“Islamophobia” is a modern word for a prejudice that dates back to the Middle Ages and that permeates Western societies in the 21st century. It refers to the fear of and hostility toward Muslims and Islam, as well as the discriminatory, exclusionary, and violent practices arising from these attitudes that target Muslims and those perceived as Muslims. Islamophobia is best understood as a form of cultural racism that instigates animosity based on religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and ethnicity. The historical roots of Islamophobia are found in the political rivalries between Islamic empires and European Christian kingdoms and empires dating back to the Middle Ages. During this period, both Christians and Muslims depicted one another in unflattering terms, conceiving of the other religion as inferior and a distortion of God’s true revelation. By the 19th century, European empires gained the upper hand in this rivalry and imposed some form of colonial rule across vast swaths of the Muslim-majority world. To justify imperial expansion, Europeans developed Orientalist narratives that frequently cast Islam as a backward, uncivilized, and barbaric religion, at odds with European civilization. This narrative found new life as a “clash of civilizations” framework was deployed after the Cold War and particularly after the 9/11 attacks to explain both the rise in Islamist terrorism and to justify ongoing Western military intervention in Muslim-majority regions under the guise of the War on Terror. Islamophobia is exacerbated by the fact that Muslims often lack the power to control the narrative of Islam in the modern West. What most non-Muslims “know” about Islam often comes from one of two sources: the mass media, which frames Muslims primarily through the lens of terrorism and violence; and a professional Islamophobia network, a cadre of right-wing bloggers, activists, authors, and politicians who make a living demonizing and dehumanizing Muslims. Decades if not centuries of Islamophobia have had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of Muslims living in the West. Since 9/11, Muslims have been subject to intrusive government surveillance and profiling programs, detentions and deportations, registration systems, hate crimes, and infringements on freedom of religion in the form of antisharia laws, hijab and full-face veil bans, and localized and political resistance to the building of mosques and minarets.
Kathryn Gin Lum
Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line. The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come. Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.