ODVV interview: Islamophobia is not a recent...
Protests have been raging for more than two months following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American father and local restaurant bouncer by a Minneapolis law enforcement officer, with people across the United States and internationally raising their voices to denounce police brutality and racism.
Some commentators and observers say this is a moment of reckoning on race and police accountability in the United States and probably an occasion for racial awakening, and Lonnie G. Bunch, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution wrote in an essay that the harrowing incident has forced the country to “confront the reality that, despite gains made in the past 50 years, we are still a nation riven by inequality and racial division.”
The United States Declaration of Independence originally published in 1776 asserts that “all men are created equal” and the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution promises all citizens, including former slaves, equal protection under the law; nonetheless, racial, economic and educational disparities have been entrenched in the US institutions for nearly four centuries, denying African-Americans as well as other minorities privileges, opportunities and freedoms that White Americans are entitled to.
Discrimination against Black Americans and Islamophobia are among the major representations of racism in the United States today, which have come under close scrutiny in the recent decades, as developments like the 9/11 attacks, wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the global immigration crisis and the coming to power of Donald Trump have altered the perceptions of minorities. A Monmouth University poll released last month found more than 65 percent of the American public believes racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States. Approximately 60 percent of those surveyed told Gallup that “they were somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the state of race relations in America.”
Dr. Aminah McCloud is a professor emerita of Islamic studies in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. She is the former editor in chief of the Journal of Islamic Law & Culture. She is a Senior Fulbright Scholar and an editor of Anthropology and Ethnology Open Access Journal. Her latest book is “History of Arab Americans: Exploring Diverse Roots.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Dr. McCloud to discuss the history of racism in the United States, public attitudes toward Muslims and people of color, racial disparities in education and employment and the recent killing of George Floyd by a US police officer and international reactions to it. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: A number of scholars are of the opinion that Islamophobia existed in the public sphere in the United States for many decades, but took on an explicit form after the 9/11 attacks, leading to chronic social fissures, and turned into an institutional government policy with the coming to power of Donald Trump. Do you think the gaps that Islamophobia created in the American society are retrievable?
A: On an historical note, issues around Islamophobia have existed since the Barbary Wars, just not called that. The tracts were produced by Benjamin Franklin and missionaries. These tracts were used extensively in Protestant Christian ministers’ Sunday sermons for the past 300 years. There are pictures of the depictions of Muslims in some history books. 1987, 1993 and 2001 drew upon these tracts to reinforce why American Christians should be scared of Muslims. I don’t think that the gaps are able to be closed because they fit both the isolationist policy and the “welcome white Christians only” narrative.
Q: In some definitions, such as the one presented by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims in the UK, Islamophobia is considered as a representation of racism. What are the root causes of the emergence of Islamophobia? Are they cultural differences or differences in political interests and leanings giving rise to this phenomenon? Why has the multicultural, diverse US society been facing challenges in accommodating the differences of the American Muslims?
A: I think the root causes are millennia old. It is representative of the racism that emerged from European colonialism around the need to subjugate and then to dominate regarding who is acceptable and who is heathen. There are little differences between the colonizers in their treatment of the natives except in the level of brutality, like cutting off hands or hanging, but they have and continue to exploit class, religious, and political differences among the populations of various countries to heighten differences.
This is then used further to have many in Muslim communities to side with their own oppression to please those in power. For example, here in the United States, many Muslims will say that Muslims in Iran are against everything in the US and are trying to wage war against American allies and upset the battle of power in a region especially important to the US.
While the American public has no way of discerning an Iranian-American, they are just not white, the hatred sits and is expressed when the topic comes up. Few Americans have any idea of what sanctions are and how people suffer. The word “sanctions” is used so often and so arbitrarily that what they entail and deprive other countries of are glossed over. American Muslims are ethnically self-segregated and ethnocentric. Most Muslims and their families from overseas are racist, and generally either love or hate having to live in America. Much of this attitude was laid in the colonial encounter and followed by bad media. Many Muslims fled to America seeking higher education and decent employment with benefits, large homes, cars and disposable income. Landing here and finding oneself hated by fiat is difficult. The visa problems have always been a point of debate since American unemployment is high. Islam was an enemy of European culture and since America is born of Europe, the Founding Fathers and their progeny have kept the themes going.
Q: Do you perceive commonalities between anti-Black racism and Islamophobia? Discrimination against African-American dates back to the colonial era and the early 17th century, while Islamophobia is a recent concept, which the Runnymede Trust first brought up in 1997 in a flagship report, adding it to the literature on racism. Is it possible to track similarities in the two phenomena?
A: Islamophobia is not a recent concept in American history. It was just not named Islamophobia. Runnymede was late in the game of American exceptionalism and isolationist tendencies. I think Islamophobia belongs in the literature on racism but the complexities of both are distinct. Racism is about people while Islamophobia is about religion and faith. One can track similarities as a researcher with support to do an accurate job.
Q: Events happened in the contemporary US history, which heralded a better future for the people of color and the realization of the American dream for the minorities. One of them was the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, promising that the American society had entered a period of colorblindness. Now, there are indications suggesting that those developments were ephemeral, and that white supremacy and domestic terrorism are serious threats to the integrity of the union. What are your thoughts?
A: The first election of Barack Obama happened when liberals of all religions, classes, and colors showed up to vote and many in the white majority took it as a joke and did not vote. During the second election, that white majority began to wake but too late to stop the momentum. People on the street knew there was no color-blindness as the race hatred was on full display. President Obama himself was ridiculed in Congress along with blatant hatred against him in foreign affairs. African-Americans were accosted on the streets, not attended to in stores, and so on. It was not a good time and has only gotten worse with President Trump. President Obama bailed out banks and caused a tsunami of mortgage defaults in minority communities who have not yet recovered.
Domestic terrorism has always been high especially in the fights over sovereignty and hatred of government size and interference in state affairs. The union is quickly fragmenting into the worse kind of federalism.
Q: One of the aspects of rampant racism in the United States is the racial wealth gap and discrimination against minorities by big corporations and banks. In 2017, the Justice Department accused JPMorgan Chase of prejudice and bias against minority mortgage borrowers and the bank agreed to pay $55 million to settle the lawsuit without accepting liability. Scholarly evidence suggest American banks usually charge their black borrowers significantly higher interest rates than white borrowers. There are many examples to illustrate the idea that the corporate America is failing the Black America. What are the reasons?
A: Most African-Americans and Latinos know that there is one road for them. They have the appearance of living well while paying triple the prices that a white family of similar means pays. There are housing restrictions, employment pay restrictions, health disparities, food deserts, education disparities and even separate burial grounds. Since many of these things are run by corporate America, one could easily say that corporate America is continuing the programs of servitude. I say that rather than failing because they are very successful in maintaining the status quo.
This country was built on slavery and subjugation. White Christian supremacy in a diverse population is a necessity and there are no other options.
Q: In a survey, the Center for Talent Innovation concluded that despite making up some 12 percent of the population, Black Americans constitute only 3.2 percent of the top tier of senior executive positions in major US companies and that firms are not willing to retain Black professionals or promote them to higher roles. Do you think this is inadvertent or has to do with systemic racism?
A: The brick and mortar of the American corporate is cemented with the blood and tears of Black Americans. Racism is built into every system and cannot be extracted without tearing the edifices down.
Q: The killing of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African-American father by a white Minneapolis cop triggered widespread and unprecedented protests across the United States and internationally, resulting in an outpouring of anger and denunciation of police brutality and racism. Do you think tangible reforms in policies that make racism an integral part of the lived experiences of minorities in the United States will be enforced?
A: No! The system has worked since the country was built and demands that it continue. The protests go on in the pandemic and the power structures is working overtime to demolish any gains. Police unions are fighting losses of funding and some, like in Minneapolis are refusing to discipline, fine, suspend or terminate officers guilty of excessive force or other misconduct. Some mayors have taken matters in their own hands, and demanded firings and suspensions without pay, but are getting much pushback. Few corporations are hiring people of color and few are making real changes in their policies.
By: Kourosh Ziabari