The Swedish Incident: Counternarrative in the Age of the Islamophobia Industry

Freedom of Speech and Islamophobia (Credit: Latuff Cartoons)

Zak Soeria-Atmadja

During his February 20, 2017, speech in Florida, President Donald Trump defended his Muslim ban by referring to a non-existent terror attack in Sweden, implying an inherent relationship between accepting Muslim refugees and experiencing a rise in terror attacks and crime. The former Swedish prime minister sarcastically refuted the claim. The increase of Islamophobic fake news or ‘alternative facts’ have been on the rise, and were used in order to justify President Donald Trump’s executive order banning all travel from seven (then six) Muslim-majority countries. Preceding Trump’s Sweden comments were Kellyanne Conway’s fictitious Bowling Green Massacre and Sean Spicer’s fictitious Atlanta Attack. Islamophobic rhetoric is nothing new within U.S. discourse, and it is also something that is deliberately fabricated as well. The media plays a major role in keeping this rhetoric present in the American collective consciousness. The question therefore is how do Muslims counteract the hegemony of Islamophobia within mainstream culture? As a result of my research there has been a great diversity of approaches, but what struck me the most is the number of Muslim independent media tackling the issue of Islamophobia, and unsurprisingly Muslim women are in the forefront of this movement.

The Islamophobia Industry

Islamophobia in its most basic definition is the fear of Islam and Muslims, and from that fear hatred, hostility, and discrimination is manifested (Lean). Though there might be several reasons how Islamophobia manifests, fear is still the end product of this process, and fear is one of the most powerful tool for people in power to manipulate other people. Fear then results in discrimination, hatred, and more violence towards people. It is also important to note in order for Islamophobia to take place there needs to be some sort of deliberate misinformation that fosters fear of Muslims, since Islam is not a monolithic religion. Nathan Lean expands more on manifestation of Islamophobia, “Someone who begins to exhibit these ugly characteristics does not do so without some prompting. And however disheartening  it is to observe a pattern of social misbehavior directed at any religious, ethnic, or racial minority, it cannot be forgotten that they are manifestation of a greater metastasizing cancer” (Lean). What Lean is trying to suggest is that Islamophobia did not naturally just manifest out of thin air, there is an intentional driving force behind it that made it happen, and the impact of fear-based Islamophobia can lead to larger problems.

The process of demonizing certain groups is nothing new within the U.S. context, in fact discrimination has always been a part of the fabric of the U.S. empire. The genocide of Indigenous people of the Americas for a formation of settler-colonial state, the transatlantic slave trade of Africans, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and demonizing and othering people of color and minority groups are effective tools to the creation of an empire. Anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. can be traced back to the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-81, and anti-Palestinian sentiment, but fear of Muslims and hate crimes based on those fears did not really come into prominence until after 9/11.

One might suggest this process of benefiting from discrimination is some form of an industry, and clearly the industry of Islamophobia is alive and well in the United States. Islamophobia is a network/system with groups and individuals that benefit from the exploitation of their subjects. Money is a key part of this industry. Funders funnel money to avenues where Islamophobic rhetoric can be distributed widely, affecting concrete changes within society. According to the Center for American Progress’ research report titled Fear, Inc.: The Roots of Islamophobia Network in America, seven top contributors to the Islamophobia network funneled around $42.6 million in 2001-09, to “misinformation experts,” such as Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. These experts spread myths and lies about Islam and Muslims which are then circulated within the Islamophobia Echo Chamber, consisting of the media, grassroots organizations, the religious right and political players (Ali).    

Mirhosseini and Rouzbeh uses scissors as a metaphor when explaining socialization of false-facts concerning Islam and Muslims,

One may put these authors’ examples of politicians who push Islamophobic myths as facts next to many examples of government-supported Islamophobia and next to the argument for the very creation of Al-Qaeda-like gangs by Western secret services. The picture that such a combination may provide is a simple pair of scissors: As the lower blade the Western hegemonic powers, represented by the US government, created fabrications like Al-Qaeda and ISIL and cultivated a brutal so-called extremist Islamic attitude for purposes like facing the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or crushing Syria and grappling with its anti-Zionist allies like Iran and Hizbollah; as the upperblade, the same godfathers of terror enflamed the Islamophobic blaze and extremely publicized it through their own media to forge and naturalize a conception of extremist Islamism as Islam. The final stage is just a simple co-working of the two blades; fight anything related to Islam (which is all extremist) including its inherent cause of seeking justice and resisting oppression. The world would be easier to tame in the absence of such a cause (Mirhosseini and Rouzbeh).

(Credit: CAIR)
Total Mosque Incidents in the U.S. in 2015, reported by CAIR (Credit: CAIR)

The spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes over the past year has been astounding. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported in 2015 on 71 recorded incidents surrounding vandalizing mosques, an all-time high since 2010. The Bridge Institute collected 174 reports regarding anti-Muslim violence and vandalism, including 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats against persons or institutions, 54 acts of vandalism or destruction of property, 8 arsons, and 9 shootings or bombings, among other citizens (Abdelkader). These reports reflects the horrendous manifestation of Islamophobia that turned violent, though the numbers do not completely represent the complete picture since most incidents went unreported. Trump’s campaign and the 2016 election also brought in more Islamophobic rhetoric into the U.S.

Unlike most industries, where products are manufactured under a corporate umbrella, the Islamophobia industry is more dynamic and flexible, with various moving parts that are not attached to one single branch. Still, its purveyors prowl the same terrain and are connected in many significant ways. Beyond legitimizing the work of one another, which is a key feature of how they operate, the Islamophobia industry has harnessed the power of the internet to expand its small networks into national and international organizations (Lean).

Islamophobia in the Media

The media has much influence in creating public opinion about Islam and Muslims, so it is evident to see the media as an essential tool for spreading Islamophobic lies as a process within the bigger Islamophobia industry. It is therefore important for us to reassess media’s role as the source for objective truthful information. Navarro criticizes mass media’s role in helping forming the public discourse while claiming to still be neutral, “Information on television is presented objectively, unlike in literature or films. Thus, by claiming to champion objectivity and report real news, the informative discourse of the mass media conceals their important role as builders of realities and, consequently, their key role in the processes of imagination- and social construction- of the communities to which they belong (either national or transnational)” (Navarro). In other words the power that media holds over public discourse is too immense to maintain its objectivity. Neutrality in the media is a false concept anyways.

For example, Edward Said examined how and why the mass media (especially in the U.S., Britain, and Israel) constantly reduces Islam and Muslims to a series of stereotypes and generalizations that merely portray this as monolithic, as a threat and danger to to the West, and as a violent and irrational religion. Martin Munoz has highlighted the persistence of an agreed cultural paradigm that Western societies have forged on the Arab and Muslim Orient “based on a culturalist interpertation of Islamic societies explained from an essentialist and ethnocentric perspective, thus preventing the comprehension of much more plural and changing political and social realities  than what normally seems to be the case” (Munoz).

The magnitude of the media became more nuanced when President Trump started using Twitter as his avenue to spread bigotry. It is interesting to see the Commander-in-Chief, a person that holds executive power, directly communicates with the public expressing his opinions, which much of the time published without further fact-checking. The right-wing population and fascists have since receive validation towards their bigoted beliefs and actions perpetuated by hate from the President of the United States which in effect motivates them in harassing and assaulting oppressed groups.

Muslim Countermedia

American Muslims are facing challenges from many sides. On one side, the Islamophobia industry is funded by right-wing organizations spewing misinformation through the media creating a generalized Islamophobic rhetoric, often resulting in violence. On the other side, the executive branch of the country writes legislation to strip rights from Muslim Americans and further demonizes them. All of this take place because of false facts concerning Islam and Muslims, creating a sense that such a diverse group of people from different ethnicities and world regions hold the same values, disregarding their socio-political contexts. Combating this monolith is one of American Muslims’ channels of resistance. Their voices have often been coopted by media and legislative halls, speaking for and making laws for people they know nothing about. Though it is an uphill battle, the fight for Muslim self-agency is important and it is done through various avenues.

Following I will highlight several different resources of Muslim-created content through different mediums in order to provide counterarguments against Islamophobia, and giving platforms to Muslims for self-agency, while also providing resources to Muslim Americans in living under Trump’s regime.

Websites and Blogs

MuslimGirl.Com (Source: MuslimGirl)

Muslimgirl is a one-stop-shop website for articles written by Muslim for Muslims. It spans from news concerning Islamophobia, opinion pieces, political analysis, to tips for allies in navigating allyship for Muslims. Muslimgirl is attempting to normalize Muslim identity for Muslims and non-Muslims. The site is created as a response to the overwhelmingly disfavor of Muslims in the media that skews public views and normalizes racism. Muslimgirl is taking back a coopted Muslim narrative from the general Islamophobic discourse. “We at MuslimGirl are taking back the narrative. We use our own voices to speak up for ourselves. We are raising the place of Muslim women in mainstream society. We are drawing awareness to the Qur’an’s message of gender equality and Islam’s principle of peace. We are paving the way towards a world in which every woman can raise her head without fear of being attacked for her gender or beliefs…. We are pioneering our own paths as Muslim women living in today’s modern society, and this is our story.”

MuslimGirl created guidebooks as resources for Muslims. Regarding Trump’s Muslim ban, MuslimGirl put together a guide that includes talking points, resources, language guidelines, and statistics for everyone to navigate/understand the Muslim ban. Another guidebook is written for Muslim women when facing dangerous situations, and also a resource to prevent Islamophobic attacks.

JooJoo Azad (Source: JooJoo Azad)

Joojoo Azad is Hoda Khatebi’s fashion blog that is filled with her articles concerning topics such intersectional feminism and Islamophobia. In her own words, “JooJoo Azad is a radical anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist, and body-positive activist fashion blog written and run by Hoda Katebi, a sarcastic (& angry) Muslim-Iranian writer, photographer, and activist living in Chicago.” Khatebi constantly challenges Orientalist narrative of Middle-Eastern Muslims, especially Hijab-wearing women. By talking about fashion Khatebi challenges the notion that you can stay apolitical. “I’m not going to let the media render me what I am not. I am not going to let others silence or hide my voice. I am here, I am making noise, and I am taking up space. In fact, JooJoo Azad was born from hate. Hate that I have experienced physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally, and wholly, and that my oppressed sisters and brothers and siblings have and continue to experience daily. Specifically, I was moved after this attack in particular to create a space where I could yell on the internet.”


Podcasts are another avenue for Muslims to take over the narrative of their lives. Podcasts are a way to claim self-agency in which the mainstream media has over Muslims. With such low barriers to participation, you just need a few tools to broadcast your voice via the internet, The podcast medium creating a direct voice on how your stories are going to be presented and who are your focus audience.

#GoodMuslimBadMuslim (Source: #GoodMuslimBadMuslim)

#GoodMuslimBadMuslim (GMBM) is a monthly podcast spearheaded by two Muslim American women, Tanzil “Taz” Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh. In GMBM, Ahmed and Noorbakhsh talk about current Muslim issues in the United States while also navigating the nuance of having Muslim identity, all done with a sense of humor. In their own words, “To the Muslim community, we are ‘bad’ Muslims – we listen to music, we don’t pray regularly, we date or get married to white men (Zahra), identify as punks and radicals (Taz), we perform and share our lives with comedy and writing…To non-Muslims, we are ‘good’ – we don’t drink, we don’t do drugs, we are not criminals, we are social justice activists and community leaders. We are successful, published, accomplished.”

On top of that Muslim Americans are inherently ‘bad’ within mainstream U.S. culture, especially in the post-9/11 era. All these norms that they have to adhere to, trying to be Muslim and American sometimes contradict each other when we explore the essentialist norms. Navigating traditional, cultural values, while also being asked to assimilate to American culture. Noorbakhsh and Ahmed try to formulate their own idea and definitions on what it means to be Muslim American women, “So really, what does it mean to be a good Muslim, when we as American women are getting mixed messages from all different angles? We’ve decided to say – fuck it. We’ll define what it means to be a good American Muslim ourselves and through our #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. And poke fun at both sides of this margin. We’ll create our own narrative how we see fit, and with lots of satire and laughs.” In other words  Noorbakhsh and Ahmed are directly confronting one of the core causes of Islamophobia, the obsession of brushing over a group of people with a broad stroke.


The demonization of Muslims and Islam is a deliberate attempt to build the U.S. empire via the Islamophobia industry. An industry funded by the right is pushed by the media through spewing misinformation and false facts imprinting the idea of Islam as a monolith, therefore stripping American Muslims off of their own agency. Resistance and resilience demonstrated by Muslim Americans include reclaiming their own self-agency and challenging the narrative of monolithic Islam by telling their own stories. From websites, blogs, and podcasts, avenues of normalizing Islam are used to challenge the stereotype.


Abdelkader, E. (2016). When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. The Bridge Initiative

Ahmed, T., & Noorbakhsh. #GOODMUSLIMBADMUSLIM. #GoodMuslimBadMuslim

Bradner, E. (2017, February 20). Trump’s Sweden comment raises questions. CNN.

CAIR. (2015). CAIR Report: Number of Incidents Targeting U.S. Mosque in 2015 Highest Ever Recorded. Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Claiborne, M. (2017, February 9). Sean Spicer on Citing Atlanta Terror Attack That Never Happened: I ‘Clearly’ Meant Orlando. ABC News.

Erlanger, S. (2013). Muslim Woman Suffers Miscarriage After Attack in France. The New York Times

Katebi, H.(n.d.). JooJoo Azad. JooJoo Azad

Lean, N. (2012). The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims. London: Pluto Press

Mirhosseini, S., & Rouzbeh, H. (2015). Instances of Islamophobia: Demonizing the Muslim “Other”. London: Lexington Books

Muslim Girl. (n.d.). Muslim Women Talk Back. Muslim Girl

Muslim Girl. (2015). Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women. Muslim Girl

Muslim Girl. (2017). Muslim Ban Guidebook. Muslim Girl

Navarro, L. (2010). Islamophobia and Sexism: Muslim Women in the Western Mass Media. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge , 8(2), 95-114.

Ross, B. (2017, February 3). Bowling Green Massacre Never Happened. ABC News.