ODVV interview: Trump’s Muslim ban policy has...
Islamophobia in the United States animates a modern form of bigotry that was deepened following the 9/11 attacks and got worse under President Donald Trump; however, the reality of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States is much older, dating back to the arrival of the first Muslim settlers in America in the early 14th century.
According to some accounts, there are nearly 7 million Muslims living in the United States today. Despite enjoying legal protection to practice their faith freely by virtue of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, American Muslims have been mostly viewed in a cynical light since the September 11, 2001 attacks, constantly demanded to denounce terrorism and distance themselves from violent extremists, accept restrictions on their civil liberties and cope with discrimination in public sphere, education and workplace on a daily basis.
A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that in the eyes of most American adults (82%), Muslims are subject to at least some discrimination in the US today, including a 56% majority who believe Muslims are discriminated against “a lot.” The uptick in anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States in the recent years is well-documented. Similarly, there’s corroborative evidence that not many Americans hold favorable views of Muslims and Islam, which can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the stereotypical coverage of Muslims in the corporate media.
According to a survey by the University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, favorable attitudes toward Muslims, as a community, and Islam, as a faith, was disturbingly low among the Republicans during the 2016 presidential campaign, standing at around 40 percent and 25 percent respectively. It’s no surprise that President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim, immigrant-bashing rhetoric after coming to power has further eroded the standing of Muslims in the American society.
Erik Love is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of the 2017 book “Islamophobia and Racism in America.” A noted expert on race issues and Islamophobia, Prof. Love is a member of the Middle East Studies Association and has contributed to Al Jazeera English, Jadaliyya and other online and print publications. Prof. Love joined the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence for an interview on Islamophobia in the 21st century United States, public perceptions of Muslims in America and President Donald Trump’s policies on minorities and immigrants, particularly his Muslim ban executive order.
Q: It’s believed that the presence of Muslims in the United States dates back to a time when the United States was not yet an independent nation, namely around 400 years ago. The first Muslims arriving in the region were slaves who were brought to America from the West and Central Africa nations such as The Gambia and Cameroon. However, as corroborated by different studies, American people are not closely familiar with Muslims and don’t interact with them regularly. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 38 percent of Americans know an American Muslim personally. What do you think this unawareness is rooted in?
A: It is true that Muslims have been part of the North American social fabric basically since the founding of European colonies centuries ago, and scholarship has shown that many enslaved people brought to American shores as early as 400 years ago were Muslim. By the late 1700s, some of the founders of the United States made a point of showing respect for Islam and Muslims. Notably, the US Constitution, which was designed to protect religious freedom, expressly forbid any kind of religious test for citizenship or holding public office. Unfortunately, the Constitution was also designed to protect the brutal institution of slavery, and the expansionist goals of the founders and subsequent generations of American leadership led directly to genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The first naturalization policy of the United States, enacted shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, specified that only “free white” people could become citizens after immigrating. This racial prerequisite for naturalization remained in effect for more than a century, after it was finally overturned after World War II in the 1950s. This longstanding white supremacist policy profoundly affected the shape of Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian American communities alongside various racist immigration policies – “exclusion acts,” etc. – that discouraged immigration from Africa and Asia. Throughout the 1800s, racist conceptions of Africans and Asians pervaded American politics and culture. For example, racialized “Barbary captivity” narratives captivated popular novels and theater, and these kinds of bigoted representations influenced politics as well.
By the mid-1900s, the mainstream culture and politics of the United States featured deep, multifaceted strains of xenophobia and anti-Muslim animus. Those strains remain largely intact in the 2010s, with scholarship showing remarkable continuities in Islamophobic popular culture and politics dating back decades. This, along with the effects of longstanding structural discrimination across many aspects of contemporary American life, goes a long way toward explaining the poll results that you cited. While it is obviously true that Muslim Americans have contributed to American society, politics, and culture in myriad ways, the reason that some sixty percent of Americans report they do not personally know any Muslim individuals stems directly from the racist and xenophobic history of the United States.
Q: On April 28, the Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar wrote in a tweet, “Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are two sides of the same bigoted coin.” Do you see a connection between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism? Do you think the upsurge of these two phenomena may have similar underlying reasons?
A: The common thread that connects anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is the racist ideology of white supremacy. As this hateful ideology has been resurgent in recent years, enjoying explicit and implicit support from American public officials including the President of the United States, it is unsurprising that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, along with other expressions of bigotry, have been more visible and, indeed, more dangerous in the United States.
Q: What do you think about the role of President Donald Trump in stoking Islamophobia in the United States and worldwide? Specifically, how do you think his “Muslim ban” executive order prohibiting immigration from six Muslim-majority countries contributed to the rise of pessimism and hostility toward Muslims?
A: The only valid explanation for why the Trump administration issued the “Muslim Ban” orders is racism. The so-called Travel Ban orders have no other purpose than to reinforce racist bigotry and white supremacist ideology with the goal of solidifying support for the president’s anti-immigrant agenda and re-election campaign. The policy has no actual national security purpose or any other benefits to the United States. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent to the Supreme Court opinion allowing the “Muslim Ban” to remain in place, the president’s orders are “motivated by hostility and animus toward the Muslim faith.” This hateful policy will undoubtedly do as the Trump administration intended it to do: create yet more bigotry and antipathy toward marginalized communities in the United States, especially Muslims.
Q: What some media and academics refer to as the “Islamophobia industry” is obviously a very profitable enterprise which attracts remarkable investment. As reported by Al Jazeera, more than $200 million was spent by different American organizations between 2008 and 2013 for the promotion of Islamophobic sentiments and ideas. What’s the ultimate goal of these groups? If these organizations are concerned about the national interests of the United States, don’t they believe that the rise of Islamophobia foments social gaps in this country?
A: I cannot speak directly to each of the organizations and individuals referenced by the Al Jazeera report and similar research. In general, I would note that many “Islamophobia industry” activists appear motivated by genuine bigotry, and are “true believers” so to speak, of bigoted ideas about Islam and Muslims. Some Islamophobic activists, however, recognize the value of Islamophobia as a political tool, used to motivate political support for other priorities. This means that even if they do not genuinely want to implement Islamophobic policies, they see value in promoting Islamophobia. For example, anti-immigrant sentiment can drive support in elections for candidates intending to implement policies unrelated to immigration, such as lowering taxes on the wealthy. In this way, some expressions of Islamophobia have the additional purpose of ginning up support for broader conservative policy priorities. Similarly, Islamophobic rhetoric can serve as a “wedge issue,” dividing support for opponents of the conservative movement. In short, “fomenting social gaps” in the United States provides distinct advantages for some political actors, even if such divisive rhetoric runs contrary to the overall interests of the United States.
Q: A study by the New America Foundation conducted last year found that two out of every five American citizens believe Islam is not compatible with the American values. Do you agree with this assumption?
A: No. This assumption is obviously false. Muslim Americans have contributed to American society in innumerable and myriad ways, and there is no basis in fact for the assertion that there is some inherent “incompatibility” with American values and Islamic theology or Muslim communities.
Q: It’s true that cults and groups with Islamic alignments carry out violent acts across the world. However, there are similarly groups in other religious and racial communities, which are reputed to be violent, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis. However, there’s insignificant media coverage of the threats they pose to global peace and security while the ideas of “Islamic extremism” and “Islamic terrorism” are hyperbolically discussed in the media and academia. What do you think is the reason?
A: Politically motivated violence stems from all kinds of motivations, as you point out. There are many reasons for the disproportionate attention given to attacks carried out by perpetrators that fit the stereotypical image of a so-called Islamic terrorist. One reason is that many leaders and elected officials in the United States benefit from the attention given to “outsider violence,” so they speak out about that threat in ways that drive media attention. Another set of reasons relates the incentives in the media that, broadly speaking, tend toward sensationalism to gain attention, and thereby revenue.
Q: Muslims constitute merely one percent of the population of the United States. Nonetheless, there are many American citizens who, for different reasons, consider Muslims a threat for the security of their country. What do you think is the most effective and reliable way of establishing reconciliation between American Muslims and the non-Muslim majority?
A: This is an excellent question that is impossible to answer effectively in this format. In brief, I believe that it should be easy for Arab, Muslim, Sikh, South Asian Americans to enjoy life in America, if only the United States listened to what civil rights advocates have long endeavored to point out: discrimination on the basis of race and religion is un-American. Supporting the efforts of these advocates is important, and providing support for civil rights can be as simple as showing up and listening, and getting involved locally.
By: Kourosh Ziabari