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Piercing the Veil: Islamophobia and Miseducation in the American South

Cleveland County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Alton Nolen, the man accused of beheading his former coworker Colleen Hufford at a food distribution plant in Moore, Oklahoma. Minutes after being fired, Nolen, a Muslim, entered a different section of the Vaughan Foods facility and attacked employees. The tragic incident, concurrent with a surging ISIS in the Middle East, has contributed to the firestorm of controversy over Islam’s role in the United States.

A few days after the attack, a group of eight Oklahoma state representatives released a statement chastising the federal government for deeming the beheading mere “workplace violence” and calling for “public discussion about potential terrorists in our midst and the role that Shariah law plays in their actions.” The “Counterterrorism Caucus’” most outspoken member, Representative John Bennett of Sallisaw, had previously stated that Islam is a “cancer that needed to be cut out of America.” In Oklahoma, which infamously banned Sharia law in 2010, Bennett’s anti-Islam message resonates, despite the state’s small Muslim population and no documented usage of Sharia law. Arizona, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Carolina have also banned Sharia law.

Beheading suspect Alton Nolen. Nolen had previously been arrested for multiple felonies, including assault and battery of a police officer, a fact rarely mentioned in Islamophobic remarks. Image courtesy Moore Police Department.
Beheading suspect Alton Nolen. Nolen had previously been arrested for multiple felonies, including assault and battery of a police officer, a fact rarely mentioned in Islamophobic remarks. Source: Moore Police Department, September 2014

However, the fear-mongering is not confined to Oklahoma. Conservative websites like Breitbart and Washington Times have reported on the alleged ties between the Oklahoma City mosque Nolen attended, alleged Al Qaeda leader Awlaki, and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro echoed this dubious claim on her show on September 27, 2014 when she declared “until we put the Fear of God in them [Muslims], they’re going to keep coming. We can’t negotiate with them, we can’t trade with them. We can’t let them out of Guantanamo. In fact, even Guantanamo is too good for them, and I don’t personally care what the rest of the world thinks of us.” Among some conservatives, fear of Islam has grown so potent that even a simple Islamic prayer to celebrate a touchdown is cause for alarm:

“Oh, and just so you know, Arrowhead Stadium–now that Abdullah consecrated it with his Muslim prayer and has been made a shaheed [martyr] by the NFL–is now a mosque. That’s how Muslims and Islam see it. It is now Dar Al-Islam. Islamic Land. Got that, infidels?

“How long ’til pork, bacon, and alcohol are banned there? 3-2-1 . . . . allahhead Stadium, comin’ soon” wrote Debbie Schlussel, Wall Street Journal contributor and popular conservative blogger, in response to a touchdown celebration by Kansas City Chief’s football player Husain Abdullah. When something as innocuous as a gesture during a football game warrants a maliciously disrespectful tirade and generates equally venomous responses, America has an Islamophobia problem.

This is not to deny the existence of violent extremism in America, nor Alton Nolen’s potential, though unconfirmed, exposure to a particularly violent strain of prison Islam called Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh. But when Schlussel, Bill O’Reilly and other Fox News commentators refuse to acknowledge the role of Christianity in right-wing domestic terrorism, yet immediately point to the potential role of Islam in other attacks, they are proliferating not just hypocrisy but intolerance. Much of Debbie Schlussel’s and Fox News’ audience resides in Oklahoma and in the South, where this Islamophobia is fueled by a toxic mixture: lower levels of educational attainment and higher levels of evangelical Protestantism. The link between education level and tolerance of other ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs has been validated by numerous studies. Though the cited causal mechanisms often differ, the result is always the same: the more educated a citizenry, the more tolerant it is of others. As UNESCO notes, “More highly educated citizens are found to be significantly more tolerant of out-groups…They are also more likely to understand democracy in terms of free elections, civil rights, gender equality, and economic prosperity.”

According to an Education Week Quality Counts Report, Oklahoma ranks 41st in elementary to high-school achievement and 43rd for chance for success. Only 22.7% of Oklahomans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, a percentage that ranks 42nd in the country. There are some encouraging signs – the state’s pre-K program is rightly praised – but the current state of Oklahoma education is abysmal. Other southern states fare no better. In Mississippi, only 19.6% obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher. In Arkansas, 18.9%. Louisiana, 21.4%; Alabama, 22%; West Virginia, 17.3%. By almost every metric, in almost every study, the U.S. south lags behind the rest of the country in education.

Evangelical Protestantism is also prevalent in the South. A 2006 multilevel analysis by Seth Ovadia of Bowdoin College and Laura Moore of Hood College of 1973-2002 General Social Survey and 1990 U.S. census data confirmed that “residing in an area with a larger proportion of college graduates significantly increases individual levels of tolerance” but also discovered that “residing in an area with a larger proportion of evangelical Protestants significantly decreases tolerance,” an effect mitigated by education. The percentage of religious adherents affiliated with Evangelical Protestantism in Oklahoma is more than twice the national average, tied with neighboring Arkansas for the largest percentage in the nation. Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina also contain larger percentages of Evangelical Protestants than the rest of the country. Previous studies have demonstrated that intolerance is higher in these states – likely for these religious and educational reasons.

Survey data on attitudes towards Muslims support Moore and Ovadia’s findings. A 2007-2009 poll conducted by Gallup found that respondents who had only completed high school were much more likely to express negative opinions of Muslims and were much more likely to be Republican, the political party to which most Evangelical Protestants align. In a separate survey conducted by Pew, white Evangelical Protestants gave Muslims the lowest rating of any religious group.

Alton Nolen is a man with a history of violence drawn to violent ideology and Islam may have played a role in how the killing was performed. But Professor Jack Glaser, Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, doesn’t believe the Moore beheading constitutes terrorism. “[Nolen] may well have identified with those terrorists,” Professor Glaser said, “but I don’t think I’d call his acts “terrorism,” because it seems more like [the attack] was motivated out of anger than out of a desire to affect the behavior of the group(s) to which the victim belonged.”

Yet some in the media are calling the attack “Islamic terrorism,” potentially perpetuating Muslim stereotypes and intolerance of Islam. In this vitriolic environment, events like the beheading in Moore and the atrocities committed by ISIS in the Middle East can be potentially dangerous for Muslim communities throughout the South. The Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma has received messages threatening to kill all Muslims unless they leave Oklahoma. An Arkansan gun range owner has banned Muslims from her business, receiving accolades from gun-rights activists and others on the right.

Muslims in America, constantly suspected of secretly supporting terrorism, must vociferously condemn tragedies like the beheading in Moore and the atrocities of ISIS committed in Islam’s name, or face social exile.  And if they don’t condemn loudly enough, or don’t meet some unquantifiable measurement of “confronting jihad,” they are criticized, castigated, and declared terrorist sympathizers as the mistrust and intolerance festers. This predictable cycle is unlikely to be broken until the South – and the United States in general – better educates its citizens. Until then, statements like Fox News commentator Andrea Tantaros’ will be all too common:

They’ve been doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years. If you study the history of Islam, our ship captains were getting murdered. The French had to tip us off. I mean these were the days of Thomas Jefferson. They’ve been doing the same thing. This isn’t a surprise. You can’t solve it with a dialogue. You can’t solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It’s the only thing these people understand.

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