The Chronicle Review

How Not to Fight Islamophobia

Noam Galai/WireImage

February 16, 2017

At Philadelphia International Airport on January 29, I quickly lost count of how many signs proclaimed that Muslims are welcome here. The airport protests in response to the executive order signed by Donald Trump, commonly called the "Muslim ban," took place across the country just days after the comedian Aziz Ansari devoted a monologue on Saturday Night Live to the topic of anti-Muslim bigotry.

I was stunned. Islamophobia is now undeniably part of the American conversation on race. You’d think a professor in my position, a Muslim who has spent more than a decade researching and teaching about Islamophobia, would be relieved at the sea change. Not quite.

Having spent much of my childhood in Dubai, the Chicagoland suburbs, and Mumbai, I was not a stranger to racism or global inequality. Yet my knowledge of both intensified when I saw the U.S. political landscape rocked by the events of September 11, 2001. It intensified when I witnessed nearly unanimous support on both sides of the aisle for yet another war in Iraq — a nation already devastated by sanctions that had starved a generation. It intensified when I learned that our drone-warfare program racially profiled Muslim men, automatically labeling any of them killed a "combatant" rather than a civilian. It intensified when I learned about NSEERS, a program that registered Muslims in the United States on the basis of religion and ethnicity as part of the war on terror.

People mobilize in ways that seem to fight Islamophobia but that may actually further entrench it.
But mostly, I struggled with the complacency among most Americans, many of whom accepted these measures as, perhaps, unfortunate fixtures of the security state. Where was the outrage when spying on mosques and Muslim community organizations became commonplace under both Bush and Obama? Where was the outrage when it became the law of the land for the president to assassinate anyone he deemed an "imminent threat," without regard for judicial procedure?

I am not condemning those who have taken to the streets to resist the rise of white ethnonationalism. Instead, I am asking that we think carefully about all forms of Islamophobia and racism, not just those that emanate from one unpopular political figure.

As thoughtful, civically engaged people, we must think soberly and historically about the "spirit of 9/12" — when many Americans, afraid of terrorism, were ready to do away with civil liberties in the interest of national security. What we see now is fear widespread enough that people are abandoning their differences, forgetting the past, uniting against any threat to the environment, any threat to science, any threat to people of color and immigrants. But a culture of fear is the opposite of a culture of critical thought, and critical thinking is a terrorism-prevention tool.

The spirit of 9/12 wasn’t marked by sharp analysis, nuance, or sophistication. In this political moment, when people in pink hats converge in Washington, D.C., to oppose the rise of a repressive state apparatus, it is important to think about the valences of this movement, whom it stands to serve, and whom it may stand to further injure.

Nisrin Elamin, a Sudanese graduate student at Stanford, was among the many detained at JFK the weekend the travel ban was signed. Her status as a Ph.D. student at an elite institution ameliorated her experience of detention. Being a Stanford student, she said, "led to me being detained for five hours, as opposed to another Sudanese person who was detained for 30 hours and is in his 70s."

My research shows how people mobilize in ways that seem to fight Islamophobia but that may actually further entrench it. Consider the rise of "good Muslim" discourse — something I call Islamophilia. Islamophilia has accompanied the growth of Islamophobia in ways that end up reinforcing American racism. In the aftermath of 9/11, we saw a spike in sympathy for American Muslims alongside anti-Muslim bigotry.

But which Muslims were worthy of this sympathy, and how was this solidarity expressed? Rather than standing forcefully against Muslim registries, covert warfare operations that have devastated Muslim-majority countries, or the expansion of detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants in the United States, many felt it would be effective to plan Hijab Solidarity Days or interfaith Ramadan dinners — efforts that target people’s opinions and attitudes about Muslims rather than systemic manifestations of Islamophobia.

American Muslims have been in the spotlight since 9/11. But the voices that have been "allowed" to represent American Islam have often been relatively privileged ones, those sheltered from the most devastating manifestations of Islamophobia. We must think past simplistic shows of solidarity and do some difficult work: thinking synthetically, sensitively, and analytically — about what racism has meant for people of color in the United States, especially those who are not seen as "model minorities" or are unlikely to enjoy upward mobility.

I see op-eds proclaiming that Muslims are our doctors and lawyers and executives, and I worry about the plight of Muslims who are incarcerated, work in food service, or struggle to find employment. I see celebrations of how diversity enriches America and worry that we leave out of this conversation the foreign-policy practices that lead to migration in the first place.

In these endlessly exhausting days since January 20th, I see swarms of terrified Americans converging at airports and city streets and I worry that, once again, our palpable fear will be used as a tool against our ability to think critically.

Nazia Kazi is an assistant professor of anthropology at Stockton University. You can follow her at @NaziaKaziTweets.