Human Rights

Why We Must Challenge Islamophobia In All Its Forms

Those supporting the U.S. war on Muslims abroad intentionally amplify Islamophobia at home.

Islamophobia didn’t start with Donald Trump.

Yes, his words have been disturbing and dangerous. But the problem of Islamophobia is already so deeply embedded in our public discourse and our domestic and foreign policy that Trump’s words shouldn’t have surprised us.

This past week, as the media reported a proliferation of hate crimes against Muslims, I stood with other Jews across the country, holding signs in the shape of candles that together made a menorah and helped make visible our opposition to Islamophobia and racism. Each night of Chanukah, in 16 cities, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Say No!, Jews Against Islamophobia, and others rekindled our commitment to fighting injustice. We declared: “We will not be silent about anti-Muslim and racist hate speech and hate crimes”; “We condemn state surveillance of the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities”; “We fight anti-Muslim profiling and racial profiling”; and “We call for an end to racist policing #SayHerName #BlackLivesMatter.”

 As a member of the Jewish community, I often think about how we can play a meaningful role in challenging Islamophobia, understanding that, as part of this work, we must look at the connections among Islamophobia, racism, U.S. and Israeli policies, and the “war on terror.”

Though Islamophobia has a long and ugly history, for many of us outside the Muslim community, the aftermath of 9/11 was when we first became aware of it. The many manifestations and layers of Islamophobia came into my consciousness in a real way as a result of my involvement several years ago with a coalition in support of the Khali Gibran International Academy, an Arabic dual-language public school, and its founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, who lost her position because of a sustained anti-Muslim, anti-Arab campaign against her and the school. While she was targeted by a group of Islamophobes who wanted to shut down the school and who, as part of their propaganda, claimed it would be a training ground for terrorists, the real damage was done by the mayor of NYC and the Department of Education, government institutions that capitulated to the Islamophobes who demanded the principal’s resignation.

There is a very carefully orchestrated anti-Muslim propaganda campaign that seeks to equate Islam and Muslims with violence. As we seek to resist this propaganda, we also have to examine the ways in which we can end up perpetuating it. The conflation of violence with Islam and with Muslims is so all-encompassing that many of us can easily get trapped in a narrative that is rooted in Islamophobic assumptions and propaganda. 

Religious scholars can provide evidence until they are blue in the face that every religion preaches both violence and peace and that every religion has those committing acts of violence in its name. But we don’t hear media and political leaders demonizing Christianity or Judaism, just to name two religions whose members have committed extreme acts of violence in the name of their religion.

Our discussions of violence must necessarily address the massive levels of violence perpetrated by the U.S. government. The U.S. has wreaked havoc on, and continues to do irreparable damage to, countries and societies and peoples across the globe. If we want to have conversations about violence, this is where I would begin. Many discussions of violence are too often rooted in Islamophobic assumptions about whose violence needs to be “explained.”  This framing too often ignores the larger truth about the extent of violence being carried out globally by the U.S. government and its allies.

Islamophobic hate speech and acts of violence take place in the context of the ongoing, state-sponsored Islamophobia of the U.S. government, whose foreign policy invokes Islamophobia to rally support for its bombing of countries with large Muslim populations. Human rights lawyer and activist Bina Ahmad has written: “Islamophobia necessitates convincing people that there’s a war at home and abroad”—and that this messaging “pushes through a brutal agenda and also allows our government to mask its true agenda.” It is not only right-wingers and Republicans, and the Trumps of the world who propagate Islamophobia, but also Democrats and along with them, the liberal establishment.

Those supporting the U.S. war on Muslims abroad intentionally amplify Islamophobia at home. As a result, the dominant narrative focuses on the violence of Muslims, rather than on the pervasive violence of imperialism and occupation.

This is also reflected in the ways the Israeli government uses the “clash of civilizations” framing to paint itself as a democratic, civilized island in a sea of violent Muslims, and thereby to justify its militarism and its oppression of Palestinians. It is no surprise that the same network of donors that sustains unconditional, hawkish support for Israel also funds Islamophobia in the United States. 

Professor and activist Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, has written about the centrality of empire in fostering and sustaining Islamophobia.  She says, “At its core, liberal Islamophobia flows from the logic of liberal imperialism. As several scholars have argued, liberal imperialism is based upon using liberal ideas to justify empire, and spans the gamut from the narrative about rescuing women and children from brutal dictators to fostering democracy. Liberal Islamophobia flows from this logic.”

Those most impacted by Islamophobia, including the frightening levels of Islamophobic hate speech and violence all around us at this moment, are challenging it on many fronts. There is enormous organizing going on within Muslim communities and among other targeted communities. I hope that those of us organizing in the Jewish community can continue to be intentional in our work, and as we organize, make sure that we are not perpetuating the structures of oppression we claim to, and genuinely want to, resist.

This piece was adapted from a presentation the author made on “Challenging Islamophobia” as part of a panel at a Jewish Voice for Peace national membership meeting in March 2015.

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Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a coordinator of PARCEO, a participatory research center, and a long-time organizer against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, for justice in Palestine, and for justice in public education.