March 30, 2017
It’s barely the end of March. Yet since the
year began, Muslims in the United States have been beat up, spit on, harassed,
and threatened. Their places of worship have been burnt to the ground and
vandalized. In these few months of 2017, the Council on American-Islamic
Relations (CAIR) has preliminarily recorded 33 anti-mosque incidents.
The impetus behind these attacks can be
attributed to Islamophobia, a closed-minded hatred, fear, or prejudice towards
Islam and Muslims which results in discrimination, marginalization, and
oppression. It creates a distorted understanding of Islam and Muslims and
transforms diversity in name, language, culture, ethnicity, and race into a set
of stereotyped characteristics. Thus, Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Hindu Indians
are targeted because they share characteristics which have been racialised as
“Muslim” – whether it be language, clothing, or skin colour. As such,
Islamophobia is also a system of both religious and racial animosity.
Before discussing four interconnected
institutional sources of contemporary Islamophobia in the United States, it is
important to recognize that the actions of violent extremists also contribute
to Islamophobia. Many Americans were unfortunately introduced to Islam and
Muslims through the images of planes crashing into towers on 9/11. Although
violent groups like ISIS target and murder more Muslims than others, these
groups continue to colour American perceptions of Islam and all Muslims with
the dangerous shade of prejudice.
The U.S. News Media
MediaTenor, an international media research
institute, examined nearly three million news stories and found that the U.S.
news media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam is overwhelmingly negative in both
content and tone. Coverage has almost exclusively focused on portraying Islam
as a national security risk and Muslims as a threat to liberty and life, and
this has grown worse over time.
A Washington Post article published last
week looked at a study examining the coverage of acts of terrorism in the
United States between 2011 and 2015. The research found that of the 89
terrorist attacks, only 12.4 percent were committed by Muslims. And yet,
controlling for various factors including fatalities and arrest, attacks by
Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other
It is indisputable that the U.S. media
disproportionately overemphasizes negative coverage and news pertaining to
Muslims and Islam. Unsurprisingly, this leads the American public to possess an
exaggerated sense of threat, and consequently fear, of Muslims and Islam which
plays neatly into Islamophobia.
The media rarely shows talented, exemplary,
or even ordinary Muslim life, like that of the foster father Mohamed Bzeek who
takes care of terminally ill foster children, or film director and hip hop
artist Alia Sharrief. Rather, it paints an image of Muslims and Islam as
threats within the frame of national security.
America’s Foreign Policy
This Islamophobic categorization of Islam
as inherently violent is rooted in European colonization, and has been
transplanted and utilized by the U.S. to justify its foreign policy in
Muslim-majority regions of the world. In orienting American political
antagonism onto the sphere of racialised religion, Islamophobia serves as a
convenient ideology to obfuscate and dismiss the U.S. government’s own role in
fostering violence against Muslims around the world. This advances a worldview
of “us vs. them,” which otherizes Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.
Consider President George W. Bush’s failed
War on Terror, which can be summed up by his infamous phrase, “you are either
with us or against us.” The government decimated Iraq, an act that in part
created the power vacuum from which ISIS emerged. This serves as an excellent
example of policies which were presented to the American public as essential
for freedom and safety. More recently, President Barack Obama permitted an
ongoing drone war that has killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.
The continuation of war in Muslim-majority regions thus perpetuates the ideas
and structures of Islamophobia. Effectively dismantling Islamophobia in the
American society is countered by this constantly reinforced prejudice.
U.S. Political Rhetoric
Interwoven with the media and the
government’s foreign policy, the irresponsible rhetoric of elected officials
and those in positions of political influence augments Islamophobia in the
United States. Politicians play on people’s emotions and exploit their fear to
actively instigate Islamophobia when it serves their own political interests.
Then presidential candidate Trump’s
dangerous proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States offers a prime
example. Far from being a spontaneous proposition, the proposal was crafted on
December 2, and then held to be announced on December 7, National Pearl Harbour
Remembrance Day, for “symbolic impact.”
A study by a former Gallup researcher has
demonstrated that spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment are correlated with election
cycles. The statements and actions of leaders shape Islamophobia more so than
international events. This can be evidenced by the last year, an election year,
in which politicians and those with political influence sought to gain greater
power. In an upcoming report, CAIR recorded an alarming 50 percent increase in
anti-Muslim bias incidents in 2016 as compared to 2015. Moreover, the increase
in the number of incidents has been accompanied by an increase in their
severity and violence as well. A larger percentage of cases involve physical
violence or property destruction and vandalism.
The U.S. Islamophobia Network
Within the U.S. there exists an influential
network of groups and individuals who falsely cast Islam and Muslims as a
malevolent existential threat, and work actively to promote prejudice,
discrimination, and oppression towards the faith and its practitioners. This
Islamophobia Network operates on the basis of misinformation, hostility, and
lies to sway public opinion and influence policy and law at a local and
CAIR has identified 74 groups in the U.S.
that are a part of this network, and divides them into the inner and outer
core. Those who are a part of the inner core, which consists of 33 groups and
individuals, exist primarily and exclusively to vilify, demonize, and promote
hatred and fear towards Islam and Muslims. The outer core, consisting of 41
groups and individuals, while regularly demonstrating Islamophobic themes in
their work, does not exist solely for this purpose. An example of a group in
the outer core is Fox News Channel. Fox repeatedly hosts individuals who make
claims such as, “terrorists are Muslims,” Muslims “hate Jews and Christians,”
and Islam “is the worst, most deadliest idea in the history of the world.”
It is the inner core; however, that is the
more noxious of the two. It is a source of much of the common Islamophobic
rhetoric which is disseminated through the public space, including false ideas
such as, Shari’a is a totalitarian political ideology and the Muslim
Brotherhood, a loosely connected global movement, is taking over the United
States government. CAIR’s 2016 Islamophobia report, Confronting Fear, found
that this inner core had access to at least 205 million dollars in total
revenue over a five year period.
ACT for America and the Centre for Security
Policy are the two most powerful groups in the Islamophobia Network. ACT was
founded by Brigitte Gabriel, whom BuzzFeed reporter David Noriega has labelled,
“the most influential leader in America’s increasingly influential anti-Islam
lobby.” Gabriel has claimed that Arabs “have no soul,” and that “every
practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.” On March 21, Gabriel posted a photo of
herself in the White House, meeting with a member of Trump’s administration.
Under her, ACT has worked to advance
anti-Muslim and anti-Islam policy and legislation at a local and federal level.
It simultaneously floods the American public with false accusations and hate
speech demonizing Muslims.
Like ACT, the Centre for Security Policy
works actively in promoting anti-Muslim policy and legislation. Its founder,
Frank Gaffney, has been referred to as “one of the country’s leading
anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists.” An example of CSP’s influence can be gleaned
from the following example.
In 2016 CSP commissioned the polling
company of Kellyanne Conway, who is now Counsellor to the President, to conduct
a poll on American Muslims. The resulting statistically flawed poll falsely
portrayed American Muslims as increasingly radical, and was cited by
then-Presidential candidate Trump in his original proposal for the Muslim ban.
That groups within the Islamophobia Network have such direct access to the
current White House administration is deeply concerning.
Other individuals who are intimately
connected to the Network and are now part of the White House administration
include Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist, who has described Islam as
“a political ideology,” and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president,
who has said profiling Muslims, is a “synonym for common sense.”
Beyond the executive branch of government,
the Network has also had an impact on legislation. As of 2016, ten states have
passed anti-Islam legislation in the United States, modelled on framework
legislation created by David Yerushalmi through the American Freedom Law
Centre, another inner core Islamophobic group. Substantively empty, the
anti-Islam legislation simply aims to demonize Islam and promote fear of
It is critical to support organizations who
conduct research, engage in advocacy, and use legal methods to counter
institutional Islamophobia. Such organizations include the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, the Center for New Community, the Georgetown Bridge
Initiative, the People for the American Way, and the Southern Poverty Law
Center. Like other systems of discrimination and oppression, Islamophobia is
structurally embedded within American society, and like those systems, the
fight against Islamophobia requires extensive resources, commitment, and
It requires a recommitment from Muslims to
advance the fundamental Islamic principle of benefitting humanity and averting
harm from humanity. It requires compassionate Muslim engagement with issues
affecting other communities and a joint effort to demand equal protection and
participation in society. It requires enhanced Muslim involvement in U.S.
public and political life, and it requires the empowerment of a diverse range
of legitimate Muslim voices to contribute views and perspectives on Islam and
Muslims in the public sphere. Most importantly, however, it requires you. Your
conscious commitment to build a better America is the most effective tool to
Arain, MA, is the program coordinator in the Department to Monitor and Combat
Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR is
America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.