By Haroon Moghul
What a great week for American Muslims. Not one day after Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris wrote that Islamophobia is an exaggerated threat in America, a high school freshman, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for allegedly bringing a bomb to school.
But the only thing that blew up was the internet.
Then video of Donald Trump entertaining an anti-Muslim bigot went viral; the backlash even forced Trump to declare, over the weekend, that he not only “loves the Muslims,” but that he’d have no problem with a Muslim his cabinet, or even splitting the ticket with him. Next, Ben Carson suggested Muslims do not qualify for the American Presidency, which led Senator Lindsey Graham to push back, demanding a retraction or an apology.
Even Ted Cruz disagrees. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a very, very good week. You might think me crazy, but stick with me.
I know that for many Muslims—myself included—it’s frustrating that some folks don’t take Islamophobia seriously. Islamic extremist groups profit from these perceptions, suggesting America is at war with our religion, and that American and Muslim identities aren’t just incompatible, but mutually exclusive. But look at what happened over the last few days.
For the first time in a very long time, Islamophobia is in the news.
And most of America, which might otherwise have been inclined to believe Harris and Nawaz, saw not only how widespread anti-Muslim sentiment is, but how ugly it can be. What it really looks like. What it means. What it associates itself with. Suggesting a fourteen year-old kid is part of a grand conspiracy to undermine the right. That Obama is a Muslim, ought to destroy Christianity. A black candidate in a largely white party freely opining on who can and can’t be President.
In America, it can be tough to be an American Muslim. It can feel like we’re constantly forced to apologize for extremists—even as we have to challenge their hijacking of our religion—but of course even as we have to contend with people who think the extremists are the religion. Think about it through Ahmed Mohamed’s eyes for a minute. He’s 14, right. He was born in the year of the September 11th attacks. All he’s known is the war on terror, the problematization of Islam, the mass surveillance of Muslims, alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS, radicalism and fundamentalism, nastiness allegedly justified by religion and nastiness against the religion. What a terrible set of circumstances.
But my greater fear is not that American Muslims overlook the dangerousness of this bigotry. It’s that we forget we have a great many allies, a lot more support than we realize, and that Islamophobia, while problematic, is by no means the greatest threat facing America. Some Muslim organizations, unfortunately, promote the narrative that Islamophobia is pervasive, and this feeds into and reinforces tendencies among some American Muslims that aren’t just limiting, but self-defeating. Rather than go out into the public sphere with confidence, many of our best and brightest are taught to think they’ll always be on the defensive.
We face opposition. Sure. But Islamophobia in America is nothing compared to anti-Muslim sentiment in other Western democracies, including those that are held up as more progressive as our own. (Here’s looking at you, Canada.) Yes, Ahmed Mohamed was wronged. But he also scored an invitation to the White House. While a local school district treated him wrongly, the President of the country treated him better. While Microsoft sent him everything it’s ever made.
How does that balance out? Pretty well. Most of America responded in sympathy, even support, to the events of the past week. Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton. Mark Zuckerberg. Bernie Sanders. Each issued messages of support to Ahmed, or statements of condemnation against anti-Muslim bigotry. Senator Sanders has actually continued to strike on this theme, and repudiated Carson’s peculiar bigotry as well. Many Republicans are equally appalled.
That doesn’t mean America doesn’t have problems. It just means that I’d like American Muslims to appreciate how important Islamophobia is, and where it stands relative to other social ills. American Islamophobia does not (yet) compare to structural racism or anti-immigrant sentiment. Given that most American Muslims are African-American, or recent immigrants and their offspring, it’s also worth asking how much Islamophobia is simply a bait-and-switch.
Is Barack Obama a threat to America because he’s black, or his father was Muslim—or both? Was Ahmed Mohamed’s blackness the cause of his detention, or his Muslim name, or his foreign origin (his family is Sudanese)? Faith might, as Joe Biden reminded us, see best in the dark, but racism is most dangerous in the dark.
And we need to confront the racism, the privilege, the bigotry around us.
Many American Muslims are part of that fight, but some, as I’ve seen, are hesitant to, believing the deck is stacked against them. There are some Americans who believe that Islamophobia cannot exist, because Islamic extremism exists. But this week, we found out that there a lot of Americans who see the difference. It’s a sign of how far we have come, of how strong our democracy is, of how welcoming a country we can really be. There is a lot of bad news, yes.
But it’s not all bad news. Keep your heads up. This is a strong country. Let’s work to make it stronger.