by Nicole Nansamba Fauster
This submission is a response to Dr. Sabeel Ahmed’s article “How To Prevent Hate Crimes in Your Community” which we ran in the March issue of our magazine. If you have feedback for any of our articles, please email it to: Editor@MuslimAmerican.com
I was walking to my dorm after a late night of group studying at The House Undergraduate Library on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus. I had made that seven-minute walk many times since my first year. One would think as a veteran senior, such a walk could be made with my eyes closed, body calm, mind collected, and muscles relaxed.
But the climate was different. It was a month after the Chapel Hill shootings, which took place about a mile from where I strolled. Needless-to-say, I walked with my eyes wide open and alert, looking over my shoulder for potential signs of danger.
I thought I was the only soul on Raleigh Street that night until a grey car sped towards me, mysteriously appearing out of the rainy fog. It started to slow down as my heartbeat sped up.
I did not have time to think twice before my legs decided to take off. All sorts of scenarios ran through my mind, including being gunned down over a non-existent parking space or being raped. The rain, my thoughts, and this fear overcame me, the next thing I knew my body smashed into the ground, and I was stumbling trying to regain my balance, checking to see if that ominous gray car was still lurking behind me.
I came home, removed my soaking wet hijab, and lifted my skirt to find blood running down my legs from my knees and past my shins.
As you may imagine, when I opened an article entitled “How to prevent hate crimes in your community”, my thoughts snapped back to that Thursday night when I thought I would be the victim of such a heinous crime. Yet, by the end of the article, I gained little sense of peace. I somehow did not feel that the measures suggested to reduce Islamophobia would provide my community or me much solace.
From my understanding, it seems like the respected Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, puts the onus on the Muslim American community for why Islamophobia is out of control and why we have such a low approval rating in this country. These sentiments are widely held amongst many Muslim Americans I have met, particularly the youth.
The recommendations (open houses at mosques, walk-a-thons with women in headscarves visible, educational/dawah booths) Dr. Sabeel and others put forth surround the assumption that a lack of positive Muslim visibility is the issue. Therefore, increasing our numbers within public arenas such as (the service/volunteer sector) shall reduce Islamophobia.
Though this seems like a sound solution, and it indeed does has some benefit, this idea purports that Islamophobia (like racism) is an interpersonal problem. Yes, people can be bigoted, prejudiced, and hateful on the basis of religion, race, sexuality, etc. However, there are larger institutional factors that perpetuate Islamophobia, as there are institutional factors which perpetuate racism. The main assertion that I hope to make is that as Muslims we need to open up our definition of Islamophobia to include institutional factors.
Islamophobia on an Institutional Level
The ACLU reported in 2012 that the San Francisco FBI has “conducted a years-long Mosque Outreach Program” in which it illegally gathered intelligence on Muslim American leaders, congregants, and organizations throughout the area. Craig Monteilh, an FBI informant based in Los Angeles, was actually reported to the FBI by the Muslim community he was sent to monitor due to his extreme behavior and obsession with jihad. This works to perpetuate the notion that there is something within Muslim communities that actually warrants surveillance and suspicion.
The Associated Press, amongst others, reported in 2012 on how the NYPD was actively spying on Muslim Students’ Associations (MSA) in New York and in states outside of its jurisdiction such as Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The extent of the spying even included sending “an undercover agent on a white water rafting trip.” This government action purports that Muslim service and outreach groups like the MSAs around the country are really breading grounds for social unrest and potential terrorism.
According to the Pew Research Center, over the course of two years, 2010 and 2012, ninety-two bills were introduced which restrict the use of “religious law” in America. Twenty-one of those bills explicitly mentioned “Sharia Law”. The other seventy-one bills used a template that was designed by David Yerushalmi, a New York Attorney and known anti-Sharia Law spokesman. This has the effect of perpetuating the belief there is something within Islamic doctrine which is diametrically opposed to American law and order.
Even right-leaning news channels like Fox news are known for perpetuating Islamophobic sentiment through programming focusing on “Muslim Enclaves”. These enclaves, similar to “No Go Zones” in Europe, are Muslim only areas where sharia law can flourish. This works to push the idea that Muslims cannot and do not want to assimilate and be a part of American society.
These examples are meant to highlight the ways in which Islamophobia as a system is rooted and strengthened in the very institutions which are supposed to protect and represent us: legislation, law enforcement and media. Islamophobia is not just an issue that can be fixed with a “walk-a-thon” or “dawah booths” without addressing such institutional factors.
I want to first encourage Muslim communities all over America to critically analyze and have internal dialogue regarding their positions in society. In doing so, I want to share a method of how such dialogue should be approached: with a level of sociological mindfulness as sociologist Michael Schwalbe puts it. Being sociologically mindful involves taking into account the historical and institutional aspects when looking at society and the individuals which make up that society.
I thank Dr. Ahmed for opening up the conversation. I would like to see it continue and flourish without discounting the institutional aspect of Islamophobia as a well networked expansive system which includes legislation, law enforcement, media, etc so that we know best how to expend our energy to see an end to Islamophobia.
Going back to that night when I was sitting on my bed, putting Band-Aids on my knees, I can understand why someone would fear the “lone Islamophobic wolves”. However, what strikes even more fear is that there are institutions in place which perpetuate this unfounded phobia.