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Religion and Society

Islamophobia: the Single Greatest Concern of U.S. Muslims

Scott C. Alexander

A very polite American-born Muslim woman in a headscarf approaches the counter of a roadside bakery in Texas. Before she even has a chance to place her order, the clerk behind the counter stuns her by saying, "We don't serve Muslims here; get back on the camel and go back where you came from!" What I've just described is a scene deliberately staged by ABC News, one of the largest television news networks in the U.S. The reason ABC staged this confrontation was to see and record how other people in the store would react. Would they come to the aid of the Muslim woman? Would they do nothing? Or would they actually show support for the bigoted clerk? It was refreshing to see that some individuals showed great moral courage by intervening on the Muslim woman's behalf and denouncing the clerk's hatefulness. It was a bit more unsettling, but certainly not unexpected, to witness many others opting to remain silent and uninvolved. Most disturbing, however, were those who expressed approval of the clerk's position. "If I were running the place, I'd do the same thing," said one middle-aged man. Another was less verbal and chose to employ the cowardly subtlety of a "thumbs up" gesture of affirmation aimed directly at the clerk.


Most Muslim Americans in the U.S. would point to the support for the clerk's bigotry as an example of Islamophobiathe anti-Muslim equivalent of anti-Semitism whereby Muslim individuals are systemically insulted, vilified, and discriminated against, and whereby Muslim communities come under equally systemic verbal and physical assault. There are, at the same time, many non-Muslims who would argue that what this ABC News experiment reflects is little more than the relatively isolated personal and occasionally collective bigotry aimed at particular minority groups at particular moments in the history of any society. What's the difference? The difference is that, although there is no denying that an important dimension of anti-Muslim sentiment in the contemporary U.S. is rooted in the personal ignorance and prejudice of certain individuals and groups, equally undeniable is the systemic and institutional dimension of anti-Muslim feelings and attitudes that raise Islamophobia from the level of garden variety bigotry to the level of the latest form of racism to menace U.S. society.


To write this essay, I conducted an informal poll of fifteen patriotic Muslim Americans whose opinions I deeply respect. All but three of the nine respondents used the term "Islamophobia" to define their deepest concerns. Although the other three did not use this term explicitly, the substance of their responses matched considerably what the other six described as the principal elements of Islamophobia in the U.S. What was clear from all nine responses was that these Muslim leaders were well aware of the difference between random or isolated incidents of bigotry and hatred, on the one hand, and systemic efforts to silence, marginalize, and/or demonize mainstream Muslims, on the other. It is the latter that U.S. Muslims refer to as "Islamophobia" and consider their greatest concern.


According to almost all of the Muslim respondentsand so many of their fellow U.S. Muslims whom, in many ways, they representthe systemic nature of Islamophobia in the U.S. has been generated and is sustained by the mutually supportive and sometimes overlapping agendas of at least three distinct categories of U.S. institutions. The first is the federal government under the leadership of the Bush administration and its neoconservative worldview which has identified political Islam as the single greatest obstacle to its goal of establishing U.S. American global hegemony in the post-Cold War Era. The second are powerful special interest groups, notable among which are certain conservative organizations, as well as privately-funded neoconservative think-tanks, that are deeply fearful of Islam and Muslims, and that see mainstream Islam both as the greatest domestic threat to vaguely defined 'American values,' and as the greatest global threat to key American foreign policy interests such as the permanent welfare and security of the state of Israel. The third is the mass media including everything ranging from: cable and network television news and various print media; to the television and motion picture entertainment industry; to certain influential academic, trade, and vanity publishers; to the Internet.


Muslims in the U.S. have a variety of important concerns other than Islamophobia. According to my Muslim respondents, these range from facing the many challenges inherent in the stunning ethnic diversity of the Muslim community in the U.S., to the challenge to participate more actively and more fully in every forum of American civic life, to the challenge to raise faithful Muslim children in a highly secularized society in which the demands of the marketplace can sometimes overwhelm traditional religious and moral values and ideals. The reason, however, that Islamophobia is the single most important concern of U.S. Muslims is because they realize that, as long as it is allowed to fester and spread, meeting these other important challenges will be that much more difficult, if not impossible.


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