Conflict Resolution

Combating Islamophobia

By February 5, 2021No Comments

This essay by Gwyneth Henke was awarded first place in the 2020 contest sponsored by the St. Louis Chapter of Citizens for Global Solutions.

On October 16, 2020, an 18-year-old Muslim man beheaded a French teacher, Samuel Paty. During a lesson on free speech, Paty had shown his class disparaging cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, printed by French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2012. Although the crime itself was gruesome, tragic, and shocking, the anti-Muslim backlash in France has been equally troubling. The public mourning and grief over Paty’s death, although understandable in the wake of the loss of any civil servant, has been mobilized—intentionally or not—to fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country, with French Muslims being forced to prove their worth and their loyalty to the French state.

Following the killing, the French government announced that they would begin the process of shutting down Muslim organizations they claimed negatively impacted the fight against extremism, including the Collective for the Fight Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a non-profit whose goal is to promote awareness, inclusion, and diversity. The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said of CCIF that it was an “agency against the republic.”[1] The French police also instigated a wave of mass deportations against people they claimed held extreme religious beliefs. Finally, immediately after the killing, the French police conducted raids on “suspected Islamist groups and individuals accused of extremism,” and Darmanin announced publicly that these raids were intended to “send a message.”[2] One must ask: to whom is that message intended? Do such actions really only speak to the scattered violent extremists in the country? Or do they encourage all French Muslims–and all Muslims worldwide–to be afraid for the safety of their own families? Paty’s murder, and the actions which followed it, offer a devastatingly acute example of the culture of fear, bias, and exclusion that Islamophobia brings.

In the U.S., of course, we witnessed a similar pattern after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016. Anti-Muslim discourse had peppered the campaign season, with Trump promoting a national database to track Muslims. This language culminated in a “Muslim Ban,” an executive order signed in 2017 banning entry into the U.S. for visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.[3] Although the ban was halted by a federal judge, the wound inflicted on American Muslims lingers. I’ve spoken to many international friends from Muslim-majority countries who said they cancelled plans to visit their families for fear that the U.S. would bar their return, even with valid visas, jobs, and homes in the U.S. Others who were not born abroad and had lived in the States for generations still worried that their religious identity as a Muslim would single them out during international travel.

Throughout the world, politicians are all too eager to identity Islam as an “ideology” rather than a religion. Darmanin, seeking to explain the French government’s anti-Muslim actions since Paty’s killing, said “We are seeking to fight an ideology, not a religion.”[4] Michael Flynn, President Trump’s one-time national security adviser, said in 2016, “Islam is a political ideology [that] hides behind the notion of it being a religion.”[5] This claim that Islam has something to hide—that “something” being violence, extremism, and political motives—not only encourages a hegemonic definition of national belonging, but it degrades the sanctity, reverence, and piety inherent to every religion. Islam, which relies on and upholds the ideals growing out of the same Abrahamic roots that inform the Christian and Jewish faiths, seeks to answer many existential questions posed by all religions: How can we be good people? How should we treat one another? Why are we here? Are we alone? Islam teaches compassion, mercy, justice, and love. And yet in the eyes of so many around the world, Islam has nothing to do with those teachings, and everything to do with their opposites—terror, violence, war, and division.

Even when politicians acknowledge that the majority of Muslims have no connection with these isolated terror events, the rhetoric of Islam as an “ideology” is extremely damaging to Muslims’ rights around the world. Lawyer and activist Asma Uddin has written extensively on this phenomenon in the U.S. In a speech at Washington University in St. Louis in 2019, Uddin recounted the dozens of court cases throughout the U.S. in which Muslim Americans were called upon to justify the fact that Islam is a religion and not a political ideology.[6] In these cases, prosecutors made the assertion that Islam was an ideology to try to strip Muslim Americans of their First Amendment rights. Similar to early 20th-century claims that Catholics could never be true Americans because of their allegiance to a foreign leader, the pope, arguments are repeatedly made that Muslims can’t truly serve the American state because they are ultimately tied to foreign hierarchies. Ben Carson, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said that a Muslim “absolutely could not be president.”[7] Language like this reveals how deeply Muslims are viewed as suspect, dangerous, and unpatriotic in the eyes of many. Arguments that Islam is an ideology and claims like Carson’s have rarely stood up in court. The fact that they were made at all, however, indicates the degree to which Muslims are treated with suspicion. It is difficult to imagine a Christian being forced to explain in court whether or not Christianity is a religion, and if they were, the outcry would be widespread. Muslims, however, are treated according to a much different standard.

This constant scrutiny puts an impossible burden on Muslims, and it projects the image worldwide that Muslims are second-class citizens, holding beliefs contrary to those of their home governments. Around the world, public opinion, and sometimes public policy, reinforce this impression. In a 2017 study, Michael Lipka found that one in ten U.S. adults believe that American Muslims are anti-American.[8] In a 2016 study, the Pew Research Center found that at least half of the populations in what are considered to be the more progressive European nations still believed that Muslims were unwilling to integrate into broader national culture.[9] In Italy, Hungary, and Greece, about a third of citizens were estimated to hold “very unfavorable” opinions about Muslims. We’ve seen the deadly consequences of this pattern here, as well: in the U.S., hate crimes are at a ten-year high.[10]

Codified in policy in the U.S. and abroad,[11] trumpeted in political rhetoric, and manifested in more subtle discrimination and bias, Islamophobia threatens the safety and dignity of Muslims worldwide. In doing so, it degrades our global diversity and alienates millions, often provoking the extremism it claims to prevent. The United States government must take immediate action to respond to, decry, and prevent Islamophobia within its borders and throughout the world. Such an intervention is urgently required, especially in the wake of a president who did more to stoke the flames of Islamophobia than any before him.

Domestically, the U.S. must set an example of inclusion and equality for American Muslims. The language and discourse practiced by high-level American diplomats and public figures has tremendous consequence for Muslims throughout the world, and our recent public record has been abysmal. Educating public officials on how to include Muslims—whether by acknowledging Muslim holidays like Ramadan or by knowing the correct terminology for Muslim leaders and houses of prayer—sends strong messages that Muslims are valued members of American society. U.S. leaders should explicitly and publicly speak out through diplomatic channels against the anti-Muslim legislation being touted throughout Europe, and to consider further sanctions against foreign governments who continue to antagonize or persecute their Muslim populations.

Finally, the U.S. needs to recognize the role its military aggression in the Middle East has played in fanning Islamic extremism, and to repair the damage it has done to Muslim communities in areas decimated by American military forces. This can and should take the form of bridge-building and formal apologies to civilian Muslim communities abroad who were caught in the crossfire of America’s War on Terror, but it should also be made manifest in economic commitments to building up Muslim communities abroad and at home.

Like all religions, Islam seeks to unify, guide, and restore its followers. It teaches its practitioners how to be moral and pious according to the sacred texts and traditions it holds dear. It offers a theological, social, and historical lens for seeing the world that is just as valid as every other religious tradition. In order to live up to our ideals of religious freedom, equality, and diversity, America must take direct, concrete action to undo its legacy of Islamophobia, and to counteract the dire threat that Islamophobia represents to Muslims worldwide.

[1] Willsher, Kim. “Muslim backlash against Macron gathers pace after police raids.” The Guardian. 27 October 2020. Accessed 2 December 2020

[2] Willsher, 2020.

[3] ACLU Washington. “Timeline of the Muslim Ban.” https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/timeline-muslim-ban

[4] Willsher, 2020.

[5] Uddin, Asma. “The Latest Attack on Islam: It’s Not a Religion.” The New York Times. 26 September 2018. Accessed 2 December 2020.

[6] Uddin, Asma. “When Islam is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.” Lecture given for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University. 28 October 2019. https://rap.wustl.edu/events/when-islam-is-not-a-religion-inside-americas-fight-for-religious-freedom/

[7] Uddin, Asma, 2019.

[8] Lipka, Michael. “Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world.” Pew Research Center. 9 August 2017. Accessed 1 December 2020.

[9] Wike, Richard, Bruce Stokes, & Katie Simmons. “Negative views of minorities, refugees common in EU.” Pew Research Center. 11 July 2016. Accessed 1 December 2020.

[10] Allam, Hannah. “FBI Report: Bias-Motivated Killings at Record High Amid Nationwide Rise in Hate Crime.” NPR. 16 November 2020. Accessed 2 December 2020.

[11] Particularly in Myanmar, western China, and, more recently, India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Gwyneth Henke

Author Gwyneth Henke

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