Editorial: Islamophobia

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The ISD Editorial Board discusses Islamophobia — a term that has surfaced recently to indicate people who fear the religion of Islam — in the United States and how it affects Islamic populations. 

Editorial Board

Editor’s Note: This editorial contains descriptions of violence and racism. Sensitive content may follow.

Let’s talk about something that has been sweeping the country as of late: Islamophobia.

A phobia, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects or situation.

In recent years, a specific phobia has gripped Western societies — Islamophobia.

According to Gallup, researchers and policy groups define Islamophobia in differing detail, but the term’s essence is essentially the same, no matter the source:

An exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political and civic life.

It often leads to hate speech and hate crimes, social and political discrimination, can be used to rationalize policies such as mass surveillance, incarceration and disenfranchisement and can influence domestic and foreign policy.

Research shows the U.S. identified more than 160 Muslim American terrorist suspects and perpetrators in the decade since 9/11, just a percentage of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year. 

According to Gallup, it is from this overall collection of violence that “an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression — perhaps unintentionally — that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.” 

Never mind that since 9/11, the Muslim American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent nearly two of every five al-Qaida terrorist plots threatening the United States and tips from the Muslim American community are the largest single source of initial information to authorities about these few plots.

According to “Fear, Inc.,” a report by the Center for American Progress, a network of misinformation experts actively promotes Islamophobia in America. The promotion of Islamophobia creates both prejudice and discrimination among the general population. Prejudice plays a key role in the existence and proliferation of Islamophobia. Prejudice alone, as a negative judgment, opinion or attitude, is a detriment to a population’s overall well-being. Prejudice combined with overt actions, rising to the level of discrimination, creates a dangerous environment for its victims.

These efforts recall some of the darkest episodes in American history, according to the Fear, Inc. report, in which religious, ethnic and racial minorities were discriminated against and persecuted. From Catholics, Mormons, Japanese Americans, European immigrants, Jews and African Americans, the story of America is one of struggle to achieve in practice our founding ideals. 

Sadly, “American Muslims and Islam are the latest chapter in a long American struggle against scapegoating based on religion, race or creed,” according to the Fear, Inc. report.

That chapter includes President Donald Trump’s first attempt trying to stop citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States — he cited the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as his rationale. Yet none of the men behind those attacks hailed from these countries. In fact, a Cato Institute analysis shows that between 1975 and 2015 no one from these countries killed a single American in a U.S. terrorist attack.

Unfortunately, equating Muslims with terrorists has become disturbingly common in American society and the consequences can be violent. According to an FBI report released in November, the number of assaults, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 was higher than at any other time except the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In 2015, there were 257 anti-Muslim incidents, up from 154 in 2014 — a 67 percent increase. In 2001, 481 incidents were reported.

The Fear Inc. report also discusses how the terrorist attacks on 9/11 alone did not drive Americans’ perceptions of Muslims and Islam. President George W. Bush reflected the general opinion of the American public at the time when he went to great lengths to make clear Islam and Muslims are not the enemy. 

Speaking to a roundtable of Arab and Muslim American leaders at the Afghanistan Embassy in 2002, for example, President Bush said, “All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true faith-face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It’s a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It’s a faith based upon love, not hate.”

Unfortunately, President Bush’s words were soon eclipsed by an organized escalation of hateful statements about Muslims and Islam from the members of the Islamophobia network profiled in the Fear, Inc. report. 

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) report found Jewish and Hispanic Americans are most favorable toward Muslims, and white evangelicals were the least favorable. About 44 percent of white evangelicals held unfavorable views on Muslims. The study also reveals those with Islamophobic views are also least likely to know a Muslim person.

Those who knew a Muslim personally scored lower on the Islamophobia Index. Positive views of other minorities were also linked to lower Islamophobia. An even more powerful predictor for lower Islamophobia was having knowledge about the religion.

The ISPU’s Dalia Mogahed, co-author of the report, said while not everyone is able to befriend a Muslim — particularly in less diverse suburban and rural communities — most people have access to information about Islam.

“I’m certainly not expecting people to become scholars of Islam, but if we live in a democracy, we should read just enough to be critical thinkers and voters,” Mogahed said. “Islamophobia has become a tool to get people to agree to a certain policy, and that’s hurting our democracy.”‘

She added in an interview the recent San Diego synagogue shooting and the New Zealand mosque attack were symptoms of the same problem.

“The same soil that grows Islamophobia is the soil that grows anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism,” Mogahed said.

Around the world, there are people killing people in the name of Islam, with which most Muslims disagree. In most cases of radicalized neighbors, family members or friends, the Muslim American community is as baffled, disturbed and surprised by their appearance as the general public. 

Treating Muslim American citizens and neighbors as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, is not only offensive to America’s core values, it is ineffective in combating terrorism and violent extremism.

The hateful rhetoric toward Muslims gives people permission to be discriminatory toward them, whether overtly or more subtly, said Kevin L. Nadal, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

In a 2015 paper in Qualitative Psychology, Nadal and co-authors describe how people with overlapping religion, gender and other demographic characteristics can become targets of what the researchers call intersectional microaggressions.

“Muslim men get stereotyped as terrorists, violent and criminal,” Nadal says. For Muslim women, the most common stereotype is they lack control over their own lives. “The reality is that a lot of Muslim women view it as quite the opposite,” Nadal said, citing comments from his qualitative research. “They’re proud of their gender, do have a voice and choose to celebrate some of their traditional roles.”

Muslims also face another form of discrimination — the assumption they’re not “real” Americans, Nadal said.

“Nonwhite immigrant groups are viewed as perpetual foreigners and aliens in their own land, even though many have been in the country for several generations or view themselves as completely American,” Nadal said. The result of these negative messages is many Muslims are in a constant state of vigilance.

One of the biggest examples of this is when President Barack Obama was running for president and his status as an American born citizen was called into question due to a false email claiming his middle name was “Muhammed.”

A chain email that originates with a letter from American missionaries working in Kenya warned about Sen. Barack Obama’s ties to Kenya and its opposition party, encouraging readers “not to be taken in by those that are promoting him.”

Among the many allegations is one about Obama’s name: “By the way. His true name is Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama. Won’t that sound sweet to our enemies as they swear him in on the Koran! God bless you.”

But let’s be clear: The former president of the United States is named Barack Hussein Obama Jr.

Other prime examples of hate and Islamophobia in this country are the constant attacks toward Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Tlaib, who has been the consistent target of racist and Islamophobic attacks since taking office, was asking FBI officials about the “tools” they have to fight domestic extremism when she read from a letter she and fellow Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar had been sent. She had to pause to compose herself while reading the letter and was visibly emotional as she finished it.

The letter writer referred to Tlaib and Omar as “ragheads,” said they were pleased to hear about the Christchurch massacre, and added, “This is a great start. Let’s hope and pray that it continues here in the good old USA. The only good Muslim is a dead one.”

The threats got even more real for Rep. Omar when in 2019 her life was directly threatened.

Patrick Carlineo, from Addison, New York, was arrested and charged with making a threatening phone call to Omar’s office. According to the FBI, Carlineo told a staff member: “Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her, she’s a fucking terrorist. I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.”

Though Fox News was not mentioned in the complaint against Carlineo, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez drew a direct link between controversial remarks made by the network’s presenter Jeanine Pirro and the threat against Omar.

Pirro had attacked Omar’s wearing of the hijab, asking if it was indicative of “her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution.”

These are just some examples of the terrible threats targeted at Muslim Americans every day. It is time for Islamophobes to move on and learn freedom of religion means all religions, not just Christianity.