ODVV intervew: It’s foolish to expect the US...
Data and figures on anti-Muslim bigotry across the world, especially in North America, paint a disturbing picture of the status of Islamic communities. Council on American-Islamic Relations recorded over 500 anti-Muslim hate crimes across the United States from January to May this year. The actual number, however, appears to be way bigger.
On April 29, a mosque was assaulted and several Qurans were destroyed in Queens, New York by a 37-year-old man, who is now being indicted and can spend the next three to 15 years behind the bars if convicted. Earlier this year, on May 15, a fire tore through the Diyanet Mosque in New Haven, Connecticut, which left significant damage to the property. The New Haven police believe the fire was set intentionally and “incendiary evidence” was found at the location. Many observers notice a correlation between President Trump’s defamation of immigrants and minorities and the spike of intolerance and prejudice towards the Muslims. A recent survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that only 16% of American Muslims approve of the job Donald Trump is doing as the US President. The same study shows 62% of the American Muslims reported experiencing religious discrimination. This figure for the Muslim woman stands at 68% who experience higher levels of discrimination. This is while according to a March survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 82% of American adults say Muslims are “subject to at least some discrimination in the US today.”
Dr. Nazia Kazi is an ethnographer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is assistant professor of anthropology at Stockton University in New Jersey and has authored the book “Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics.” In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Dr. Nazia Kazi has shared her views about the sharp rise of Islamophobia in the United States, President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric about the Muslims and the importance of inter-faith dialogue. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: In a series of disparaging tweets, President Donald Trump attacked four progressive US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocazio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, telling them to go back to their “totally broken” and “crime-infested” countries and fix those countries’ problems instead of thinking of the United States. All the four lawmakers are US citizens. In your view, what’s behind President Trump’s occasional rhetorical attacks against the immigrants, Muslims and US citizens with familial ties to other countries or migrant roots? Doesn’t this sort of rhetoric fuel xenophobia in the United States?
A: Who gets to count as a “real American” has always been a distinctly racialized calculation in the US. For most of this country’s history, citizenship itself has been based upon racial identity. This history is highlighted well in Ian Haney Lopez’s “White by Law”. In addition to the ways racialized citizenship in enshrined in our legal past, a “common sense” understanding also permeates American notions of belonging. For instance, a name like Arnold Shwarzenegger can quickly become quintessentially American, but a name like Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki cannot. The latter, a US-born American youth, was killed in a drone strike during the Obama administration. While a majority of Americans thought it was wrong for a president to assassinate US citizens, a majority also thought Abdulrahman’s execution was perfectly fine. Citizenship – at least, “commonsense citizenship” – is not eagerly extended to those whose racial and ethnic markers render them Other – it is certainly not extended to a name like Abdulrahman, regardless of his place of birth. “The effort to depict Muslims as something other than “real Americans,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “has long been a centerpiece of the US political climate in the era of the War on Terror.” Under the Trump administration, Abdulrahman’s 8 year-old sister would also be killed in a drone strike.
With that in mind, “go back to your country” epithets that are hurled at people of color come as no surprise. But we should be clear: “go back to your country” is reserved simply not for foreigners or migrants, but for those Americans of color who critique the state. Note that Ocasio-Cortez has offered stinging criticism of the gaping American inequality that continues to intensify as a result of an unchecked capitalism, and that Ilhan Omar has shunned the eager alliance between the US and Israel. Trump’s attacks on them are not simply because of their racial or immigrant identities, but because of their stances on global power and inequality.
And when Trump hurls assaults at these women, those of us who have been paying attention are not all that surprised. We remember that he created a “travel ban” after promising to prevent Muslims from entering the US while on the campaign trail. We remember that he launched his political career after popularizing the notion that Obama himself was not a true American. We remember that, even before his political career, he took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for the state of New York to execute the boys who had been wrongfully convicted in the Central Park jogger case. His xenophobic rhetoric last week, then, comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. It seems he’s keen to make good on many of his campaign promises.
Q: Do you see any relationship between President Trump’s divisive, Muslim-bashing rhetoric and his ties to the Israeli lobby and his efforts to appeal to the American Jews? Some observers say Trump is the most pro-Israel US President since Harry Truman. What do you think?
A: I disagree with the suggestion that he is appealing to “American Jews” by flexing his support for Israel. In fact, we should reject any notion that the Jewish diaspora is uniformly pro-Israel. The claim that Jewish people are politically monolithic – that they are uniformly pro-Israel – is patently anti-Semitic. It attributes political conformity where this is much debate, division, and transformation. Many people have sharpened their critiques of the atrocious acts committed by Israel by reading the works of Tanya Reinhardt, or Noam Chomsky, or following the organizing efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace.
I do see Trump as a continuation, and intensification, of an unwavering pro-Israel line of US presidents. And when we look at his “opposition” – the gaggle of Democrats who have thrown their hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential elections – a number of them also support vast amounts of US military aid to Israel, or the censure of non-violent measures like BDS that hold Israel accountable for its crimes. Even the most critical of these candidates will still speak of Israel’s right to “defend itself.” While the term may seem simple enough to the layperson, we know “Israel’s right to defend itself” has served as a veneer for the colonial situation imposed upon Palestinians. While Trump may have made extreme measures to cement this relationship, we gravely misunderstand the situation if we see him as some sort of anomaly vis-à-vis Israel rather than a somewhat predictable intensification of it.
Q: Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy and civil rights group in the United States, censured President Trump after the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand and blamed him for the global rise of Islamophobia. Do you think the Christchurch atrocity in which 50 Muslim worshippers were decimated was inspired by President Trump? Is it realistic to say President Trump has played a role in the fomentation of Islamophobia beyond the US borders?
A: Since Trump’s victory, it’s all too common to hear his racist outbursts referred to as “un-American” or antithetical to our values. I wonder which American history books were read by those who offer these truisms. Trump wants to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, but Democrats and Republicans alike have thrown money at militarizing the border, even constructing a fence along many parts of it, leaving the most treacherous parts of the desert un-walled, thus allowing border-crossers to die of dehydration. In my book, I have a chapter called “Beyond Trump” in which I ask readers to be wary of critiques that are directed toward a particular individual or his administration. Instead, we should be attuned to what Deepa Kumar calls the “bipartisan project” of Islamophobia.
If we want to defeat the heightened racism and Islamophobia of the Trump administration, we must not dissect and over-analyze his Islamophobia specifically, but instead carefully recognize the continuities and overlaps between the Trump administration and what came before. When it comes to race, this means looking at a very painful American history: a history in which the predominantly black city of Flint, Michigan, had its water supply poisoned, endangering the lives of countless youth; a history in which black men were lynched for the “crime” of wearing their military uniforms after returning from war; a history in which black women were treated as guinea pigs for medical experimentation; a history in which the US state unilaterally violated hundreds of treaties made with indigenous populations. Knowing this history, is Trump un-American, or simply an American?
Q: According to a study by the Voter Study Group, respondents believe only 50 percent of American Muslims “have respect for American ideals and laws” and that 41 percent of the nation’s Muslims are “sympathetic to terrorists.” What’s the reality? Is it true that the American Muslims do not enshrine their national identity like the rest of Americans? Is it a credible narrative that American Muslims side with the extremists and terrorists?
A: Often, Muslims in the US will respond to such allegations by pointing to the Muslims who volunteer at soup kitchens, organize neighborhood clean-ups, or perform life-saving surgeries on their patients. Others will remind the general public of the verses from the Quran that condemn in the strongest terms any violence against civilians. Much of the American population has heard the oft-repeated phrase “Islam is a religion of peace.” Some have even had the opportunity to hear Rais Bhuiyan, a man who spoke vocally against the execution of the white supremacist who had assaulted him, speak about his remarkable commitment to forgiveness. In my book, I describe the countless ways that Muslim Americans have, for decades now, been trying to demonstrate their pacifism and patriotism. Yet I argue that these efforts are diversionary at best, as they leave untouched the enduring realities of US white supremacy and war-making that are at the core of Islamophobia.
We must remember that the roots of Islamophobia are not ignorance, nor a lack of awareness about who Muslims are, what they believe, or how they practice. No, Islamophobia is the product of global politics, politics most easily visible in recent machinations of US empire-building. Any conversation that neglects this foundational reality is a diversion.
Q: Different figures show violent crimes against the Muslims surged significantly following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Have the police and different government departments been able to adequately and firmly respond to these threats and protect the Muslim minority in against extremists and alt-right fanatics?
A: We would be foolish to expect law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and state departments to be able to adequately prevent or respond to Islamophobia. In fact, a careful reading of history reveals the complicity of these very entities in the most virulent forms of not just Islamophobia, but all forms of racism. I describe in my book, for instance, the NYPD Demographics Unit, an illegal and vast apparatus of anti-Muslim policing that was eventually disbanded. In fact, law enforcement agencies across the country have been seen to often have cozy ties to even overt white supremacists. The Intercept reported on, for instance, the infiltration of covert white supremacists into police departments across the country. This might come as no surprise to those who know the roots of modern policing in the US. In the north, law enforcement agencies were formed to suppress uprisings among the working class, often predominantly immigrant, demanding better conditions. And in the south, policing emerged as a way to round up enslaved black people who had escaped and return them to their “owners,” as they were deemed stolen property. These are what Sam Mitrani calls the origins of modern policing in America.
We also know the FBI has used Islamophobic training materials and, after 9/11, indiscriminately rounded up and targeted Muslim immigrants. It would seem a cruel irony that, years later, the very Robert Mueller who had carried out these anti-democratic assaults would be tasked with an investigation about whether American democracy had been tampered with in 2016.
In the US, law enforcement has historically been a set of institutions designed to protect the most perverse forms of power. This might be why cities across the country criminalize the most mundane acts – sleeping under a bridge or sharing food with the homeless – while those who offered subprime mortgages, creating a drastic economic crisis, or those who were complicit in illegal torture under the Bush administration, face no legal consequences.
Given this undeniable reality, the question becomes more complicated. Who can those targeted by Islamophobia turn to when even those institutions tasked with serving and protecting have enacted anti-Muslim violence?
Q: How have different decisions by the US government in the recent years contributed to the widening of the gap between the United States and the Muslim world? Do you agree that legislation such as the Patriot Act and initiatives such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which were set in motion during President George W. Bush’s tenure, or President Trump’s Muslim ban have resulted in the spike of anti-Muslim bigotry and the growth of hostilities between the United States and the Muslim nations?
A: I’ve often argued that Islamophobia is a misnomer. A term that denotes fear of Muslims, “Islamophobia” falls woefully short in describing something much more complex: a process of dividing-up of the world’s Muslims according to the dictates of global power. Is Donald Trump an Islamophobe? Certainly, as were many US presidents before him. But is he Islamophobic when he sword-dances with the Saudi royal family, US proxies who have propagated the most repressive forms of religiosity? It’s a complicated question. In fact, as Timothy Mitchell reminds us, those Muslim-majority countries that enforce the strictest or most rigid forms of Islamic practice have, with the exception of Iran, been the closest to the United States. Mid-20th century history shows Western nations toppling governments across the so-called Muslim world that leaned toward religious pluralism, secularism, or gender equality.
But yes, there is a feedback loop between US policy choices such as NSEERS or the Patriot Act and the violent actions of bigoted Islamophobes. The same can be true of all racialized populations in the US. The actions of the state are reflected in the actions of individuals who absorb the messaging about who is and isn’t appropriately American.
Q: And a final question. What are the steps the American Muslims need to take in order to begin inter-faith dialogue, shape a meaningful conversation with the rest of American citizens and present a realistic and balanced image of themselves and their faith to the general public?
A: “An imam, a priest, and rabbi…” is a good start to a joke; that joke might just be interfaith dialogue. When aimed at dismantling Islamophobia, what interfaith dialogue does is function as a stand-in for earnest work against US empire, against the dangerous machinations of global power. For instance, “interfaith dialogue” is often offered to Muslims and Jews to communicate, effectively glossing over geopolitical concerns around Israel-Palestine. Of course, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and other religious communities are not inherently, primordially hostile to one another. Nor are Sunnis and Shi’a. No, these hostilities are stoked and intensified given the political climates that find these tensions expedient. The problem is not a lack of interfaith dialogue, but the violent processes that produce ethno-religious tensions. Instead of interfaith dialogue with Muslims, we need an earnest conversation at the intersections of war, race, empire, and capital.
By: Kourosh Ziabari