We have all heard of and condemned the recent intensification of abhorrent crimes against Muslims in the United States. In May 2022, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported a 9% increase in the number of civil rights complaints it received from Muslims in the United States since 2020.
According to the report, “CAIR received a total of 6,720 complaints nationwide involving a range of issues including immigration and travel, discrimination, law enforcement and government overreach, hate and bias incidents, incarceree rights, (and) school incidents”.
In Edison, New Jersey, expatriate Indians celebrated the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence on August 15, 2022 with a grand parade. Unfortunately, one of the floats in the parade organized by the Indian Business Association featured a bulldozer, a symbol of the destruction of Muslim homes by a variety of Indian municipalities in India. We are grateful to our senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, as well as out Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman for their swift and unequivocal condemnation of this act, but we must remind ourselves that brown immigrants are not exempt from the Islamophobic phenomenon.
In addition, we have a troubling trend of intra-Muslim antagonisms being imported into Europe and the United States. In May 2022, an anti-Shia domestic terrorist in Albuquerque, New Mexico murdered four Muslim men. The perpetrator of the attacks was himself a Muslim, but such a narrative unfortunately feeds into sectarian tensions that impact all Muslims negatively. Shiaphobia, make no mistake, is Islamophobia dressed in different clothes.
Unfortunately, these events constitute the tip of the iceberg. It has been well established by several studies (e.g. Sides and Gross, 2013) that ever since September 11 2001, Muslims living in the U.S. (along with those who are perceived to be Muslims, such as non-Muslim Arabs and South Asians) have been subjected to an intensified scrutiny. They are increasingly viewed with fear and suspicion, and victimized through acts of discrimination and violence at the hand of both state and non-state actors. In much of the discourse about Muslims, whether critical or sympathetic, the organizing logic assumes that there is something called “Islam”, which can explain “Muslim society”, “Muslim culture”, and the “Muslim mind”. The terms circulating in this discourse are usually in the singular, implying that there is one essential, monolithic “Islam” which remains consistent across time and space, and that this particular identity accounts for the actions of all who are marked by it through their name, ancestry, national origin, ethnicity or race.
Of course, this is far from the truth. One could rightly claim that the diversity of Islamic beliefs and practices is so widespread that the greatest victims of terror committed in the name of Islam are inevitably Muslims themselves. The victims of Albuquerque are a good example of that phenomenon, as are those, who die in sectarian clashes in Iraq in August 2022, the victims of Saudi bombings in Yemen, and Shia worshippers in bombed mosques in Afghanistan. All those people who fell victim to the violent excesses of ISIS, Taliban, and affiliated groups are arguably victims of global Islamophobia as well.
In China, Uyghur minority Muslims are reportedly incarcerated en masse in so-called indoctrination camps. In some European cities, the Quran has been set on fire, and refugees are subject to a steady stream of hatred. Islamophobia is indeed a global phenomenon. In March 2022, a UN expert warned that anti-Muslim hatred has risen to epidemic proportions as “widespread negative representations of Islam, fear of Muslims generally, and security and counterterrorism policies have served to perpetuate, validate and normalize discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.”
To return to the US, the climate of institutional Islamophobia here is unfortunately not a matter of individual actors doing random hate crimes. Several bills were introduced in state legislatures and the US Congress with the intent of legislating, monitoring, and circumscribing Muslim religious practices. In 2013, six states passed red herring bills banning sharia, a dynamic and varying set of Islamic codes that cannot, under the US Constitution, replace, supersede or displace US law (CAIR 2013). Moreover, this leads to discrimination at the workplace as well. The evidence points to increasing workplace discrimination against those who are perceived to be Muslims (e.g. Ghumman and Ryan 2013). Studies have also shown that, in the aftermath of 9/11, Muslim and Arab men working in the US experienced a significant drop in their earnings (Kaushal, Kaestner, and Reimers 2007).
It is extremely important for members of all right-thinking groups to combat Islamophobia. The strategy should be two-fold. The first is to acknowledge that Islamophobia exists as a systemic problem, not as a set of acts by random individuals. This must be articulated clearly and vociferously as a problem, without sugarcoating it. There is nothing inherently defensive or unpatriotic about calling it out, as a special form of racism (Heibling, 2012). Second, we need to ally and affiliate with groups that are predisposed to combat Islamophobia, both within the Islamic spectrum, and with like-minded non-Muslims. It is essential to be non-sectarian in our approach, which would include working for causes that are not Muslim-centric, such as gender justice, reproductive justice and anti-homophobia campaigns. This would develop our credentials as people who abhor discrimination.
The slow descent of US society into Islamophobia bodes ill for Muslims all over the nation, especially those who are poorer, marginalized, undocumented or otherwise vulnerable. Before discrimination against Muslims gets naturalized within the social discourse, the imperative to act is an urgent one. In the words of Pastor Niemöller, come to mind, recalling the slow emergence of the horrors of Nazi Germany: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
CAIR (2013). ‘Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States’, http://www.cair.com/images/islamophobia/Legislating-Fear.pdf.
Ghumman, S. and Ryan, A. M. (2013). ‘Not welcome here: Discrimination towards women who wear the Muslim headscarf’, Human Relations, 66:671-98.
Helbling, M. (2012). Islamophobia in the West: Measuring and Explaining Individual Attitudes. London: Routledge.
Kaushal N., Kaestner, R., and Reimers, C. (2007). ‘Labor Market Effects of September 11th on Arab and Muslim Residents of the United States’, Journal of Human Resources, 42(2):275-308.
Sides, J., & Gross, K. (2013). Stereotypes of Muslims and Support for the War on Terror. The Journal of Politics, 75(03), 583-598.
Raza Mir is a member of the Board of Directors of Muslims For Peace.