The Decade in American Islamophobia

As I write this essay reflecting on the decade since 9/11, I’m reading through a number of anthologies that have come out in anticipation of the commemoration. Many of the recent printed works include important fiction and non-fiction collections of the complexity and turmoil many fell into in the post-9/11 period. Examples include the edited volume by Alia Malek Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice and the special issue of the literary magazine Granta 116: Ten Years Later.  For some it was personal loss, for others it was a long labyrinthine struggle in the detention and deportation complex that disappeared loved ones.  The number of public events and colloquia taking place nationally are astounding. I myself am participating in such an event. There is a contagious feeling in the air and I’m finding myself at a loss as to how I should describe it. Friends, colleagues, and students are talking about it and there is quite a diversity of opinion. Television replays of documentaries and special events are rehashing the memory of those lost at the World Trade Center and those who fought in the U.S. global war on terror. Yet, I can’t help but feel like something is missing. In many ways my reflections about this last decade are guided by political feelings of failure. And perhaps a decade isn’t long enough for the kinds of debates, hard work and struggle that need to happen. But don’t get me wrong, there is hope even in failure, and even though I think there is much to be done, I’ll try to highlight some of the glimmers of possibility in what follows (and perhaps readers will have more to comment below). 

I remember 9/11 as a moment that caused much sorrow and personal grief. Living in New York in 2001, the tragedy of 9/11 tore the city asunder. The grief and anger was palpable on the street. To be brown-skinned, immigrant, and/or working in the service industry meant specific dangers of verbal and physical abuse. To cope with such a heightened state of racial surveillance and potential violence, there were informal gatherings in which groups came together to share the grief of what had happened. To march alongside others who were against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq meant shouting matches and racial epithets from by-standers who watched from the sidelines. Attending such protests was reassuring and uplifting even if ever so fleeting. To me, 9/11 took a city I love and broke my heart. As a turning point in American history, this moment took the racial diversity in New York City and quickly turned that complexity into suspicion, scapegoating, and racism – heralding the Age of Terror in which Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism are widespread.

After 2001 there was also a burst of hope for a different future. With this came a new enthusiasm for struggle in movements for social justice. Many of us came together – and some were already in these circles for some time previous – looking for common cause and a way to change the world. Immigrants and other communities of color were under attack and faced persecution and state violence at a level that had not been seen in several decades. Seeking knowledge that translated into action was how those in these circles approached the post-9/11 world. Ten years later it feels like the thrill is gone. Obama is in the White House and we have a war on terror not called the war on terror that is equal if not worse than the one waged by Bush and company. Where did all the hard work go? What were the victories, and how did we collectively push back against the tide of racial hatred that followed 9/11? And although the Arab Spring has been an amazing and heartwarming example of the hunger for change worldwide, what will happen next in many of these countries as struggles for a better future continue? 

At the level of large-scale mobilizations across the United States, the anti-war movement clearly failed to intervene in the war on terror despite the impact on the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. With the economic downturn and the lost hope that many had in Obama, the possibilities of grassroots mobilization seem limited and running out of steam. In spite of the on-going work of community based organizations and committed activists, the national debates on Islamophobia and immigration are often nonsensical and misinformed. Muslims are now demonized across the United States in ways that are difficult and trying. Alternatively, the rise of Islamophobia has also meant a growth in exciting activist and organizing work from Muslim Americans that counters these hateful perceptions and is actively seeking social justice through models of multiracial and interfaith work. And in many ways the immigrant rights movement, built on such models, has been far more successful as a national platform because of its ability to appeal to people of diverse backgrounds. 

In the decade since the tragedy of 9/11, New York has continued to be a hotbed of Islamophobic sentiment. Public space continues to be a central site of contestation that as recent as 2010 focused on the Park 51 community center. Dubbed the Ground Zero mosque by a handful of right-wing internet campaigners, these conservatives mobilized opposition with an uncomplicated rallying cry: a mosque meant the inappropriate presence of Muslims next to hallowed ground. Loaded with intentional fallacies, the argument of these bloggers used contrived meanings of words such as sharia, madrassa, jihad, and the veil, to describe the agenda of radical Islam. The use of this language casts Islam in a crusade against Americans. The incongruity of these terms – one a religion, the other a nation – masks an underlying tactic of this argument that assumes the United States is a Judeo-Christian country. The conflation of culture, religion, and nationalism is a familiar ruse developed by conservatives in the 1970s. In this argument culture is what divides groups of people into naturalized categories of biological difference and thus became a legitimate rationale for the practice of cultural racism. Again, an opportunity was greatly lost for those advocating the freedom of religion and the importance of religious debate. The mosque was in fact initially called the Cordoba House as a nod to the flourishing and coexistence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in Spain from the 8th to 11th century.  With a progressive vision of Islam and deep roots in the history of Sufi Islam in America, the possibility of this story was turned on its head and instead demonized as representative of the malicious agenda of Muslims as a whole. The genealogy of this movement of Sufi Islam in New York goes back to one of the early white converts to Islam, Mohammad Alexander Webb, who sought to change the public opinion of Islam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (see the wonderful biography by Umar F. Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America: the life of Alexander Russell Webb). However, the Park 51 project demonstrated that history tends to repeat itself in not so attractive ways. Such points of dispute are symptomatic of a prevailing attitude of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism. Although not exclusive to this last decade, this centuries-old dynamic is part of a longer history that has dominated since 9/11. As I argue in my book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, anti-Muslim racism is connected to Islamophobia in ways that are not only specific to the United States, but are global.  In the U.S. public sphere this kind of racism is not always legible and is often rendered according to sentiments of patriotism that view Islam as anti-American. 

The American form of contemporary Islamophobia is driven by a small industry of think tank experts who do not base their arguments according to intellectual and academic rigors but through misinformation and a deep hatred of Islam. Well-funded with deep political networks at the state and federal level, a few experts including Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, and Robert Spencer are at an extreme of an anti-Muslim agenda that has lobbied state legislatures to issue statements regarding Islamic law, foment anti-mosque movements across the United States, and to influence an unfavorable national opinion of Islam. That such a movement has a far reach is evident in the recent atrocities in Norway committed by Anders Breivik.  Bombing a government building that killed eight and going on a shooting rampage that killed sixty-eight, Breivik espoused an anti-Muslims and anti-immigrant ideology drawn from American Islamophobes. Citing many of the experts of the anti-Muslim agenda, Breivik’s writings cull these works to describe his actions in response to the conspiracy by Muslims to infiltrate and take over Europe and America. Although many of the Islamophobic experts have denied any connection to him the outcome is clear. Words and ideas do matter, and hate can kill.

In my recent work I have turned to the Little Pakistan in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood and Kensington and the surrounding areas that after 2001 became sites of FBI surveillance and suspicion. I have begun to document these changes that retells the classic story of the ethnic neighborhood in New York City through a post-9/11 lens. In the aftermath of 9/11, these communities faced great scrutiny for potential terrorist activities and were subject to immigration raids and mass deportations. These neighborhoods also became an important site of activist and organizing work that addressed the needs of a largely working class and immigrant population. Everything from health and education to legal and social services have been part of the on-going struggle to lift this neighborhood out of the routing it took after 9/11. Yet, for this population of Pakistani Americans it is really the many years after the tragedy of 9/11 that the decade of further tragedies of those gone missing and disappeared took place. In the coming years the full story of this past decade will unfold. The hope is that for those whose lives and families were torn apart and disrupted some form of justice and return to everyday life will be possible.

Having taught at a Midwestern university for the larger part of this past decade, I am often struck by the insights of my undergraduate students in a class I teach called “Muslims in America.” Many of my students are often surprised by the fact that we talk about African American Islam for at least a third of the semester, giving equal time to work on Arab and South Asian American Muslims. Carving out the roots that go back to the Age of Discovery, we track how enslaved Africans were some of the earliest Muslims across the Americas. Throughout the course I make an argument for how the United States is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic country with rarely anyone batting an eye. What is most refreshing is the hard, yet rewarding, work I make them do. Each student conducts an ethnographic project related to Islam and Muslims on campus. Students find this challenge exciting and daunting because it is a kind of first hand research they do not usually get a chance to participate in. With a growing digital archive, students are able to reflect on past research and think of innovative ways to conduct their own study. Indeed, many of the projects that have resulted from this course reflect a few important trajectories that students are undertaking. For example, a number of projects have examined the impact of Islam-related coursework on the liberal arts curriculum and the role in undergraduate education. Second, a number of students have reflected in their ethnographies on the shifting attitudes of students on Islam and Muslims. What this has produced is a more active engagement with issues related to Islam and Muslims on campus that have varied from interfaith initiatives, invigorating the conversation on Palestine and the Middle East, and to documenting student life such as giving voice to experiences of racism and hate crimes and adjusting to dorm life. Students who come to my class are usually self-selected, that is they already don’t believe the Islamophobic hype and are more interested in respect, dignity, and compassion. These aren’t simple concepts that are easy to practice. What I have learned is a far simpler lesson. Through principled research and active engagement we can change peoples minds. It is often through the conversations and interviews that students in my course talk about issues related to Islam and Muslims to others who are friends and strangers for the first time. It is in these moments that many of them begin to see how social processes are formative of their own thoughts and beliefs and in their relationships to others. The hope is that, perhaps, this can catch on and more minds can change.  



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