Since September 2001, Islamophobia has become one of the most, if not the most, mainstream forms of bigotry in America. That Islamophobia is a product of many things – from U.S. government policies, like the “War on Terror,” to the ranting of bloggers, like Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller, to the platforms of politicians, like U.S. Congressman Peter King and Senator Ted Cruz.
As for those public figures who haven’t been actively Islamophobic, many have doubled down on complacency. Even when they have rejected anti-Muslim sentiment, these leaders, Barack Obama included, have peddled arguments that effectively reinforced it.
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, President Obama rejected stereotypes of Muslims as “terrorists,” while still blaming Muslims, as a group, for terrorism: “on the one hand, non-Muslims cannot stereotype, but I also think the Muslim community has to think about how we make sure that children are not being infected with this twisted notion that somehow they can kill innocent people and that that is justified by religion. And to some degree, that is something that has to come from within the Muslim community itself. And I think there have been times where there has not been enough pushback against extremism.”
On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton rejected Islamophobia, arguing that Muslims were “useful” foot soldiers in fighting terrorism. In the last presidential debate, on October 19, Clinton said the United States needed to work “with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks.” It was a sentiment that left many American Muslims feeling stigmatized and devalued, as nothing more than pawns of the U.S. national security establishment.
Intensely Islamophobic rhetoric, combined with the tacit support of our leaders, has enabled the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment within American society since 9/11, first slowly then more quickly – until it was weaponized by U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, in his vainglorious election campaign. While other communities were building grassroots movements to support their rights, from Black Lives Matter to Marriage Equality, American Muslims watched while a grassroots movement was birthed to take theirs away.
There was, though, a silver lining. The “hated” liberal elite, from the Obama Administration to The New York Times, provided a seat at the table for American Muslims (contingent on good behavior, of course). We were trusted government advisors and celebrated media entrepreneurs.
It didn’t make up for the active or tacit acceptance of Islamophobia. It didn’t undo the devastating effects of the government’s CVE (countering violent extremism) programs or law enforcement spying and raids on Muslim communities. It certainly wasn’t enough to qualify as real inclusion. It undoubtedly fetishized us and made us complacent in mobilizing for meaningful equality, respect, and dignity. But, at least, we had a seat.
Even more importantly, we had allies in positions of power who could push back, however weakly, against the institutional bigotry, terrifying rallies, and hate crimes directed toward our community. We were secure in the knowledge that, if things got really bad, the system would swoop in to protect us, because the system was controlled by people who valued us in some way, even if it wasn’t the right way.
Now, the table has been reduced to a counter-top and our chair has been thrown out the window. We are left standing, even more on the fringes, in an America where virulent Islamophobia is coming at us from below, as well as, above.
This hostility is coming from Republicans and Democrats alike. According to sources inside the Hillary Clinton campaign, some campaign officials believe showcasing Clinton’s American Muslim supporters, like Khizer Khan, contributed to her loss. For these individuals, it was a “mistake” that should not and will not be repeated.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump has promoted a range of oppressive actions against Muslims, from banning foreign members of the faith from entering the country to forcing American Muslims to register with a proto-fascist tracking database. Newt Gingrich, who is on the short list of candidates for Trump’s cabinet, is pushing to revive the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee. As reported by CNN, Gingrich views the committee as part of a war against ISIS and, by extension, American Muslims: “We’re going to ultimately declare a war on Islamic supremacists and we’re going to say, if you pledge allegiance to ISIS, you are a traitor and you have lost your citizenship,” he said. “We’re going to take much tougher positions.”
The Trump administration will have little trouble pushing these regressive policies through, especially since American Muslims have such limited political power. At only 3 million, Muslims represent 1% of the U.S. public, making us a relatively weak voting bloc. The U.S. political system is not a confessional one and, despite Trump’s claims, there are no “Muslim neighborhoods” in this country. What all this means is that American Muslims have no one in government obligated to defending us, above all else.
There are also no mainstream media outlets committed to promoting our rights and safety – to the contrary, American Muslims face a media landscape that actively and uncritically promotes Islamophobic rhetoric. While there are organizations passionately advocating, at the national level, for our civil and political rights, their efforts can only go so far, if the federal government isn’t willing to work with them.
Attacked from the top, American Muslims can also expect to face increased hatred and violence at the grassroots. According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, American disapproval of Muslims has jumped to 45.5% (from 26% only ten years ago), making us the single most hated religious group in the United States. Citing other research, the report notes that “[e]ven the generally tolerant millennials exhibit relatively strong anti-Muslim sentiments.”
Referring to a 2014 Pew poll, that had Muslims slightly better off, as only the second most hated religious group in America, the Guardian’s Mona Chalabi observed that “Trump would not have had the same receptive audience had he singled out members of any other religious group.” Indeed, after endorsing a database to track Muslims in the United States in November 2015, Trump’s popularity jumped almost 3% percentage points.
Hate crimes against American Muslims have also spiked in the last few years, reaching fever pitch during the 2016 presidential campaign. From 2014 to 2015, violence against American Muslims increased by 78%. According to a study from Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, there were 180 hate crimes committed against American Muslims between March 2015, when the first presidential candidate threw his hat into the ring, and March 2016.
In the few days following the election, hate crimes against American Muslims have gone into overdrive. Countless Muslim women have reported being viciously attacked. As reported by the Independent, one Muslim woman was shopping at Walmart when she was approached by another woman who pulled off her headscarf and said: “This is not allowed anymore, so go hang yourself with it around your neck not on your head.”
According to VICE, a female Muslim student at San Diego State University was reportedly robbed on Wednesday, November 9, by two men who made comments about Muslims and Trump. Police are investigating the assault as a hate crime. Also on Wednesday, Muslim students at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering found “Trump” scrawled on the door of their prayer room.
In the women’s bathroom at SUNY, someone wrote:
On a BART train in the San Francisco/Bay area, a woman began screaming at a passenger, who was speaking in a foreign language (Assyrian) and looked “Middle Eastern,” shouting “You are a terrorist and will probably be deported.”
American Muslims aren’t the only community in America that is deeply afraid right now – but we are among the most vulnerable, with the fewest friends. It is, as such, desperately important for people of conscience to be true allies right now. In October, Suzanne Barakat, the sister of Deah Barakat, who, along with his wife and sister-in-law, was murdered execution style in February 2015 because of his Muslim faith, called upon allies to speak out against discrimination in their midst.
Graphic artist, Maeril, created an image with advice on how allies can react to Islamophobic harassment.
The website muslimallies.com has been created for allies to formally pledge support for their Muslim friends.
For those who are organizing protests, developing legal advocacy plans, or creating political strategies to elect local, state, and federal officials in upcoming elections, make opposing Islamophobia a part of your work. Include and reach out to American Muslims not to tokenize or fetishize us but to involve us, in good faith, in building a diverse coalition to promote the rights and dignity of all Americans.
As a community, we will not be victims, but we also cannot do this alone.