2. “Brown” and Foreign as a Cultural Category
- In November 2015, Kayla Gerber, a 24-year-old non-Muslim actress, singer, dancer, and one-time finalist in Miss Canada National, was assaulted by a man who “pinned her against a wall” and screamed at her to “take off [her] f****n hijab and get the f**k out of his country” (Haines 2015). Gerber is Jamaican-Canadian and “had wrapped her scarf around her head to keep her ears warm” (The Caribbean Camera Inc. 2015).
- In December 2015, an “older, white man” harassed Juan Calero, a 21-year-old non-Muslim Latino NYU student, calling Juan “a terrorist” and telling him “to leave the country”. NBC News reported that Calera said that he “is not Muslim, but is often mistaken as one because of his beard and curly hair” and that this was the fourth time he had experienced anti-Arab and anti-Muslim harassment (Akbar 2015).
- In 2016, Laolu Opebiyi, a British Nigerian Christian man, experienced a phenomenon labeled “flying while Muslim” on an EasyJet flight when he was “removed from a plane by armed police at Luton airport after a fellow passenger read a message on his mobile phone about ‘prayer’ and reported him as a security threat”. “Flying while Muslim” colloquially refers to the act of being profiled or harassed by another passenger, airline staff, or security personnel for being perceived to be Muslim during air travel, possibly resulting in removal from a plane or disruption to a booked flight (NPR 2018). Opebiyi was texting on his phone in a “conference call prayer group, which was [titled] ‘ISI men’—an acronym for ‘iron sharpens iron’, from the Bible quote ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’.” (Biblica, Inc. 2011).
- In 2017, a “routine trip to a strip mall in Canada almost turned deadly for a [non-Muslim] Latino family when Mark Phillips, baseball bat in hand, approached Sergio Estepa, Mari Zambrano, their 13-year-old son and a friend, informing them that they were under arrest for being ‘ISIS terrorists’.” (Rosario 2017). In footage filmed by Zambrano, Phillips is heard shouting, “Terrorist. Terrorist. We have a French terrorist here” in response to the family speaking Spanish and then “‘ISIS! ISIS! We have ISIS right here’, referring to the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”. Estepa sustained injuries, including “a cracked rib and large bruise” in the attack and Phillips was arrested and “charged with aggravated assault and three counts of assault with a weapon”. (Dubinksi 2017).
The effect of using Muslim as a cultural identity includes reifying South Asian and Arab hegemony in Muslim discourses. One particular issue is using “Arab and South Asian” as a synonym for Muslim, or in a grouping that is intended to be open to all Muslims but only uses some names and ethnicities. […] [T]he cultural category has resulted in the exclusion of Black Muslims in the discussion of Muslim civil liberties or the effects of Islamophobia. Black American Muslims have been under surveillance and discrimination many decades before 9/11.
3. More than Roses and Meet-And-Greets to Fight Islamophobia
This syllabus reframes “Islamophobia” as “anti-Muslim racism” to more accurately reflect the intersection of race and religion as a reality of structural inequality and violence rooted in the longer history of US (and European) empire building. … It also connects the histories of various racial logics that reinforce one another, including anti-Muslim racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Arab racism, and anti-South Asian racism.
By focusing on understanding Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism, this syllabus challenges the idea that the problem is one of individual bias and that simply knowing more about Islam will necessarily lead to a decrease in anti-Muslim racism.
A small group of foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America, providing critical funding to a clutch of right-wing think tanks that peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam—in the form of books, reports, websites, blogs, and carefully crafted talking points that anti-Islam grassroots organizations and some right-wing religious groups use as propaganda for their constituency. Some of these foundations and wealthy donors also provide direct funding to anti-Islam grassroots groups. … Altogether, … seven charitable groups provided $42.6 million to Islamophobia think tanks between 2001 and 2009.(Ali 2011)
Suspicion of Muslims guides our foreign policy: Teenagers and other civilians across the Middle East have been killed or seriously injured by US drone strikes and bombs (Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs n.d.). Due to the decades-long War on Terror, US drones have killed civilians at weddings (Almasmari 2013) and taught young children to fear the sky. And civilians living in at least five of the countries that are on the Muslim Ban list have been or are currently on the receiving end of US bombs and airstrikes (Mohdin 2017). The US justifies this violence based on the narrative that all Muslims are inherently prone to “terror” and that civilian casualties are just the price we need to pay for national security.
Our nation denies the Muslim men still being held at Guantanamo Bay (Fox 2018)—men who were never charged with a crime—the right to a trial. When Trump was elected, progressives everywhere feared he would implement a “Muslim registry”, a policy that already happened after 9/11 when some immigrants from 24 majority-Muslim countries were required to register and regularly check-in (Lind 2016) with government officials. The program, called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, helped the government fine, arrest, and deport Muslims. Today, Muslims are among those that ICE rounds up for deportation. This past Ramadan, Somali Muslim immigrants were hindered from freely practicing their faith while detained in an ICE facility in Florida (Saleh 2018).
4. When Faith Is Apparently Still the Problem
- Increase internal education and training on racial justice. By undergoing trainings on anti-racism organizing, cultural competency, and critical anti-Islamophobia activism, organizations and institutions will be better equipped to understand the structural underpinnings of Islamophobia. This means any campaigns can draw on wider historical memory and avoid strategies that may not get to the roots of organized Islamophobia.
- Strategically engage in solidarity practices. Advocates should work on challenging the structural underpinnings of anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and other oppressive forces that impact multiple communities. These forces affect different ethnic groups of Muslims, which limits the capacity of those groups to advocate for justice. Additionally, since these forces all stem from one specific foundation, by challenging them together, it will become easier to assess what tactics will work against Islamophobia specifically. More importantly, by undermining the institutions and systems that allow for Islamophobia to exist, Islamophobia will also lessen.
- Center the leadership and guidance of Muslims who are most likely to be targeted through violent policy and vigilante action. This can be done by conducting more community needs assessments, consulting with grassroots leaders in a more equitable manner, and ensuring that resources are provided to those who are on the front lines so that they can invest more of their time and energy into this work. Advocates should actively aim for more inclusion in the activism space for underrepresented Muslim voices—and not just millennial or ‘woke’ or ‘cool’ Muslims who are easily consumable by the general American public.
- Shift the narratives about Muslims in the media to also amplify the stories of Muslims who attend mosque events, are affiliated with a house of worship, and/or dress more conservatively. Focusing on the narratives of Muslims who are proudly unmosqued and have no connection to a house of worship is not the same as amplifying the voices of the loved ones of people who were killed while at the mosque (Page 2018) or capture the pain of those who have faced arson in their house of worship (Cuevas 2017). Additionally, focusing on liberal Muslimah media figures (Shukla 2016) or “culturally-Muslim” male (Mallenbaum 2017) comedians (Firestone 2017) does not mean that a serious-looking long-bearded man in a thobe (an ankle-length long-sleeved loose flowing outfit), or a woman wearing a niqab (face veil), is going to feel the benefits of that acceptance. These individuals are still seen as the “foreign” and dangerous risk. While those Muslim narratives may not be as “stereotype-breaking” (Global Fund for Women 2017), it is important that advocates hold a space for a truly diverse set of voices and include not just the voices that are currently included but also additional voices that are underrepresented.
- Improve the diversity in the room and work to ensure inclusion in those spaces. Cast a wider net that better reflect the racial demographics of American Muslims. Any anti-Islamophobia convening or gathering should include people who represent more of the variety of stories, priorities, and expertise that exist within the American Muslim space. Additionally, reach out to Muslims of all different backgrounds, and especially be more cognizant of inclusion for those who practice rituals of religion daily. The commercialization of faith practices—including Ramadan decorations in stores or hijabs/headscarves for sale in department stores—alone will not lead to better policies for all. That system of oppressive policies is already in place and it is critical for advocates to continue protecting religious plurality in the United States.
- Resist narrow and rigid classifications of which communities are impacted by Islamophobia. Push back against the idea of embracing “Muslim” as a cultural category and placing it in contrast to other categories like Black, East Asian, or Latino. “Muslim” is not a cultural category, and American Muslims come from all different ethnic backgrounds. Thus, indicators of religiosity—like the headscarf, a beard, or communications about prayer—often lead to people of all backgrounds being perceived as Muslim and therefore targeted. Since whether someone is “perceived to be Muslim” often rests on visual cues that stem from the practice of religious tenets, more focus is needed on learning about religion and not letting fundamentalism from other parties impact how we go about understanding Islam in America.
- Undertake a deeper historical analysis. Advocates should look further into the history of Islam in America, and review the deep, multi-century-long discussions about Islam, democracy, and interfaith societies that span the globe. More research is needed on Muslims in the United States, and especially on communities that have been here for generations, specifically examining their strategies and tactics for challenging discrimination.
Conflicts of Interest
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Islam, N. Soft Islamophobia. Religions 2018, 9, 280. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9090280
Islam N. Soft Islamophobia. Religions. 2018; 9(9):280. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9090280Chicago/Turabian Style
Islam, Namira. 2018. "Soft Islamophobia" Religions 9, no. 9: 280. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9090280