By Jawad Qureshi
As I write these words, Americans in various urban centers are descending on their airports to protest the Muslim Ban instituted by the administration a day before. There is little exaggeration in saying that our current president is the most openly hostile presidents to Muslims that we have had within my lifetime. To be sure, his immediate predecessors have initiated and adopted policies that wreaked carnage on Muslim lands and peoples globally, and they were responsible for targeting Muslim Americans with draconian laws. Few however have adopted the rhetoric of exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice to the extent that our current president did in his campaign last year. His first week in office and his staff appointees attest that his rhetoric was not mere campaign promises.
While for some, this might feel like a major shift in public discourse, scholars engaged in the academic study of Islam are all too familiar with this rhetoric. We have been in the process of becoming Trump’s America for a long time. Scholars of Islam have been tracking discourse on Muslims and Islam in public spaces, culture, and politics, and we are seeing an intensification of attitudes toward Islam and Muslims that came to the fore after 9/11, but had long been latent in American culture.
The term developed by scholars for this phenomenon is Islamophobia, defined as “hatred, hostility, and fear of Islam and Muslims, and the discriminatory practices that result.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 9) In 1997, the UK’s Runnymede Report, which popularized the term, offered some common features underlying Islamophobic conceptions of Islam. These are the sense that Islam is (1) monolithic and static, (2) separate and other, (3) inferior, (4) the enemy, and (5) manipulative. As a result, (6) racial discrimination of Muslims is justified, while (7) Muslim criticisms of the West are rendered invalid. Taken altogether, (8) these ideas render anti-Muslim discourse natural. What emerges as a result is exclusion (from politics and employment), discrimination (in employment practices), prejudice (in the media and everyday experiences), and violence (in physical assaults, vandalism, and verbal abuse) aimed at Muslims. (Runnymede Report, 12)
All of these features are present in the current president’s rhetoric and policies towards Muslims. In one of the most blatant displays of this essentializing conception of Islam, effacing the voice of Muslims and the possibility of any variety among them, candidate Trump answered a question from CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, “Do you think Islam is at war with us?” by saying, “I think Islam hates us. There’s something, there’s something there. There’s a tremendous hatred, a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” The rhetoric of his appointees is not much better. Trump’s national security advisor retired general Michael Flynn, reduces Islam to an ideology. Flynn tries his hand at “nuance” by referring to “radical Islam” rather than Trump’s totalizing Islam.
Scholars tracking and studying Islamophobia have recommended four strategies to combat it. These are:
“(1) speaking out wherever and whenever Islamophobia occurs, (2) targeting and discrediting the individuals and institutions that benefit financially and politically from spreading misinformation about Islam, (3) cultivating interpersonal and interfaith relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, (4) educating the public about Islam, particularly its diversity and the common ground it shares with the West and other religious traditions.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 312)
The area to which I contribute, in my role as a teacher, is the last one: education. The academic teaching of religion, at its best, is particularly well situated to counter the conceptions of Islam that underlie Islamophobia. Against these essentialist notions, scholars of religion teach that religions are not “monolithic and static,” but are diverse, and that they change and develop over time; that religions are not “separate and other” but are deeply interdependent, with shared (albeit contested) histories, and more often than not shared values. Claims of the “inferiority” of a religion, its essential enmity toward another civilization, and its being instrumentalized for ideological ends often rest on stereotypes that can be interrogated within the academic study of religion.
Tackling the foundational notions of Islam that feed into Islamophobia should not stifle criticism of Muslims, or even Islam. One of the features that distinguishes an academic and scholarly study of religion from a confessional one is the ability to critique the religion and its adherents. In combatting Islamophobia in academic settings, it is important to guard against sacralizing Muslims and Islam through silencing criticisms by heavy-handedly brandishing the Islamophobia label. This can be accomplished through safeguarding a space where criticism does not slip into hate speech, nor undermine a Muslim’s freedom to practice their religion. To disagree with a Muslim woman wearing hijab is a right; to attack her for wearing one is a crime, and to support legislation that prohibits her from practicing her religion is Islamophobia—exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice—in action.
Lastly, as an educator teaching Islam in an Islamophobic era, there are two crucial points that need to be emphasized:
The first is that Muslims have not been the first group targeted in this manner. Whether one is thinking about Native Americans, Black Americans, or the internment camps of Asian Americans, America is built on a history of oppressing communities. It is imperative for scholars teaching Islam to educate themselves about this history and to connect today’s events with the past, and with the oppression of other communities going on currently.
Secondly, it is imperative to recognize that Islamophobia is not new. It is not a product of 9/11, as my presentation above might have suggested, that targeted Arab and South Asian Muslims. While it has a name since the mid-90’s that has been usefully employed in describing rhetoric, attitudes, and policies since 9/11, it was a reality before it was a name, and it was the experience of Black Muslim communities. What has changed between now and yesterday, I would argue, is merely the scope and intensity.