How perilous is the threat to Muslims in the US?

Published December 26, 2015
Since the deadly Paris attacks and San Bernadino shootings, a widespread backlash against Muslims in the US has been reported.  — Reuters/File
Since the deadly Paris attacks and San Bernadino shootings, a widespread backlash against Muslims in the US has been reported. — Reuters/File

Since the deadly Paris attacks and San Bernadino shootings, a widespread backlash against Muslims in the US has been reported. This has happened despite the condemnations of every major Islamic group in the country.

CAIR, a Muslim civil rights group, has issued several alerts. An independent news outlet, ThinkProgress, states that 41 incidents of “violent attacks, threats, assaults, protests, and instances of vandalism” have occurred in the past few weeks.

Take a look: Muslim group CAIR evacuates US HQ after getting white powder in mail

This backlash also comes in the wake of controversial positions taken by Republican Party’s Presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, and aided by dozens of governors who announced that they would not accept Syrian refugees as they could be potential sympathisers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam (ISIS).

Read: Donald Trump calls for keeping Muslims out of US

This media frenzy and political posturing has whipped up passions against an imagined enemy. For instance, 30 per cent of Republicans in a December survey held by Public Policy Polling said that they would support an attack on Agrabah — a fictional place in the Aladdin cartoon.

It was a relief that nearly 60pc admitted that they were not sure. The desire to ban all Muslims entering the US — over 50pc show support for the idea — needs to be understood within this background. There is a blurring of reality and fantasy in which the fear of Muslims becomes merely a minor detail.

What is alarming is that disinformation and politicking is stirring unprecedented levels of hatred. Many observers say that this is worse than the post 9/11 climate in the United States. The Democrats, liberal sections of US media and civil society, are confronting this toxic mixture of ignorance and xenophobia.

While the threat of Islamic extremism cannot be dismissed, the 24/7 coverage of “terrorism” and “security analysis”, and its constant purveying of fear creates an unreal situation. Americans have been warned to be fearful of neighbours, of fellow passengers at the airport, train stations, and bus terminals. Once the threat has been established and assumed to be universal, it could come from any direction.

To understand the narratives around Islam and Muslims in the US, I spoke to Dr Akbar S. Ahmed, who is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of "Journey into America" based on extensive field research on Islam in America.

1. What was your reaction to Donald Trump’s idea that Muslims should be banned from entering the US?

Like all Muslims, I was shocked but not surprised at Donald Trump’s statement that all Muslims should be banned from entering the US because he has been making increasingly outrageous statements about America’s Muslim community for the last few months. Trump’s positions on banning Muslims from entering America and increased surveillance and profiling shocked many non-Muslim Americans as well as people across the world.

2. Does Islamophobia exist in America?

Islamophobia in the United States has increased and is turning into a dangerous, growing reality. Recent rhetoric and attacks have resulted in widespread fear and uncertainty in the Muslim community. These attacks have included outrageous incidents where a taxi passenger in Pittsburgh shot the Moroccan driver after checking if he was a “Pakistani guy”. Some extremists have opened fire on mosques and Muslim homes. This kind of hatred against Muslims needs to be challenged and checked but unfortunately the statements of people like Trump are making the environment worse.

3. Your work on Muslims in America highlighted some of the dangers after 9/11? What were the key concerns and have they become irreversible?

In my book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, I explored the place of Islam in American society and history. I discovered that there is not a single American identity but three broad identities that can be located in American history.

The first is primordial identity, which is rooted in the English settlers. For these settlers and their descendants America was a white, Protestant nation.

The second identity is American pluralist identity promoted by the Founding Fathers who established the US as a nation of religious freedom, civil liberties, and democracy. The Founding Fathers welcomed Muslims and people of all religions from around the world to America. Franklin even expressed his desire that the Mufti of Istanbul come to Philadelphia and preach Islam to Americans because he believed so much in religious freedom and pluralism.

The third identity is a ‘predator’ identity, which entails the compulsion to reinforce primordial identity using force against any perceived threat to America. So while people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy represent pluralist America, the policies of enslavement of African Americans, an inferior status for them after slavery was abolished, the oppression of Native Americans, and the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are examples of predator identity. After 9/11, the danger was that predator identity may asserting itself once again, with Muslims as the target.

Examine: In solidarity with Muslims: US ambassador visits Faisal Mosque

4. Is the US going backward since 9/11, when President Bush went to mosques and said that Islam was not the enemy.

People don’t give President Bush credit but he did visit the main mosque in Washington DC after 9/11 and declared that America was at war against terrorists, not Islam.

The question now is whether America will go forward with predator identity. While Trump and advocates of predator identity are prominent in American society, at the moment we must not forget about the efforts of pluralist Americans to support and defend the idea of an inclusive America. As history shows, fear when combined with the economic insecurity so many Americans are feeling right now, can lead to hatred of the “other.”

5. What's driving this recent shift in public sentiment?

The questions Americans asked about Muslims after 9/11 have unfortunately not been answered a decade and a half later. Lately, the rise of ISIS, terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, videos of beheadings, and the chaos in the Muslim world have led many Americans to argue that Islam is a violent religion that must be challenged.

Influential media television channels like Fox News feature nonstop coverage of Islam in which the religion is associated with terrorism. This is a real problem for the American media in general. Invariably on these shows, you will have three or four people discussing and defining Islam or Muslim societies and not one will be a Muslim.

6. The anti-Islam debates by some groups are contributing to the political narrative?

In 2011, the Center for American Progress, a Washington, DC think tank, published an extensive report called Fear, Inc. on what it called the “Islamophobia network,” which was updated in 2015. The report describes how a $57 million network of wealthy donors, politicians, think tanks, media outlets, bloggers, and terrorism “experts” promote hatred of Muslims and the idea that Islam itself is a direct threat to the United States. This indicates that Islamophobia is more than a simple American ignorance and fear of Islam and terrorism.

Independent scholarship based on extensive fieldwork and research can help challenge the kind of misinformation about Islam and Muslim societies and help improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

7. What are the long-term consequences of anti-Muslim rhetoric, beyond the presidential campaigns?

It will take a long time for Muslims to recover from their current situation. Muslims in America are in a double bind. While they are constantly being questioned and told they are un-American and a threat to the nation, they are at the same time non-existent in mainstream media. The community is also divided ethnically and in terms of sectarian loyalties. They will end up becoming a minority community that lacks access to power, wealth, and privilege that other religious minorities like Catholics and Jews have been able to achieve.

8. What needs to be done to reverse this tide, if at all? What should the American Muslims be doing other than the usual media rhetoric on condemning violent extremism?

First, there should be a much closer relationship between the government and the Muslim community. There is too much mistrust on both sides right now at a time when they need to be working together. Muslims must contribute to public opinion debates and participate in civil society movements. They must counsel (and penalide if needed) the young against violence and radical ideologies.

A great deal of work has been done to build bridges between religious communities in America, but in this toxic environment, we need to be doing much more. I have participated in major interfaith initiatives in Washington DC and I have had the privilege to partner with great religious leaders with the common goal of promoting interreligious communication and compassion towards one another. Such interfaith cooperation and dialogue, where people of different faiths can collaborate and coexist, goes back to the start of American history. It is my belief and hope that this pluralist America, the America that has inspired so many across the world, will be able to withstand the current challenges of hatred and bigotry to move into the future without compromising itself.


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