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Can Democracy Counteract Xenophobia?

By Maria Suslova

Russians frequently engage in heated discussions about whether xenophobia is at the root of many large-scale conflicts. Some analysts – whom we shall call sporadic supporters of constructivism – hurl accusations at the mass media: there would be no phobias as a source of conflict if the media refrained from emphasizing the ethnic, racial, or religious identity of the conflicting sides or if they ignored such problems altogether. Supporters, also mostly sporadic, of the neo-institutional theory, which is more in fashion at present, object to such opinions and claim that conflicts arise out of flaws in the institutional system. If Russia were genuinely democratic and ruled by law, the fundamental prerequisites for ethnic and/or religious phobias would disappear. Doubts arise concerning the validity of both positions when measured against the U.S. experience. The United States obviously falls into the scope of countries with highly-developed liberal and democratic institutions in politics and law, while the country is unsurpassed in terms of political correctness because of media restrictions against hate speech. Yet, even in the U.S., a noticeable surge in xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia, has been recorded since the early 2000s. This explains our choice of countries as different as the U.S. and Russia for a comparative analysis to identify the impact of fundamental political conditions, which are linked to the type of political regime, on xenophobia, including Islamophobia. We presumed that the U.S., which is ranked number one globally in terms of the level of democracy, development of civil society, legal protection of its citizens, and standards of tolerance, has fought prejudice against Islam better than Russia, a country with visible authoritarian traits and weak civil institutions (which are actually in a nascent state). But reality has proven to be far more difficult than theoretic constructs. The research showed from the very beginning that Islamophobia (various forms of prejudice against Islam as an ideology and against its followers who are viewed as a religious community) is more typical of the U.S., while Russia displays

other forms of xenophobia; namely, ethnophobia (hatred, fear, or bias against ethnic communities declared to be „aliens”) and a distrust of migrants. Racial intolerance has been the main form of xenophobia in the U.S. almost from its very establishment. Yet white racism, or prejudice against African-Americans, had been practically overcome by the beginning of the 21st century. There is ample evidence of this: opinion poll data, FBImonitored indicators of a decline in racially-motivated crimes, including violations of political correctness, and, simultaneously, an increase in the number of African-Americans in top government positions. However, the lull on the anti-xenophobic front did not last for long. The 11 September 2001 terrorist acts triggered a new form of xenophobia targeting Muslims in the U.S. According to national opinion polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, derogatory attitudes towards Muslims almost doubled to 29 percent in the months following the September 2001 attacks from 17 percent before they occurred. By 2007, more than one-third of Americans (35 percent) expressed a dislike of Muslims. Although there have been no terrorist acts since 2001 in the U.S., antiIslamic sentiment has not subsided. The negative attitude towards Muslims is largely fuelled by the foreign policy crises that have occurred since 2001 in the wake of the 11 September tragedy. These include the U.S.-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a high likelihood of war with Iran. The results of the sociological surveys carried out by various centers (the Pew Research Center, Gallup, Cornell University) in 2008-2011 indicate the following trends among the American public: first, Islam is seen in a more derogatory light than other religions. In one poll, 45 percent of respondents said that Islam incites its followers to violence to a much larger degree than other religions do. Second, anti-Islamic sentiment embraces, in one form or another, ever-larger sections of the population. Estimates by various sociological surveys put this number at 40 percent to 53 percent of Americans. The media play a crucial role in creating and spreading the image of the enemy. A U.S. analysis of the content of three reputable and influential newspapers in the U.S. – The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post – showed that after the 11 September attacks, these three newspaper portrayed Muslims more disparagingly than before. It appears that it is relatively easy to get around the restrictions imposed by the stringent norms of political correctness. To spoil the image, writers do not even have to use words with negative connotations; they can simply stuff the text with terms like „terrorists,” „extremists,” „radicals,” „fanatics,” or „Islamic fundamentalists.” Also, the media increasingly often use so-called mythological representations, when qualities of a person are directly or tentatively (by mentioning in other parts of the same text) tied to his or her own religion; i.e. to Islam, rather than to his or her social characteristics, place of residence, or education. If there is demand, someone will step in and supply a product. The 11 September attacks produced a huge demand for a negative image of Muslims and the media, as a branch of business, have been working hard to satisfy this demand (or one could say exploit it). In this way the media magnify the inimical image and expand the space for spreading existing prejudices, with all the barriers to this trend easily surmountable. The U.S. has about seven million Muslims, or about 2.5 percent of the population. Islam is the fourthlargest religion in the U.S. Still, Muslims top the charts in evoking all kinds of phobias. Russia has a much bigger Muslim community (no less than 20 million, or about 15 percent of the population). Islam is the second-largest religion in Russia in the number of followers, but Russians, due to historical factors, are either neutral or even positive towards Islam. Religious strife is far less explicit in Russia than animosity based on ethnic grounds, which is proved by the results of long-term monitoring of xenophobia by the Levada Center. Regular surveys indicate that a majority of Russians have a selective attitude towards Islam, and this selectivity is ethnic in nature. An unfriendly attitude has been registered only with regard to the smaller, North Caucasian, group of Muslims (about six million people) since the mid-1990s; and not even towards the entire group, but only a part of it; i.e. separate peoples. As for the greater part of Russia’s indigenous Muslim population (Tatars, Bashkirs, indigenous Kazakhs of the Volga and Urals river basins, and others totaling eight million in all), Russians have predominantly held a neutral or friendly attitude towards them. In the U.S., ethnic distinctions within the framework of Islamophobia either do not show up or research has not registered such factors. U.S. respondents typically find it difficult to distinguish a Muslim Arab from a Muslim Iranian or a Turk from a Pakistani. The vagueness of the Muslim image

has caused awkward situations, as negative attitudes sometimes embrace even the Hindu Sikhs for the mere reason that their traditional headgear, the dastar, resembles the Islamic turban. In Russia, xenophobia has been highly focused at times against certain ethnic groups. Xenophobic sentiment surged during the first Chechen War. The Levada Center’s monitoring data shows that in 1994 (the beginning of the war) there was an outburst of negative sentiment against only one ethnic group, the Chechens. Antipathy towards Chechens exceeded favorable attitudes and totaled 51 percent of respondents. In the late 1990s, however, xenophobic sentiment started spreading across the region: an unfriendly attitude dominated and embraced other ethnic groups in the Caucasus. In the 2000s, the list of „disliked nationalities” included migrants from Central Asia, the region supplying the greatest number of guest workers to Russia. The focus of the Russians’ ethnic phobias against people historically linked to Islam has inevitably augmented ethnophobia with Islamophobia. The escalation of terrorist activities all across Russia, which the media link to the so-called ‘Islamic factor,’ has heated up the process. Also, ethnic separatism has been replaced by another ideology – Islamic fundamentalism – in the North Caucasus as an ideological foundation for the consolidation of armed paramilitary groups. Alexei Malashenko, an authoritative Russian analyst, points to a dual attitude in Russian society towards Islam. On the one hand, Islam is traditionally viewed as a domestic religion; on the other hand, Islam is increasingly perceived as a foreign phenomenon. A relative majority of Russian respondents (26 percent) identify Islam as a foreign religion. Nonetheless, Islamophobia has not yet reached the level seen in the U.S. In 2011, one of the authors of this article asked Internet users in the U.S. and Russia to fill out a questionnaire. The percentage of negative answers to the question „What is your attitude towards the Islamic religion?” was almost twice as large in the U.S. as in Russia (40 percent to 24 percent), while 22 percent of Russians and 18 percent of Americans gave „friendly” answers. The majority of Russians (52 percent) and 35 percent of Americans gave neutral answers. Georgy Engelgardt and Alexei Krymin, two researchers of Islam, rightly say that Russians are more xenophobic towards people from another ethnic group rather than a different religion. The vocabulary of Russian xenophobes provides the best proof of that and contains a multitude of spiteful nicknames for ethnic and racial groups. In the last few years this lexicon has been augmented by insulting names for labor migrants (those who have „stampeded the place”), but does not yet include derogatory words for religions.