Hatem Bazian: The Historical Genesis of Islamophobia in the US and Countering Islamophobia
Hatem Bazian is a teaching professor in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Bazian is a co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, the first Accredited Muslim Liberal Arts College in the United States. In 2009, Dr. Bazian founded the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project (IRDP), a research unit at the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley, dedicated to the systematic study of Othering Islam and Muslims. In 2012 IRDP launched the Islamophobia Studies Journal and Dr. Bazian serves as the journal’s Editor-in-Chief.
Q1: In our report we identity the current wave of Islamophobia as the contemporary Islamophobia movement; in your expert opinion, how would you define the landmarks and the historical genesis of Islamophobia in the United States?
Islamophobia has been in the making for quite some time as evidenced in Covering Islam by Edward Said and Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs. In certain sense, the systematic targeting of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians in particular took shape during the Reagan Administration, which fused immigration policies and national security resulting in the “L.A. 8” case that lasted over 25 years. This was followed by President Clinton’s adoption of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which codified into law the targeting and exceptional treatment of the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian subject. Certainly, the Islamophobia phenomenon, both qualitatively and quantitatively, witnessed a drastic spike post September 11, 2001 as well as the documentable shift in regulating and governing Muslim, Arab and Palestinian bodies and space. On an epistemic level, the “war on terror” was forged with a Muslim, Arab and Palestinian identity attached to it, which structurally led to the re-shaping of governmental institutions and a focus on this targeted grouping. “The US was not at war with Islam” was positive on one level domestically, however the adoption of the Patriot Act, the heavy securitization and infiltration of Muslim, Arab and Palestinian organizations and spaces tarnished the efficacy of the statement both domestically and internationally.
The “global war on terror” doubly re-Orientalized Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians through treating them collectively as being in a realm beyond civilization itself; thus any and all exceptional and violent measures can and may be instituted. Islamophobia made it possible to rationalize a new regime of torture, and construct new “legal” boundaries to approach the exceptional subject while at the same time throwing away the 4th Geneva Convention. Islamophobia informing “the global war on terror” produced Abu Gharaib and Gitmo prisons as well as rationalizing the pernicious rendition program since the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian human got re-constructed into an irredeemable subject deserving no legal or international protection. Islamophobia at the hub of the global war on terror made it possible to form the subhuman Muslim, Arab and Palestinian category, which began to inform every aspect of our society from entertainment to politics and from economics to religious discourses.
Here, one has to make a distinction between the domestic manifestation of Islamophobia post 9/11 and the push to demonize the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian subject internationally, or in US foreign policy, since the pressing need to build support for the open-ended global war on terrorism influenced the approach. Domestically, the limited inclusion of Muslims and Arabs (Palestinians were totally excluded) was leveraged to provide window dressing through which the US can appear both to embrace its “successful citizens” and recruit them for public diplomacy abroad. Facing intense otherization post 9/11, induced Muslim and Arab Americans to accept a rotten role, which involved a project of beautification of America’s image after its total plundering in response to the terrorist attacks. At times, inclusion for Muslim and Arab Americans meant structural silence and an acceptance of normative Islamophobic discourses in foreign policy, which by extension informed the domestic regime employed to target these communities.
Another critical shift occurred in the run-up, and aftermath of the 2008 elections. As Republicans lost the White House to Obama, and the Congress and Senate in the 2008 election, a populist Islamophobic strategy was deployed using Islam, Muslims and Arabs as the foil to drive rightwing anger for a supposed loss of the country. Former President Obama was the ideal target for rightwing Islamophobic strategy considering the complexities of his identity, his past, and readily documented connection to Islam through his father. The “taking our country back” moto was born immediately after Obama’s election and laser focused on Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians (who get re-introduced due to Obama’s Cairo speech) as the culprits.
Conveniently, the rightwing domestic attacks on Obama as a closet Muslim was mirrored with a demand to reframe the war on terrorism as a war on radical Islam, and as some who made it into Trump’s administration demanded a war on Islam itself. President Bush’s “Islam is peace” days were long gone and were replaced by a clamoring to target more intensely Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians while entangling all of Obama’s agenda to a standstill. The increasing visibility of Muslims and Arabs in America’s landscape provided a further opportunity to draw the distinction between the ideal past, and the problematic and diverse present represented by the Obama administration.
Otherization of Muslims becomes the effective electoral strategy and Islamophobia is monetized into the Tea Party and rightwing votes at the ballot box—the leader of the Birther Movement is settling in the White House with the Alt-right arriving to Washington D.C. riding the Islamophobic ballot box, which was hitched to the clash of civilization cultural racism stage wagon right out of the gate. Mainstream Republicans played along with the bigoted and racist fringe so as to get part of their agenda adopted, but ended-up being devoured by it in the process. The Altright and neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia is a culmination of the movement rather than its beginning, and President Trump is the populist voice legitimizing civil society’s distorted, and utterly racist worldview. Here, Muslim and Arab Americans are under siege by the current administration, and the cast of characters in the White House and the Executive Branch is a good reason to be doubly concerned in the days and months ahead. The Executive Order that instituted the second travel ban is under challenge in the courts, but the bigger impact is the institutionalization of Islamophobia domestically by Trump’s administration, providing Islamophobia an amplified voice in the White House.
Among a certain sector of the rightwing, an openly hostile and violent attitude has become prevalent since Trump’s victory, and it is often directed at Muslim and Arab Americans since they have been at the forefront of the negative campaign season. Trump’s victory and “take our country back” is deemed as a validation of the racism, bigotry and otherization of Muslims and Arab Americans, and his administration is in no hurry to change the national discourse or mood of the country on this issue. Trump’s base regularly expresses Islamophobia and takes the otherization of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians as a badge of honor.
Trump’s arrival into the White House is a watershed moment for Islamophobia in the country since the highest office in the land is committed to the structural exclusion of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians by “we the people.” What started under Reagan and Clinton has been intensified due to Obama’s election, using his Muslimness as a signpost for blackness and an attempt to undue the gains of the civil rights movement including the most critical, the right to vote. Furthermore, the attacks on Obama through the use of Islamophobia was instrumental to prevent financial reforms post the 2007 - 2008 market collapse, which brought massive funding to the Tea Party and rightwing groups. Islamophobia became a very important wedge issue to stoke fear, and to prevent the exploration of economic, social and political solutions to the failed policies that got the country into a domestic and international mess. Indeed, blaming the “Muslim President” in the White House and China for economic and foreign policy failures is much better, and produces more gut racist and xenophobic reactions than going after those who created the crisis in the first place. The massive resources available to the Islamophobia movement is directly related to the effort to block real and substantive domestic and foreign policy reforms from being enacted.
Immediately after the elections on November 8, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented some 600 hate crimes cases across the country, and a large number of them were directed at Muslim Americans, Sikhs and Latino immigrants. Due to their visible clothing and the hijab, Muslim American women were disproportionally targeted by racists and bigots following the election. More alarming, since Trump’s ascendency to power in 2017, the Muslim American community witnessed attacks on 23 mosques and Islamic centers. In all of these recorded incidents, President Trump, the White House Spokesmen, and top administration figures have not uttered a single word in defense of Muslim Americans. Islamophobia, and the clash of civilization cultural racism are alive and well at the White House, and Muslim, Arab and Palestinian Americans are ideologically, structurally and systematically targeted by this administration. Indeed, in today’s America, bigots find more comfort and support from the White House occupant and the leaders in his administration.
Q2: What are the best practices or type of strategies and policy interventions would you recommend, or identity, to combat Islamophobia in the United States?
The primary goal of the Islamophobic movement is to target and bully Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians in civil society and silence their individual and collective voices. Consequently, the response to Islamophobia begins by reclaiming every aspect of civil society, and countering the marginalization and silencing strategies. The best practices include coalition building among civil rights and civil society organizations, interfaith partners, and immigrant rights groups at the local level, with a focus on city councils and mayoral offices to adopt inclusive legislations. More critically, civic leaders and institutions must double their efforts and provide ample space for Muslim, Arab and Palestinian voices and provide access and visibility across all areas connected to institutions managed by cities and counties. The examples led by successful coalitions in Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, New York, and countless other locations is important to examine and investigate in creating the needed push back against Islamophobia, as well as the effort to challenge CVE programs that are highly shaped by bigotry and racism.
Civic programs that center the lived experiences of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians is a must, which include the important recognition of religious and cultural holidays, as has been exemplified by New York City. Likewise, the important efforts taken by numerous school districts to incorporate workshops, teacher and administrative training programs focus specifically on Islamophobia, and how best to create a racism and bullying-free classroom. I have participated directly in a number of trainings, and a sustained push by school districts and education boards on this front is very critical, as well as linking this to the broader campaign for curriculum review and adoption. What is taught in the classroom has a direct impact on the continued persistence of negative stereotypes and otherizations of communities. Furthermore, various school strategies included the acknowledgment of Muslim and Arab contributions in the arts, music and comedy, which overtime might have an impact on the overall view of these affected communities. Certainly, the massive and appropriate national response to Trump’s Muslim ban that was witnessed in airports and cities created a much needed tipping point that carried Muslims and Arabs to the center of the civil and human rights struggle. Trump’s efforts backfired, and the attempt to target and marginalize Muslims and Arabs caused a counter mega narrative of inclusivity and resistance, the results of which will materialize in the 2018 midterm elections.
At the academic and scholarly levels, a shift in focus must take place to counter the continued reproduction of the same set of discredited and stale questions that academically interrogate the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian subject in ways that are identical to physical torture but undertaken by means of the pen. Islamophobia is bad enough, and academia should not continue to act as embedded intellectuals for the global war on terror and the structural otherization of Muslim, Arabs and Palestinians that gives impetus for the maintenance of the status quo. Research and academic initiatives such as the Haas Institute’s efforts as well as others, are a breath of fresh air that must be supported and more resources directed to critical questions in the emerging Islamophobia Studies field. In addition, the development of the International Islamophobia Studies Consortium is a step in the right direction in advancing the urgent need for academic institutions to confront the rising tide of bigotry, xenophobia and neo-Nazi fascism.
The last area of concern is both the media and the internet where islamophobia has had a long and influential presence in distributing bigotry and xenophobia. There have been efforts involving media and internet push back, yet both mediums continue to unleash one Islamophobic avalanche after another without end in sight. The Islamophobia movement is skilled at search engine optimization, as well as the monetization of their extensive network of websites to a devastating effects on the targeted communities. One aspect that must be addressed in this area is the immediate link between pro-Israel advocates and Islamophobia movement leaders and their respective websites. Mistakenly, the Islamophobic segment of the pro-Israel advocates view the demonization of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians through an attack on Islam and “Muslimness” as the best way to support Israel—a direct and unapologetic discussion must be undertaken regarding this specific area of work so as to challenge the voices that use Islamophobia and bigotry as a way to censor calls for ending Israel’s occupation, and continued human rights violations.
**Interview edited for clarity