Skip to content

Undoing Islamophobia

The moment is ripe to reverse anti-Muslim narratives

As the Muslim American community is learning, sometimes the worst of times can also be the best of times. The era of Donald Trump presents a series of profoundly difficult, and in many ways unprecedented, challenges to the diverse, dispersed, extremely heterogeneous, and almost entirely politically unorganized Muslim American communities. But, since American Muslims have largely failed to take advantage of earlier opportunities (which, it’s true, were likewise quite well disguised as disasters) to deepen their collective identity and complete the process of mainstreaming their participation in American society and culture, there is a surprisingly compelling argument for greeting the current baptism of fire as a golden opportunity that cannot be squandered.

In some ways, of course, it’s been worse in the past. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a social, cultural, and political earthquake for Muslim Americans. The metaphorical ground shifted under our collective feet suddenly, unexpectedly, and irrevocably. I was then serving as the communications director of what was, at the time, the largest national Arab-American organization, and all of us scrambled to adjust our expectations, rhetoric, and priorities accordingly. Most of the immediate damage was at the level of immigration, and noncitizens bore the brunt of the backlash.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Islam rated just slightly lower than Catholicism in American public opinion. 

But over the ensuing few years, the steady and inexorable rise of Islamophobic narratives and political attitudes ensured that a climate of cultural hostility only grew, despite the obvious disinclination of Muslim Americans, with extremely rare exceptions, to display any sympathy with terrorist groups, let alone specific acts of violence. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Islam rated just slightly lower than Catholicism in American public opinion. By the middle of the decade, these ratings plummeted, and rampant bigotry was both on the rise and making inroads in the political mainstream, particularly within key elements of the right. Meanwhile, the Muslim-American community had virtually no organized presence at the national level, certainly none that was any better than what had been in place prior to 9/11. This meant, for better and worse, that we were entirely dependent on the goodwill of our fellow citizens.

These Islamophobic narratives eventually broke through into the cultural and political mainstream in the Trump campaign. Indeed, they were instrumental in the victory of a racist demagogue who showed a particular animus against Mexican immigrants and Muslims in general. Worse, President Trump has appointed a number of hateful ideologues to senior administration positions, such as Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael Anton, and Sebastian Gorka, and they wasted no time in crafting an anti-Muslim travel ban executive order so crude that it met with a series of mass protests at U.S. airports. In short order, it was blocked by the courts, and now awaits re-drafting from the Muslim-baiting Trump White House.

There is no doubt that the cultural and political mainstreaming of Islamophobia in the Trump era is profoundly alarming. But the moment is ripe with genuine possibilities for political organization and wider civic acceptance over the longer term. Muslim Americans now find themselves in roughly the same position as millions of other members of racial and ethnic minorities: targeted by the rhetoric of an intolerant administration and its fan base that derives much of its energy from hatred, scapegoating, and demonization. This means that the American Muslim community now possesses—unwillingly, no doubt—vital new opportunities for coalition building, and creating new modes of cross-racial and religiously plural solidarity. And this means, in turn, that American Muslims can mount new and sturdier grassroots and national cultural efforts to mainstream the community.

Moreover, in contrast to the aftermath of 9/11, while in this case the bigots wielding executive power in the White House have definitely tried to “come first for the Muslims” (or at least travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries—initially including even green card holders—plus all Syrian refugees), the worst excesses of the Trumpian assault on minorities will be clearly visited upon the undocumented, mainly from Mesoamerica. Already the horror stories of roundups, deportations, intentions to recruit a small army of 10,000 new immigration and 5,000 new border enforcement officers, and other dystopian realities are mounting daily.

Trump’s reticence in the face of anti-Semitic attacks in effect lends encouragement through faint condemnation.

As for religious hatred, naturally this cannot be restricted to the bashing of Muslims. Trump was consciously courted and coddled by the “alt-right”—a new euphemism for white nationalists and neo-Nazi racists—during his campaign. In office, the president persists in embracing, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly, these groups and individuals. It’s no surprise, then, that a wave of anti-Semitic hatred, no doubt egged on by what racist groups themselves described as “winking and nodding” from Trump, is sweeping the country. Jewish community centers face waves of bomb threat hoaxes and Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized across the country. But what can we expect when one of the final campaign ads by the new president reproduced the feel of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, illustrated with footage of three prominent Jewish financial figures? No one is naïve enough not to pick up on such crude anti-Semitic stereotyping, or to extrapolate from what it portends for other minorities. And in a continuation of the pattern, Trump has had to be forced, probably by his own daughter, into making the simplest of expressions of concern. This reticence in the face of a morally unconscionable form of bigotry in effect lends encouragement through faint condemnation.

It’s essential for Muslim Americans to express full solidarity with these, and all other, victims of official prejudice during the next four years. Apart from the inherent justice of such a stand, this new mode of outreach born of necessity will permit American Muslims to re-inscribe their place in the mainstream American cultural narrative and normative self image. At the same time, though, far too little was also done to mainstream the community or effectively combat narratives that push Muslims to the margins of society, at least in stereotypical cultural terms. Likewise, nothing effectively dislodged Muslim Americans from the suspicion-laden role of quintessential other in the contemporary American imagination.

That’s very much still the case—and under Trump, probably more than ever for much of the country. It’s hard to not strongly suspect that the two Indian engineers shot by a racist anti-immigrant fanatic at a bar in Kansas were assumed by the gunman to be of Middle Eastern origin, and probably Muslims. Racists frequently mistake South Asians for “Arabs,” while actual Arab Americans often remain largely undetected by racists unless identified by distinctive names. Hollywood, which so often plays a leading role in shaping the cultural logic of ethnic exclusion and assimilation, has a long history of casting South Asian actors as Arab and Muslim terrorist villains—presumably because actual Arabs aren’t quite dark and swarthy enough to meet the stereotype, whereas many Indians are.

A new mobilization of Muslim Americans represents not only an urgent tool of survival, but also a dramatic moment of political opportunity.

Nonetheless, the central place of anti-Muslim hatred in the Trumpian spectrum of indeed deplorably hateful attitudes is why a new mobilization of Muslim Americans represents not only an urgent tool of survival, but also a dramatic moment of political opportunity. Islamophobia is now part and parcel of a broader agenda of intolerance, nativism, and white nationalism aimed at huge portions of the country. And this threat is demanding and receiving massive resistance from the energized center-left axis of tolerance in American civic life. During the few days that the “travel ban” was in force, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans participated in those airport protests and mobilized otherwise to resist. Millions, including many conservatives and Republicans, made their disgust with the scarcely concealed racism behind the ban quite clear. (Just yesterday, in fact, George W. Bush gave an interview to People magazine deploring the racism that the Trump administration echoes and legitimizes in American life.) 

And now, in turn, Muslim Americans are mobilizing to help repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries, support undocumented immigrants facing deportation, and join with their fellow Americans in rejecting the entire atrocious package of hate that this new administration has brought through the front door of the White House. 

It’s a pretty good start, but it’s not nearly enough. If Muslim Americans are smart, they will ensure three things. First, they will continue to emphasize their solidarity with other targeted communities and all Americans who reject bigotry of all kinds. Second, they will make themselves invaluable participants in the campaign to defend traditional American values of tolerance, openness, liberty and respect for others. And finally, they will collectively seize the opportunity to re-inscribe their place in the American narrative as an integral part of mainstream society and culture. Rejecting extremism and condemning terrorism isn’t enough; what’s more, it’s been done by almost all noted Muslim Americans since 9/11, if not before. What’s essential is to embrace Americanness, and real, traditional American values. This means, among many other things, that Muslim Americans must be at the forefront of the fight to preserve—and increasingly, to restore—them in the face of the most sustained assault they have received in many decades. A concerted effort on all these fronts, both nationally and globally, may well ensure that at the end of this ordeal, Muslim Americans will never be the “other” again.