The network of Islamophobia and misinformation: fake news and the Holocaust

By Christin Howard

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While there are endless problematic, idiotic or downright terrifying topics to discuss in the second week of Donald Trump’s presidency, the topic of fake news seems most insidious to me at the moment.

Fake news, and the “alternative facts” contained within it, popped up frequently during the election cycle, leaving many clamoring to find a definitive explanation for its rise. The social media echo chamber, the anti-intellectual movement, the public’s increasing mistrust of the media and Trump’s talents as a manipulator have all contributed to this rise, and to the confusion surrounding it. Each cause deserves to be examined in its own right, but I will explore one of the most terrifying explanations of the spread of fake news: the deliberate dissemination of blatantly false information in order to shape public opinion for private interests.

I am referring to a “network of Islamophobia” that has plagued the United States since long before Trump was anything other than a spray-tanned celebrity.

This network consists of anti-Muslim foundations and activists, misinformation experts and certain religious groups and their allies in the media and in politics. Each of these groups profoundly and purposefully misrepresent Islam as a religion and ideology, its practitioners as people and the causes and facts behind terrorism.

Their main goal is to create the sense that the United States (both physically and ideologically) is under attack by Muslim individuals, Islamic ideology and Islamic countries. To do this, they misrepresent facts about violence perpetrated against Americans by Muslims, in particular refugees, and seek to distort the beliefs of the average Muslim, while portraying all Muslim countries as backward and violent. Additionally, they misconstrue Sharia Law as a totalitarian ideology committed to destroying the west and western values, when in reality Sharia law is only a manifestation of Islamic beliefs and is in no way related to the west.

This spreading of misinformation begins with seven major organizations, each of which has pumped millions of dollars into anti-Islamic think tanks. Indeed, between 2001 and 2009 these seven organizations donated 42.6 million dollars to anti-Islamic organizations, which was then used to fund biased and unscientific research about the dangers of Muslims. This money was also used to fund “experts” on Islam who were in fact devoted to spreading falsehoods about the religion and those who practice it. These experts give talks and publish op-eds masquerading as news to get their message out. In addition, they have been given a voice on conservative media platforms such as Fox News and programs hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck

Experts also consult certain grassroots organizations. Speaking at their conferences and on their radio and television shows while often writing pieces on their websites, these “experts” constantly rail against Islam. Much of the propaganda and misinformation released by such speakers is then used as fodder for donation appeals by these grassroots organizations (which are also often rooted in evangelical Christian ideology), which can then use this money to fund politicians with an anti-Islamic bent.

This means that the public, especially individuals with their finger on the conservative pulse, are constantly being bombarded with anti-Islam rhetoric, propaganda and exaggerations or lies from seemingly different sources, which all ultimately have their roots in the same few organizations and people. It is no wonder then that these “facts” have come to embed themselves in the minds of many Americans. It was easy for Trump to coopt these ideas into his vision of a declining America under attack from bleeding-heart liberals, the media, Mexicans and Muslims. It is an appealing story, and one that was already deeply rooted in the minds of many Americans before Trump even made an appearance on the political scene.

Blaming immigrants, refugees and Muslims is an easy answer to the devastatingly complex question of America’s “decline.” It provides a group of people that we can all rally against and direct our anger toward. This network of misinformation is eerily similar to the network of anti-Semitic propaganda that swirled in Germany before World War II. I am not saying that Trump can be equated to Hitler, but I am saying that the spreading of blatant falsehoods about a religion and blaming its members for the problems of an entire country never works out well for anybody. I was horrified when Trump did not mention Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. To me, that choice is a statement that he is deliberately trying to refrain from reminding us of the consequences of directing hatred and fear towards a specific religion.

The concoction of hatred and fear that this deliberate deception of the public has led to is, in a word, terrifying.

Christin Howard is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]