ODVV interview: Challenging Islamophobia needs learning about it as a political construct

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Publish Date : 12/13/2019 18:59
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In 2018, the University of Alabama published a study showing that when Muslims commit acts of violence, the US media report on it 357% more than violence committed by non-Muslims.

Muslims have been part of the American society for nearly 400 years. Although there are rumors that Muslim sailors navigated their way to America as early as the 12th and 14th centuries, the first documented arrival of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century, when slaves from different African nations were brought to what is now the United States. About 10 to 15 percent of these African slaves were said to be Muslims. They practiced their faith clandestinely and handed it over to their offspring.


Between 1878 and 1924, large numbers of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, particularly from Lebanon and the Greater Syria, arrived in the United States and settled in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and the Dakotas. The immigration waves grew in the early 20th century, and many people of Arab descent chose America as their new home in search of economic and social opportunities and greater freedoms.

Today, Muslims represent a little more than one percent of the US population. There is some inconsistency in how the number of Muslims in the US is recorded. The American Muslim Council claims there are 5 million Muslims in the States, while the Center for Immigration Studies believes the figure is somewhere between 3 to 4 million followers of Islam. Some estimates put the number at 7 million. The reason why the figures are varying is that the US Census does not track religious affiliation.


A 2018 Pew Research Center study suggested that by 2040, Muslims could become the second largest religious group in the United States; however, they are still a tiny fraction of the overall population.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, antipathy and resentment toward Muslims surged and discourses otherizing Muslims gained traction. Many scholars, public figures and media personalities began stridently warning against the threats they alleged Islam poses to the American society and values, and anti-Muslim discrimination was entrenched.

Despite the spiraling of Islamophobia in the United States and a rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the recent years, many inspiring Muslims emerged who influenced the American society in positive ways, and today there are millions of Americans who admire such popular icons as Ibtihaj Muhammad, Cat Stevens, Keith Ellison, Andre Carson, Fareed Zakaria, Wajahat Ali, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Evelyn Alsultany is a leading scholar on anti-Muslim racism and an associate professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Prof. Alsultany is the author of several books and journal articles. In 2012, she was awarded a Jack G. and Bernice Shaheen Achievement Award and in 2018, she was recognized with the Arab Student Association’s Faculty of the Year Award at the University of Michigan.

In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Alsultany shared her views about the spike of Islamophobia in the United States, public perceptions of the American Muslims and the life of Muslims under President Donald Trump. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: A recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that only 16 percent of American Muslims approve of the job Donald Trump is doing as the president. Do you think the president will make efforts to bridge the gaps he has created between the American Muslims and the non-Muslim majority? Will President Trump maintain his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric if re-elected or do you think he will change his attitude?
A: I do not think that President Trump will make efforts to bridge these gaps. He has stated that Muslims celebrated in New Jersey after 9/11. He has stated that the US has a “Muslim problem” and that “Islam hates us.” He has supported surveillance at mosques. He has proposed an ideological screening test for visa applicants, asking whether they support Sharia law or the US Constitution. He advocated for and passed the “Muslim ban.” His rhetoric and policies reinforce the idea that Islam is a threat to the US. He has become a central player in what Nathan Lean calls the “Islamophobia Industry”. I do not think that Trump will change his position because he is known for his disdain of political correctness and that is partly what makes him appealing to his supporters. It reveals a deep divide in the US – and in other countries like Britain with Brexit – where we are seeing a resurgence of white nationalism; this divide is between those who see multiculturalism as a value and those who see it as a threat to dominant identity, to the dominant system of values, and to national security.


Q: In the latest mid-term elections, 76 percent of the American Muslims, 69 percent of the American Jews, 91 percent of the Afro-Americans and 66 percent of the Hispanics voted for the Democratic Party nominees in a bid to voice their dissatisfaction with President Trump’s policies. Is it at all important for President Trump to appeal to the minorities and win their votes?
A: It is the responsibility of any US president to serve their citizens regardless of their political position. However, divisiveness is Trump’s political brand. He prides himself on being a straight talker. This pride means that it is not only Islamophobia that he unapologetically perpetuates, but also anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-disabled, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ sentiments and policies.

Obama tried to unify Americans in his speeches by saying that there isn’t a red – Republican – America and blue – Democratic Party – America, but one United States of America. Before that, President George W. Bush in his speeches tried to include some qualifiers that the US has both Muslim friends and enemies, in an attempt not to demonize all Muslims even while slew of repressive policies were passed that disproportionately targeted Muslims in the US and around the world, from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the USA PATRIOT Act domestically. Trump does not bother with such attempts to unify or not to offend. It is his divisive and offensive rhetoric that attracts his base of supporters.


Q: According to the Pew Research Center, the Muslim population of the United States is projected to reach 8.1 million by 2050. Do you think the plurality of American citizens consider the growth of the Muslim population a threat or an unfavorable happening?
A: US citizens are divided on their perception of Islam. For some, many of whom are Trump supporters, it is extremely unfavorable: Muslims are seen as incompatible with US values. Islam is not seen as an American religion protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, but rather as a religion of terrorism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. Some even believe that it is not a religion but an extremist ideology. A 2018 poll showed that 71% of Republicans believe that Islam is not compatible with American values, compared to 56% of the larger American public. One great irony of the unquestioned assumption that all Muslims are immigrants and that Islam is a foreign religion is that it ignores the long history of Islam in the US, particularly in African-American communities. However, to be clear, not all US citizens perceive Islam unfavorably. Other segments of the population have a more favorable view of Islam or at least support religious freedom.


Q: How has President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from Muslim majority countries impacted the US relations with the Muslim world? Was the Muslim ban predicated on a genuine concern for the security of the United States and is it making America safer now?
A: Given this great divide, those who see Islam in reductive terms believe that the US is safer. Terrorism is a serious global problem. However, in there is a severe discrepancy between how the US deals with terrorism committed by Muslim groups and terrorism committed by white nationalists groups, with the latter receiving very little attention.

In 2018, the University of Alabama published a study showing that when Muslims commit acts of violence, the US media report on it 357% more than violence committed by non-Muslims. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a study indicating that for every American killed by terrorism – perpetrated by a variety of groups, not only Muslims – 1,000 have been killed by gun violence including homicides, accidents, and suicides.

In the United States, gun violence committed by white men is a serious problem, but government discourses and media reporting lead viewers to perceive terrorism committed by Muslims as the primary danger we are facing. In that context, banning Muslims from entering the US can seem like a viable solution to make Americans safer. Not only is the policy misguided, but our understanding of terrorism and thus effective ways to address it are too. Muslims from the banned countries are worried that they will not be able to see their family members again. The Arab American Studies Association, of which I am a member, joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Arab American Civil Rights League, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, and the Chaldean Council in filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration to repeal the Muslim ban on behalf of people whose families were separated due to the ban and organizations whose work is negatively impacted by the ban. This is only one of many lawsuits challenging it.


Q: One of the popular stereotypes about the American Muslims is that they are hostile towards the United States and the American values of freedom and democracy. Is this conviction close to reality? Don’t American Muslims feel passionate about their national roots and belongings?
A: The stereotype is that American Muslims are not able to be loyal to the United States because Islam pits them against the US. Therefore, they must continually prove their loyalty. I have written about representations of this stereotype in my first book and also in a recently published essay .

The representations go like this: Shortly after September 11, 2001, scholar Mahmood Mamdani highlighted a distinction made by President George W. Bush in his post-9/11 speeches between “good” and “bad” Muslims. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the default assumption was that all Muslims were “bad” and potential terrorists unless they proved their allegiance to the United States and its War on Terror. This left no room for Muslims in the US to express criticism of US government policies. The “patriotic Muslim” became the quintessential archetype of the “good Muslim.” Patriotic Muslims are eager to differentiate themselves from terrorists by prominently displaying US flags, publicly affirming their commitment to the United States and its dominant values, and even enlisting in the military and potentially performing the highest form of service, namely, dying for one’s country. Post-9/11 there has even been an uptick in the number of patriotic Muslim American characters on various TV shows, from 24 and Homeland to Quantico and All-American Muslim.

Good Muslims are even embodied in real life; Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention exemplified the patriotic US Muslim. Their son, Humayan, was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving in the US military. In his nationally televised speech, Khizr Khan received national attention for challenging Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, rhetorically asking the then presidential candidate, “Have you even read the United States constitution?” Having made the ultimate patriotic sacrifice of their own son, the Khans publicly demonstrated their understanding of and commitment to the constitution. As Khizr Khan proclaimed, he and his wife are “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.” Humayan Khan’s sacrifice became a political symbol of what it means to be an American and Khizr Khan became a symbol of the “good Muslim” who can also be an American.

Another way to be a good Muslim is the figure of the moderate Muslim, the antithesis of the extremist or terrorist Muslim. At one point, this figure was exemplified by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, a longtime Sufi religious leader in New York City who conducted trainings about Islam for the FBI after 9/11. Much of his life’s work has focused on improving relations between Muslims and the West. Abdul Rauf was considered a moderate Muslim leader partly because he is a Sufi imam and Sufism came to be positioned in public discourse as the “good” kind of Islam following 9/11.

Ultimately, Abdul Rauf’s status as a moderate Muslim was tainted by controversy, when his interfaith program, the Cordoba Initiative, received backlash for its proposal to erect a mosque in lower Manhattan, two blocks away from Ground Zero, one of the sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Abdul Rauf’s case shows that the moderate Muslim is a fragile category. Moderate Muslims must not only endure but also participate in endless discussions about how they are against extremism and terrorism.

Yet another kind of “good Muslim” is the native informant who has left Islam entirely. The native informant is a critic of Islam who uses their own negative experience as a former Muslim to stand in for the entire religion – the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an example. Native informants are often used to validate monolithic claims about Islam, i.e., that it is uniquely sexist, homophobic, violent, intolerant, and unreasonable, and even to justify US intervention in Muslim countries.

Finally, the nominal Muslim is someone who is Muslim in name only, or who is culturally Muslim but not religious. On an episode of the HBO political talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher that I have written about, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, author of the new atheist movement, make the argument that Islam is incompatible with liberal values because Muslims writ large do not respect freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender or LGBT equality. The one exception to the rule are nominal Muslims who are defined as those “who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.” Nominal Muslims are also seen on TV in popular reality shows such as Shahs of Sunset, about rich narcissistic Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles.

I have tried to point out these limited options and pathways that emerge for Muslim inclusion in US multicultural democracy to highlight that Muslims in the US are a diverse group of people with a range of experiences, beliefs, and political views that cannot be reduced to a few stock categories.


Q: That was a comprehensive analysis. So, are the judicial system and law enforcement agencies in the United States determined to tackle anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamophobic attacks or is their response to such incidents motivated by political considerations?
A: This is a multifaceted issue. On the one hand, studies have shown that anti-Muslim hate crimes are underreported because they are not taken seriously by law enforcement. And on the other, when a Muslim is murdered it is usually taken seriously but not necessarily classified as a hate crime. I am currently writing a chapter for my new book that examines two murder cases of Muslims that were not designated as hate crimes.

Hate crimes as a legal designation came out of the civil right movement and were codified in law in the Civil Right Act of 1968. Over the decades, statistics on hate crimes have become known for misrepresenting the prevalence of hate crimes because many police departments agencies do not report, or under-report hate crimes. A 2016 investigation into the Chicago Police Department revealed that hate crimes often go unreported to the Civil Right Unit “because detectives minimize the seriousness of such crimes, saying things like, ‘a crime is a crime,’ or ‘so they got called a name.’” A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the majority of hate crimes – 54% – went unreported to the police between 2011 and 2015. Furthermore, it revealed that violent hate crimes reported to police were three times less likely to result in an arrest than violent non-hate crimes reported to police. There is an institutional diminishment of hate crimes.

However, when Muslims are murdered by civilians it is taken seriously as a crime, but it often comes at the expense of recognition as a hate crime. Take two fairly recent examples. In 2015, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Craig Hicks, a 46-year old white male salesperson, murdered his neighbors, three Muslim American students, namely Deah Barakat, aged 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, aged 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, aged 19. The FBI labelled the murders a parking dispute, not a hate crime. Hicks turned himself in and was charged with three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to three terms of life in prison. Two years later, in Reston, Virginia, 22-year old Darwin Martinez Torres, a construction worker and undocumented immigrant from El Salvador killed Nabra Hassanen, aged 17, in what law enforcement classified as road rage, not a hate crime. Torres was officially charged with abduction with intent to defile, first-degree murder, and rape and was sentenced to life in prison. In both cases, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other civil rights groups challenged law enforcement agencies about these classifications, insisting that they be investigated and classified as hate crimes in light of the rise in Islamophobia nationwide.

Clara Lewis has written a book on hate crime laws in the US in which she shows that the development of hate crime laws converges with the development of a “tough on crime” approach to law enforcement in the 1980s. The result of this convergence is that hate crime laws have become divested of their civil rights objectives and folded into tough on crime approaches, which entail stricter criminal penalties. Simultaneously, tough on crime approaches mean long prison sentences for perpetrators and a divestment of civil rights for victims whose murders go unmentioned as hate crimes.

The contradiction that becomes evident is that violence committed by individuals is taken seriously while violence committed by the state is protected. There is no accountability when police officers kill unarmed African-Americans. There is no accountability when the US government detains undocumented Central and South American children at the border. There is no accountability for the US war on Afghanistan that has killed 30,000 Afghan civilians or on Iraq that has killed over 150,000 Iraqi civilians, or for the impact of policies like the PATRIOT Act, Special Registration, Countering Violent Extremism, and the Muslim ban on Muslims in the US. Hate crimes are but one facet of the multi-dimensional violence that Muslims face today.


Q: Is it possible to counter Islamophobia through education and academic work? Is the educational system in the United States prepared to encourage debate on Islamophobia in colleges and universities so that younger students can delve on anti-Muslim prejudice, ask critical questions and have a better understanding of Islam as a growing faith?
A: Since I am an educator, I believe in the power of education. There is a critical mass of faculty at different universities doing important work in ethnic studies, American studies, sociology, literature, religious studies and other fields. Similarly, there are teachers across the US attending training sessions on how to teach about Islam and Islamophobia in their classrooms.

I collaborated with colleagues at other universities in the US to create an online syllabus that we titled “Islamophobia is Racism.” We approach Islamophobia as a form of racism, examining the ways that religion becomes racialized. Doing so shifts our focus away from understanding the phenomenon as an individual bias or fear that can be overcome through counseling to a framework that takes into account broader forces. These include an impoverished understanding of the causes of terrorism; a history of stereotypical media representations; a history of white supremacy and racism; and domestic and foreign policies that promote imperialism. This expanded framework calls attention to the powerful institutions that produce “anti-Muslim racism,” and that it is not simply the result of ignorance. It is not possible to understand domestic anti-Muslim racism without connecting it to how US foreign policies and international relations with Muslim-majority countries influence the meanings produced about Muslims in the US and around the world. Our approach is that challenging Islamophobia requires learning about Islamophobia as a political construct, not only learning about Islam. It requires an understanding of the changing ways that a group of people are demonized.

By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV interview: Challenging Islamophobia needs learning about it as a political construct ”