By: Nicole Magney, Columnist
Photo: The Qur’an, Wikimedia Commons
While the definition of Islamophobia is simple to understand, the rationale behind this prevalent sentiment in America is much more difficult to parse out. Recent trends seem to indicate that Americans hold more negative views of Islam and Muslims now than they did in the years immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001.[i] Although some media outlets offer nuanced perspectives of Islam[ii], the media generally tends to focus on the violence committed by Islamic extremist groups rather than on the Muslims who condemn this violence, which translates into a widespread Islamophobic rhetoric.[iii] The key question becomes: What are the larger social and security implications of a country marred by intolerance and bias against a particular religious minority population? Despite America’s perceived tolerance toward all religions and faiths, its treatment of Muslims living in America leaves something to be desired and has consequences that may affect its national security.
America is no stranger to discriminatory policies and negative public perceptions of those who appear to threaten the American way of life. In fact, this country has seen fear dictate policy (both foreign and domestic) on a number of occasions in its relatively short history. During the Second World War, the US government imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps. Throughout the Cold War, the government and general public let a frenzy of anti-Communist fear color policies and everyday life. In such instances, politicians and policymakers argue that discrimination is essential to the safety and security of the nation, but the very concept of the American “way of life” seems antithetical to this type of discrimination. First and foremost, the American lifestyle is characterized by a strong sense of patriotism mixed with the ability to exercise essential freedoms, like freedom of religion. Yet certain freedoms can be curbed in cases where a population’s patriotism is questioned, however unfairly. But the uniqueness and appeal of the American way of life is lost unless all of its tenets are respected, particularly civil liberties.
In the case of Islamophobia specifically, there is an assumption that “Muslims are immigrants and that the religion of Islam is not a fluid or borderless belief system, but rather originates from afar and has…invaded the United States.”[iv] The fact that the majority of Muslims living in the United States are first-generation immigrants fuels the fear that Muslims are ‘outsiders’ and decidedly not American. Media coverage of violent events in the Muslim world only serves to deepen the conviction that supposedly Islamic beliefs are incompatible with American values, and therefore one cannot truly be both Muslim and American. However, for many of those living as both Muslims and Americans, this perceived dichotomy is out of touch with reality, as exemplified by blogger Laila Alawi’s thoughts on being Muslim-American:
[Americans] are continuing still to overemphasize the topic [of separate Muslim and American identities], a decision that overshadows the real issues our community faces… The overshadowing serves, then, to validate the premise of mutual exclusivity between the two identities, throwing the Muslim American identity of many today into paralysis and confusion, as they suddenly are faced with the need for reconciliation between the two.[v]
As Alawi argues, the separation of Muslim and American identities is often a confusing process for Muslim-Americans, implying that it is a concept forced upon the Muslim community by outside influences. This imposed construct can have a polarizing and marginalizing effect, which could result in security implications if left unchecked.
The reality is that many Americans fear what they do not know. Only 38% of Americans claim to know a Muslim, yet Muslims are viewed the most negatively out of any faith group in the country, including Atheists.[vi] Statistics vary, but the Muslim population in America hovers somewhere between 0.5% and 2%.[vii] This is a staggeringly small percentage, considering the amount of time and energy certain media outlets and conservative groups spend convincing the country that the creep of Islamic Sharia law in America is something to be feared.
For instance, in 2010, “70 percent of Oklahomans voted…to amend the state constitution to forbid courts from considering [S]haria law in their decisions.”[viii] Ultimately, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully convinced a federal court to overturn the amendment, arguing that “laws that single out Sharia violate the First Amendment by treating one belief system as suspect.”[ix] Following this logic, the beliefs of Muslim Americans do not directly contradict or threaten American values. However, overzealous policy manifestations of Islamophobic sentiments can. As an example, similar laws that ban any consideration of ‘foreign’ laws have been passed in several other states. While the legislation in other states that bans ‘foreign’ laws may reflect a broader xenophobia, it specifically evolved out of legislative and public discussions of the fear of Sharia law in America.
There are a couple key security consequences of Islamophobia in America, one quite tangible and the other more abstract. First, by creating a divide between Muslim-Americans and their fellow citizens through Islamophobic sentiment, the public runs the risk of cutting Muslim-Americans out of civic life. While this is regrettable for many reasons, the one most key to security revolves around Muslim-American cooperation with law enforcement. A study from 2012 notes that “Muslim communities helped U.S. security officials to prevent nearly 2 out of every 5 Al-Qaeda plots threatening the United States since 9/11.”[x] If the United States continues to alienate its Muslim-American citizens through rhetoric and action like that described above, this trend would likely taper.
Second, how the United States treats its Muslim population at home affects international perception, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, which in turn has security and foreign relations implications. When Muslims abroad hear of the negative treatment of Muslim-Americans, it not only causes them to question America’s commitment to its values, but in turn also serves as a source of justification for unfair and discriminatory treatment toward minority religious communities in their own countries.[xi] In short, this creates a cycle of discrimination and intolerance that does not serve the United States’ security interests, particularly in areas where Islamic extremist recruitment runs rampant.
Islamophobia’s threat to American values and security is too large to disregard. While defenders of policies that attempt to curtail the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans may argue that these actions preserve national security, such policies, coupled with widespread Islamophobic rhetoric, only serve to weaken the overall state of American security.
[i] “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, last modified July 16, 2014, accessed August 10, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/.
[ii] Peter Beinart, “Bill Maher’s Dangerous Critique of Islam,” The Atlantic, October 9, 2014, accessed August 21, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/bill-maher-dangerous-critique-of-islam-ben-affleck/381266/;
Nicholas Kristoff, “The Diversity of Islam,” New York Times, October 8, 2014, accessed August 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/opinion/nicholas-kristof-the-diversity-of-islam.html.
[iii] Type in “Islam” in the search bar of most news sites and you will be bombarded with stories describing the violence committed by “Islamic” groups. Occasionally news stories appear that spotlight Muslim leaders who condemn violence, but this is a rarity. Some of this, of course, is attributable to the nature of the news media industry in general.
[iv] Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (London: Pluto Press: 2012), 5.
[v] Laila Alawi, “Let’s Stop Talking about Being Muslim in America,” The Islamic Monthly, last modified March 12, 2014, accessed August 28, 2015, http://theislamicmonthly.com/lets-stop-talking-about-being-muslim-in-america/.
[vi] “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, last modified July 16, 2014, accessed August 10, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/.
[vii] “Muslim Minorities and Religious Freedom: A Public Dialogue” (proceedings of the Georgetown University Berkley Center’ Religious Freedom Project event, Washington, DC, December 15, 2014), 43.
[viii] Ibid., 42.
[ix] “Bans on Sharia and International Law,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed August 10, 2015, https://www.aclu.org/bans-sharia-and-international-law.
[x] “Data on Post-9/11 Terrorism in the United States,” Muslim Public Affairs Council, last modified June 2012, accessed October 2, 2015, http://www.mpac.org/publications/policy-papers/post-911-terrorism-database.php.
[xi] “Western Muslims Rights Important to Muslims Globally [chart]” in “Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West,” Gallup, accessed October 5, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/157082/islamophobia-understanding-anti-muslim-sentiment-west.aspx ;
“Interfaith Leadership Network,” International Center for Religion and Diplomacy website, accessed October 2, 2015, http://icrd.org/interfaith-leaders-network/.