and engineering was detrimental to their voice in the community, as opposed to encouraging Muslims to pursue careers in arenas like the media.
“Having only professionals is like wearing a muzzle,” Cole said in response. “They’re never going to ask a doctor about Islamophobia.”
LSA freshman Yasmeen Afifi said she felt obligated to come to the talk because of her personal connection to it.
“I feel like I was sort of forced into the political realm because of my identity as a woman and as a Muslim,” Afifi said. “I basically came here to understand more about how Islamophobia is manifesting in the West.”
Citing recent discussion of Islamophobia in the media, LSA senior Moaz Sinan said he attended because he felt that it was important to get a broader outlook on the subject.
“I thought it was beneficial in the sense that, you know, there’s a context of the Islamophobia we’re seeing today,” Sinan said. “There’s a history behind it, and Professor Cole kind of took us along that history.”