Last month, the American Muslim community breathed a collective sigh of relief when 20 anti-Muslim rallies targeting mosques nationwide fizzled with minimal attendance and counter-demonstrations from interfaith partners. This welcome development has left some wondering if anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is overblown.
Islamophobia threatens religious pluralism – the peaceful co-existence of diverse faith traditions – in the U.S. This article looks briefly at several key challenges in two parts.
Part I discusses countering violent extremism, the media and politics.
Countering Violent Extremism Programs
Counter-terrorism programs that focus exclusively on the Muslim community are emblematic of Islamophobia, prejudice towards or discrimination against Muslims due to their religion. They help perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the minority faith group (e.g. suspicious, violent, anti-American). Such CVE programs may also have a discouraging or deterring effect on Islamic faith practices.
Earlier this year, the White House hosted an international summit on countering violent extremism (CVE). The event targeted Muslims as exclusive sources of terrorism. A number of advocacy groups – CAIR, ACLU, SAALT,Muslim Advocates, DRUM, CLEAR-CUNY – argued that by ignoring other credible threats the summit stigmatized all Muslims.
Indeed, it signaled that Muslims represent an unparalleled security risk despite evidence that suggests otherwise.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed the persistent, growing threat from homegrown violent extremists – motivated by anti-government views, racism, bigotry, anarchy and other non-religious beliefs. They are responsible for more American deaths than those associated with international terrorist organizations. In fact, the DOJ explained, today’s greatest threats to our national security derive from white supremacist and sovereign citizen groups – not one’s Muslim neighbors, co-workers or classmates.
Still, CVE programs that currently target Muslims in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston send a different message; New York City, Denver and Atlanta have similar initiatives.
In Minneapolis, MN, the largely Muslim Somali community has characterized the initiative as “institutionalizing injustice,” promoting “unjustified fear,” and perpetuating stereotypes about Islam and Muslims as “inherently violent.”
The CVE program has also infected the city’s public schools. Now, mostly Muslim students will likely be religiously profiled in hopes of identifying “youth radicalization.” Similar to the NYPD Demographics Unit’s confusing legally protected faith practices with a propensity for criminal violence, well-intentioned teachers may misinterpret a student engaging in school prayer, adopting religious attire or observing dietary restrictions as causes for concern.
This approach is problematic – it will not only deter faith practices among students but also exasperate bias-based bullying in schools.
It is significant to note that American Muslims share the federal government’s concern with preventing extremist violence irrespective of its source. According to Gallup, for instance, American Muslims are the most likely faith group to reject violent attacks against civilians. Gallup also found American Muslims as incredibly loyal to their country.
The movie depicts the life of a US Navy Seal, Chris Kyle, known for the highest single kill record – attained during four tours in the Iraq War. Commentators have noted that the film demonizes its Arab or Muslim characters, including three Iraqi child characters branded as terrorists. The popular movie was nominated for six Oscars and grossed over $537 million worldwide.
Alas, American Sniper is not exceptional in its stereotyping. American Muslim actors report that they are consistently forced to play terrorists in films or on TV or no role at all. They cite CSI, NCIS, Homeland, 24,The Kingdom, Three Kings, True Lies, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Iron Man and Executive Decision as representative examples.
The following recent cases are illustrative of Islamophobia in local and state politics.
Last month, in Florida, a Sherriff candidate expressed alarm about a group of “military-aged” Muslims praying on a local beach, simply exercising their First Amendment rights. “The question is,” Will Dance explained, “Are these young men Americans wanting to assimilate or are they part of a the faction of Islam that adheres to Sharia Law?”
Around that same time, in Michigan, anti-Muslim political fliers urged voters to “get the Muslim[s] out of Hamtramck [o]n November 3rd.” They further stated, “Let’s take back our city.” The fliers’ authors are unknown.
And, in September, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman (R) spoke at a conference organized by ACT! For America, an anti-Muslim hate group profiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ultimately, it is the American people’s responsibility to reject anti-Muslim intolerance and bigotry, in similar fashion to the American Muslim community’s consistent rejection of violent extremism. Only when the American public renders Islamophobia as taboo as other forms of prejudice will local, state and national politicians stop perpetuating anti-Muslim hate.
Editor’s note: Engy Abdelkader’s views are her own. Part 2 of her article will appear in next week’s issue.