By Sophia A. McClennen
July 7, 2018
June 2018 was an especially bad month for
the status of Muslims in America. First, we learned that a new study showed
that many Americans view Muslims in the United States as insufficiently
“American,” and almost 20 percent would deny Muslim citizens the right to vote.
Then, the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s decision to institute a
ban on immigrants, refugees and visa holders from five majority-Muslim
countries in a 5-4 decision.
The synergy of these two pieces of
information is critical because it reveals a common attitude that Muslims pose
a threat to U.S. security whether they are U.S. citizens or not. And while
these attitudes do break down heavily across party lines, it is noteworthy that
the study of U.S. perceptions of Muslim Americans conducted by Dalia Mogahed
and John Sides for the Voter Study Group indicated that even 12 percent of
Democrats would consider denying Muslim citizens the right to vote. Their study
also showed that 32 percent of Democrats favor targeting Muslims at U.S.
airport screenings to ensure the safety of flights. That figure compares with
75 percent of Republicans.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the
majority SCOTUS opinion upholding the travel ban. He emphasized that, despite
ample evidence of President Donald Trump’s animus towards the Muslim community,
the ban was a security issue and not an example of discrimination, “Because
there is persuasive evidence that the entry suspension has a legitimate
grounding in national security concerns, quite apart from any religious
hostility, we must accept that independent justification.”
As made clear by Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s
dissent, where she referenced the court’s 1944 decision to uphold the
internment of Japanese Americans, the practice of claiming national security
needs in order to implement discriminatory policy is nothing new in this
country. She argued that the court's decision "leaves undisturbed a policy
first advertised openly and unequivocally as a 'total and complete shutdown of
Muslims entering the United States' because the policy now masquerades behind a
façade of national-security concerns."
Taken together the Supreme Court decision
and the voter study reveal a mainstreaming of Islamophobia. Whether aimed at
Syrian refugees or U.S. citizens, these attitudes, policies and practices
underscore the reality that America really has a Muslim problem — a problem
seeing Muslims as human beings deserving of dignity, human rights and respect.
It should go without saying, but I’ll
emphasize the point here, that the fears over threats posed by Muslims are
simply not borne out by facts. At all.
White males pose the biggest threat to U.S.
citizens, but no one is talking about taking away their right to vote. And as
Margaret Sullivan reported for the Washington Post, 2017 was the deadliest year
for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, with as many as 6,000 people killed
in strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition — an increase of more than 200
percent over the previous year. That number is far worse if you add in
countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and others.
While bigotry toward a wide range of groups
has been normalized in the Trump era, there are particular features of the
targeting of Muslims as security threats that are noteworthy.
As Moustafa Bayoumi, author of "How
Does it Feel to Be a Problem," explained it to me, the key turning point
was obviously the attacks of 9/11/2001. Since then, he said, there has “been a
relentless drive to delegitimize Muslim American citizenship.” In addition, he
pointed out that for many non-Muslim Americans, there is a tendency to think of
a Muslim citizen as a Muslim first, rather than a fellow American, an attitude
buttressed by the fact that “U.S. support for policies targeting Muslims has
been substantial and consistent.”
But here’s the thing. Fear of Muslims was
not simply a spontaneous response to the events of 9/11. The current attitude
of suspicion, fear and intolerance of the Muslim community was purposefully
orchestrated. A team of researchers that studied the roots of Islamophobia in
the United Sates following 9/11, published as "Fear Inc.," identified
seven charitable groups that provided $42.6 million to Islamophobic think tanks
between 2001 and 2009.
Their research was further able to show a
direct line from Islamophobic think tanks, like the Richard Mellon Scaife
foundation, to media influencers and politicians. They cite one example from
2010 when then Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich warned a
conservative audience at the American Enterprise Institute that the Islamic
practice of Sharia was “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the
United States and in the world as we know it.” Gingrich went on to claim that
“Sharia in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrent to
the Western world.”
What they show, moreover, was that
Gingrich’s remarks mimicked the language of conservative analyst Andrew
McCarthy, who co-wrote a report calling Sharia “the preeminent totalitarian
threat of our time.”
Today in the Trump era, the systematic
production of Islamophobic stories discovered by the Fear, Inc. team of
scholars seems quaint. BuzzFeed reporters Hannah Allam and Talal Ansari found
that since 2015, Republican officials in 49 states have openly attacked Muslims
with words and proposed legislation.
To top it off, it is not only Trump in the
executive spouting of Islamophobic drivel; he has surrounded himself with
Islamophobes. His national security adviser, John Bolton, was formerly chair of
the Gatestone Institute, a non-profit that hypes the threat of Islam through
debunked stories about “Muslim mass-rape gangs” and attempts to create an
“Islamist Colony” in the United Kingdom.
Critical in this new transition is not just
the way that Islamophobia is acceptable within the Republican Party and far too
tolerable among Democrats, it is the way that it is now elected officials who
are regularly and openly vilifying a group. “It has become an acceptable plank
within the Republican Party to demonize Muslims,” explains Robert McCaw,
government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or
CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group. “Policymakers take ideas and
turn them into action. That can endanger communities like American Muslims if
Islamophobic sentiment is turned into law.”
One of the most concerning features of
Islamophobia in the United States is the fact that, as Bayoumi explains, most
Americans simply don’t know a Muslim. “The number of U.S. citizens who report
even knowing a Muslim is quite small,” he explains. “This allows the media to
play a major role in shaping public perception. In contrast, with many other
ethnic groups, like Mexicans for instance, you often lack a real-life
counterpart to Islamophobic ideology.”
The lack of actual experiences with any
Muslims simply aids in the development of negative beliefs about an entire
class of people. When I asked Sides why he and his colleague chose to test
attitudes towards denying Muslim Americans the right to vote, he said that the
idea was to gauge the degree to which those surveyed were able to see Muslims
as actual citizens. The fact that about 1/5 of all Americans can’t do that is
serious cause for alarm.
The inability of a significant part of the U.S.
population to even recognize the legitimate rights of Muslim citizens stems
directly from the fact that Muslims are consistently painted as a security
threat — a characterization that dehumanizes them and make it much easier to
implement discriminatory policies, practice bigotry and justify intolerance.
As Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau found in a
study of U.S. perceptions towards Mexicans and Muslims, “Americans blatantly
dehumanized both Muslims and Mexican immigrants.” They further found “that the
degree of blatant dehumanization was uniquely associated with support for
exclusionary policies proposed by Donald Trump and some of his Republican
peers.” They were also able to show that those attitudes directly led to more
hostile and violent attitudes towards the dehumanized communities.
This series of connections explains why,
for instance, we have had a rise in hate crimes towards Muslims living in the
United States. A 2017 Pew Research study found that hate crimes against Muslims
in the United States had surpassed post 9/11 levels.
The only explanation for that rise is the
systemic effort to further alienate and disenfranchise Muslim Americans while
also demonizing all Muslims across the globe.
And that is where the real threat lies. The
combination of Islamophobic perceptions and policies that has swept the United
States in the last years has created a hostile and threatening environment for
Muslims. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2017, 75 percent of
Muslim American adults say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims.
Moreover, half of U.S. Muslim adults say that in recent years it has become
more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States.
All of this gets worse with the
legitimization of Trump’s travel ban, which Bayoumi points out is also dividing
families, sowing fear, and creating an atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety all
of which is causing Muslim Americans to feel further alienated and
The research by Kteily and Bruneau reveals
an even more disturbing facet to the dehumanization of a minority community.
They show that dehumanizing groups helps promote support for hostile policies
targeted at these groups. But even worse, they also show that by making
minorities feel dehumanized, “they also further the very danger they purport to
safeguard against.” This means that hostile and violent perceptions and
policies exacerbate and aggravate group conflict and potential for violence.
It is time to recognize that the real
Muslim threat in this country is to their well-being. And until we take their
security seriously, none of us will be safe.