ODVV Interview: Local Muslim communities are...
Nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the United States constitute just over one percent of the total population, even though the Pew Research Center has projected that by 2040, Islam will become the second-largest religion in the country. The role of American Muslims in public life is becoming more pronounced over time, and barriers to their political participation are being dismantled. The drastic change of policies under the Biden administration aimed at healing the wounds of racial, cultural and religious divides that were aggravated under the former US President Donald Trump promises a more inclusive and tolerant setting for the involvement of American Muslims in democratic processes as well as other key activities.
Yet, despite President Biden’s gestures appealing to the Muslim community such as reinstating the Eid celebration at the White House, revoking the executive order known as the Muslim Ban or appointing the first Muslim ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, the social fault lines of racism and bigotry continue to exist. Earlier this year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported that the number of civil rights complaints received from Muslims since 2020 has increased by 9 percent. Muslims in America faced soaring levels of discrimination in immigration and travel, employment, education and housing, among other realms.
Caleb Elfenbein is a professor of history and religious studies at Grinnell College and the director of its Center for the Humanities. A scholar of religious studies and racism with a special interest in anti-Muslim prejudice, his 2021 book “Fear in Our Hearts: What Islamophobia Tells Us about America” surveys the broader connections between Islamophobia and anti-Black, anti-immigrant sentiments in America.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has interviewed Prof. Elfenbein about the standing of Muslims in the American society and the trajectory of Islamophobia in the United States.
Q: One of the challenges facing Muslims in the United States, and the West more broadly, is the reality of internalized oppression. Muslims have long internalized negative stereotypes associated with their faith due to extensive media propaganda and biased portrayals, influencing their self-esteem, motivation and psychological distress. How do you believe it’s possible to empower American Muslims and ensure they visualize a better self-image?
A: Speaking as someone who is outside of American Muslim communities, I would say that, for those who are experiencing what you describe, one approach could be to look at the amazing things that American Muslims are doing to make the world a better place – a more accepting place, a place that has less food insecurity, a place that protects the most vulnerable, a place that celebrates religious and cultural difference. In my research for Mapping Islamophobia, I came across many amazing stories of local Muslim communities living out their values in beautiful ways; feeding those in need, standing in solidarity with other vulnerable communities, welcoming people into their places of worship and their homes to build connections across racial and religious lines. The examples are in plain sight. Recognizing and celebrating everyday activities shines light on the falsity of anti-Muslim generalizations.
Q: The American Muslims Poll 2022 by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found nearly six in 10 American Muslims, making up 62 percent of them, reported facing religious discrimination in the preceding year. This means American Muslims have perceived discrimination more than all other groups surveyed. What are the causes and catalysts of the persistence of this pattern of prejudice? Aren’t racial and religious divides being healed after the departure of the president who sowed the differences?
A: There is no question that former US president, and recently announced presidential candidate, Donald Trump created conditions for historically unprecedented anti-Muslim public hate. But as I argue in “Fear in Our Hearts,” placing too much blame on one person is far too easy. Anti-Muslim hostility, while having particular characteristics, is part of much broader racist histories and contemporary realities in the United States. This is why it has been so vital for Muslim national advocacy organizations to be in solidarity with other minoritized communities. Changing historical patterns that persist in the present requires coalitions that make it possible to pursue justice for one particular group alongside justice for others.
Q: As you noted, the former US President Donald Trump harbored marked animus against the Islamic faith, and his rhetoric and policies alienated Muslims worldwide at the same time as blocking the pathways to dialogue across generations and faiths. His successor Joe Biden has been taking steps to reverse that failed legacy. How do you think the new administration has performed in bridging the racial divides and overcoming the frictions that a polarizing mode of statecraft cultivated?
A: The change in tone, rhetoric, and policies has been very important. The poorly-disguised Muslim immigration and visa ban that the previous administration put in place did an enormous amount of damage in the United States and abroad. It wreaked unnecessary havoc in so many lives. Moreover, the policies around refugees in the previous administration reduced the number of people accepted into the United States to near zero and poisoned the well against innocent Muslims seeking to escape life-threatening situations. The inhumanity was staggering.
The Biden administration has worked very hard to undo some of that damage. It is important to not underestimate the value of changing tone and rhetoric. The Biden administration has also pursued a different policy path, moving to welcome more refugees into the United States, for example.
However, I hesitate to put too much stock in the ability of the current administration to single-handedly bridge racial divides that, as I said earlier, are longstanding.
Q: In November 2021, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduced the Combating International Islamophobia Act that passed the House of Representatives and was supposed to be debated at the Senate. The bill was supposed to establish a presidential office to monitor and combat acts of Islamophobia and incitement against Muslims in foreign countries. Why was the legislation shelved? How can such initiatives usually contribute to stigmatizing racism and marginalizing the bigoted?
A: Anti-Muslim hostility is systemic in the United States. It is not necessarily limited to people occupying a particular place on the political spectrum. However, anti-Muslim sentiment does occupy a particularly important place in one of the two major parties. With razor-thin majorities in the Senate at the time the bill would have come up for debate, the part of the minority could easily have blocked even debate about the bill by threatening a filibuster.
Having said that, however, the Biden administration has taken concrete steps through executive action to address anti-Muslim hostility as a global phenomenon. It was important to create a position at the Department of State dedicated to monitoring and addressing anti-Muslim sentiment and hostility, accomplishing some goals that Congresswoman Omar had in mind with the Combating International Islamophobia Act.
Q: Academic research has determined that more than three-quarters of people in Western countries depend on the media, chiefly television, as their primary source of information shaping their views about Islam and Muslims. This means the media play a leading role in how communities of faith are depicted. Do you believe this role is now constructive and educational, or is it one driven by partisanship and corporate interests?
A: The media landscape is very complex. It is possible to find outlets that reflect many different perspectives regarding religious diversity in the United States. There are some outlets that are doing absolutely amazing work covering religion in the United States.
The Religious News Network comes to mind as a superb educational source. Some more mainstream publications are working hard to improve their coverage of religion as well. The Washington Post, for example, has been an important source in my Mapping Islamophobia project and in Fear in Our Hearts. However, there are many media outlets that actively fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment, and in those instances I would absolutely point to partisan interests that intersect in key instances with corporate interests.
Q: Are you encouraged by what appears to be a burgeoning trend of raising awareness around Islamophobia, including the designation of March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia by the United Nations? Do you see a momentum growing around drumming up support for Muslims globally as they face prejudice?
A: I am encouraged by the increase in awareness around anti-Muslim hostility that has emerged in recent years. Still, as long as anti-Muslim othering continues to be a winning political formula in right-wing politics globally, an increase in awareness will have limited effect.
Q: Do you see a symbiotic relationship between dominant political narratives and the magnitude of religiously-motivated violence and hate crimes? In 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president, 307 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes happened in the United States, which almost equaled the post-9/11 levels. In 2020, however, at the twilight of Trump’s tenure, that number stood at 110. How do politicians proliferate or curtail religious intolerance?
A: In Fear in Our Hearts, I spend quite a bit of time discussing the increase of public hate in the United States in the mid-2010s. It became more acceptable than it had been in a long time to say hateful things about groups of people in public and to, in effect, incite animus against them. There is no question that political leaders play an important role in creating the conditions of public life. However, political leaders cannot necessarily create public hate itself.
By creating conditions in which public hate is more acceptable, it becomes possible for people who are already predisposed to such perspectives to share them more openly. The foundations are already in place because of the systemic nature of racism in the United States, and many other countries, of course. I am very gladdened by the reduction in public anti-Muslim activity over the past few years. I would hesitate, however, to say that this means the problem of anti-Muslim hostility has gone away. With the right conditions in place, I am afraid that those numbers could increase quite quickly again.