[IJR title is "Why the War on 'Islamophobia' Distracts Us from Legitimate Terrorism Concerns." The text below differs slightly from IJR's.]
Much of the discussion revolved around the well-worn canard that media distortion inflates concerns about Islamist terrorism. "While studies show that a greater security risk emanates from white supremacists, rightwing extremists, and ultra-separatist groups, both here in the United States as well as in Europe," Abdelkader told the attendees, "when we hear about terrorism in the news, it tends to be in the context of Muslims and Islam."
In fact, this claim, which originated with a 2015 New America Foundation (NAF) study of American domestic terrorism, has long since been debunked. Among other flaws, the study's finding that rightwing terrorists have claimed more lives in America after September 11, 2001 than Islamist terrorists ignores the relatively miniscule size of the country's Muslim population. Additionally, recent massacres such as in Orlando, Florida, arguably American's largest mass shooting, have increased the NAF's latest tabulation to 94 deaths from jihadists versus 48 from rightwing extremists since 9/11.
The 2016 Europol report on terrorism in the European Union (EU) directly contradicts Abdelkader's claim. In 2015, 150 people died as a result of jihadist terrorist attacks in the EU. Accordingly, the "main concern reported by EU member states continues to be jihadist terrorism."
Alleging negative media bias against Islam and Muslims, Esposito called for putting "constructive stories" in the media that "contextualize more." He referenced "hard data that says that Muslims are politically, economically, socially, and educationally integrated" in the U.S., although the real statistical record is mixed. While income and educational levels of Muslim Americans are encouraging, they have disproportionately high incarceration rates. In contrast, Europe's larger Muslim populations are plagued by high incarceration rates, high unemployment, and poverty.
Esposito struck an Orwellian note when he announced that, like racism, the term "Islamophobia" should signal to any critic of Islam that "what you are doing is unacceptable in society." This phobia exists when the "irrationality and the fear" is "of Islam itself, the religion," he maintained, objecting to the many Americans who "buy into the line that Islam is a particularly violent religion."
Yet, Esposito's personal recollections suggested the value of examining Islam skeptically rather than through rose-colored lenses. He noted that Islam and Muslims were "were virtually invisible" in American society and academia before Iran's 1979 revolution, such that "very few people knew who Ayatollah Khomeini was, let alone what was going on in Iran." Esposito's friends "were the top experts on Iran," but "they never looked at the vitality of Islam in the modern period until they went to do research on their dissertation and happened to do field work in Iran." Spurious accusations of "Islamophobia" will only increase the chance of future academics repeating this pattern and not asking whether Islam as practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran might be a particularly violent creed.
Esposito himself has learned little since the Iranian revolution's violent outrages perpetrated in Islam's name. Repeating a talking point from previous presentations, he decried that, in the U.S., "Islam has been seen through the lens of the Iranian revolution," including "Death to America" chants and the Iranian hostage crisis. This supposedly "distorted lens" affects American policy so that "it makes it a lot easier to go along with a coup in Egypt . . . rather than saying, if you don't like your government, you have elections." He never explained whether elections under Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government would have been more meaningful than those under Iran's theocratic tyranny.
Esposito's peddling of discredited theories continued while answering audience questions, telling one attendee that "most Jews are not Semites, and indeed many of them are from Europe." In fact, scholarly research and DNA analysis has demonstrated that most Jews around the world trace their origins to Israel and have a common ancestry. This includes European Jews, who do not descend from medieval Khazar converts, as false theories claim.
Esposito condemns "statements that brushstroke an entire population" of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, yet has positioned himself as a leading opponent of critical inquiry into Islam. Charges of "Islamophobia" can only have a chilling effect upon vitally needed discernment between Muslims seeking personal piety and Islamists pursing dangerous sectarian political agendas. The losers will be Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.