Laila Lalami: Islamophobia and its Discontents
by Laila Lalami
Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.
People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”
The fact that Islamophobia is a recently coined term—or an “invention,” to use Harris’s language—should not be taken as evidence that it refers to a nonexistent pathology. The word “homophobia” was coined in the 1950s, but I doubt anyone would seriously claim that antipathy toward—and discrimination against—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people did not exist before then. It seems to me that as Muslims have become more visible in American society, the fear and contempt for them, which used to be expressed in private, are now being promoted on the front pages of newspapers and on cable news talk-shows. Perhaps that was why a neologism was needed.
But I suspect that Harris and others would still insist that what is often called “Islamophobia” is nothing more than a vigorous intellectual debate about the merits of Islamic beliefs or practices and denotes neither hatred of Muslims nor any kind of discrimination against them. And I might be inclined to believe in this neatly theoretical distinction if I had not had experiences that contradicted it.
Some years ago, when I was in graduate school, I decided to trade my old car for a reasonably priced new one. I settled on a model by Saturn, in part because the company promised a hassle-free experience. (“Saturn: A different kind of car company.” Remember that?) I went on a test drive at the dealership in Torrance, California, then followed the salesman into his office. He asked me for the registration on the car I wanted to trade in. But the papers were in the glove box of my old Mazda, out in the parking lot, so he offered to bring them. As I handed him my keys, he asked, “You sure you don’t have explosives in there?”
You know that screeching sound you hear when a car comes to a sudden stop? That was the sound I heard in my head at that moment. Perhaps he thought he was just making a joke, but for me the experience was just one among many random encounters in which I was not seen for the person I am or judged by the values I have but rather as a representative of a great mass of abstract and entirely negative notions, all of them having to do with Islam.
When my first book was published in 2005, I started to receive e-mails from readers. Most of these were very kind, but occasionally I would get real gems like this one, from one Sonia Pattom: “what are you? MUSLIM OR HUMAN BEING. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO BE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME.” Or this from B. Jayart: “Mohammad is a murderer and he told you to kill us.” Or this from David Bluestein: “when you’re older and you re-read some of your drivel, you’ll be embarrassed. and, your punctuation is atrocious! can’t sign my name or you might find me and put a jihad on my ass…” (The punctuation in that quote is entirely his.)
More recently, I was returning to Los Angeles from a holiday in Morocco with my husband. When we went through passport control, the immigration officer looked at our documents and asked my husband: “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?” I stared at him blankly, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He winked at my husband and proceeded to laugh at his own joke. (I had a nearly identical experience fifteen years ago in a New York airport. The only difference was that, back then, the officer was a woman. And I think her joke was about cows, not camels. Either way, I was the chattel.)
I doubt that the people making these comments were merely interested in starting an intellectual debate with me. It seems to me they wanted to express their contempt for Islam and, in the case of the immigration officer, use his privileged status to get away with it. A term like “Islamophobia” is useful for characterizing these encounters, which did not seem to hinge on my race but instead on widely held stereotypes about the belief systems within which I was raised.
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Although the anti-Muslim backlash is frequently called a myth, the numbers tell a different story. Muslims in the United States make up less than 1 percent of the population, but they were nearly 13 percent of victims of religious-based hate crimes in 2010. It is true that this number is down from the historic high of 27 percent in 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but almost double what it was in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. These crimes include intimidation, burglary, arson, vandalism and aggravated assault. And they target not just Muslims but also people who are mistaken for Muslims—Sikh men, for instance.
Furthermore, this rise in hate crimes is taking place in the context of a highly virulent debate about the visibility of Muslims in America. Two years ago, a huge controversy broke out about building Park51, an interfaith community center and mosque planned to be two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Nearly everyone with political ambitions jumped into the fray. Mitt Romney declared that Park51 had “the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda.” Rudy Giuliani called it “a desecration.” And Sarah Palin famously tweeted, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate [sic].” A month later, a cabdriver in New York was asked, “Are you Muslim?” When he said yes, he was stabbed in the neck.
Despite the accusations and the calls for investigations, no one turned up any evidence that Park51 was a recruiting center for terrorists. But the tone was set. Campaigns against the building of mosques erupted in several cities around the country, many of them premised on unproven claims that the mosques would serve a terrorist agenda. In Temecula, California, protest organizers urged demonstrators to bring dogs to the Friday prayers at the Islamic Center, which was in the process of getting permits for a mosque. One woman who opposed the mosque said, “Right now we’re at war with the Taliban and the Muslims, and our boys are over there fighting and dying for our freedom. What would it be like if they come home and found out we just let them in the front door?” Thus the mosque was seen as a temple for foreign terrorists and not for Americans with the same freedom of worship as everyone else.
Likewise, protests were organized against building a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Signs on the mosque were vandalized and construction equipment set on fire. Herman Cain, the pizza magnate running for the GOP nomination, bluntly declared that communities should have the right to ban mosques—in direct violation of the First Amendment. His reasoning? “Our Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Islam combines church and state. They’re using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals into that community.”
Exactly who the pronouns “they” and “our” referred to in that sentence he did not specify—or need to specify. The message was clear enough: we are Americans; they are Muslims; they want to take over; they must be stopped. Americans, in this view, are people who hold one set of values, while Muslims hold another. So for Cain, the First Amendment cannot apply to Muslims, because “they” are fundamentally and inherently incapable of upholding the separation of church and state. Curiously, Cain did not apply this standard to his fellow presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who traveled around the country telling voters, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” (But you know who does? This Muslim.)
Last year, Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing to determine whether American Muslims are law-abiding people and whether they ignored radicals among them. (Replace the word “Muslims” with “Jews” or “Hindus” or “blacks” or “gays” in that sentence and see how that hearing sounds to you.) King once declared, without evidence, that more than 80 percent of mosques in America are run by extremists. He has also consistently maintained that American Muslims ignore radicals among them, when in fact studies have shown they are the single largest source of tips on terrorist suspects.
Ironically, law enforcement agencies, which are supposed to protect and serve, often presume American Muslims to be criminals-in-waiting. In a series of reports, the Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department, with help from the CIA, spied on Muslims in several states. Agents from the department monitored the activities of Muslims at their places of work and worship, in restaurants and barbershops, in bookstores and cafes. In some cases officers told people there was a missing child in the neighborhood in order to gain access to their homes and collect intelligence about them. Undercover agents also infiltrated Muslim student groups at six campuses of the City University of New York. This time, NYPD officers told campus police they were investigating gang or drug activity in order to gain access to Muslim students’ records.
In March the Washington Post revealed that the head of the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA, a man who goes by the cover name “Roger,” is a Muslim. Although Roger is ”the principal architect” of the drone campaign, responsible for the extrajudicial killings of an untold number of Muslim terror suspects, the revelation that he was a Muslim immediately led to accusations of divided loyalties. Robert Spencer, co-founder and director of the blog Jihad Watch, declared that Roger was in a perfect position to be a Manchurian candidate: “[Islamic supremacists] couldn’t do it more easily than by turning someone in a position like Roger’s.” And, he added, “the worst part of this story is that no one is even examining that as a possibility, for to do so would go against all the dogmas and pieties of the Washington establishment.”
What this means is that even though American Muslims are reporting suspicious activity to the police, they are being spied on by law enforcement agencies and subjected to hearings questioning their loyalty. When a Muslim runs the CIA Counterterrorism Center, he is not immune to accusations of being an infiltrator. When a Muslim starts an Arabic language academy, as Debbie Almontaser did in Brooklyn, she must be prepared for accusations that she is running a “madrassa” and expect to be fired from her job. When a Muslim is elected to Congress, he is not above being asked, as Keith Ellison was by Glenn Beck, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” When a Muslim beauty queen walks down the catwalk in a tiny bikini, she risks being labeled, as Rima Fakih was by talk-show host Debbie Schlussel, “Miss Hezbollah.”
So it’s fair to say that we have in America today two systems of citizenship: one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims. Muslim citizens live under a cloud of suspicion, no matter what they do and no matter what they say. Imagine for a moment what this must do to a high school senior in Dallas, a researcher in Durham, a schoolchild in Portland, a social worker in Dearborn. The biggest mistake they can make is to believe the stories that are being told about them in the media—to believe that they are the Other, that they are dangerous or suspicious or different or strange, rather than what they really are, which is ordinary human beings.
None of this is to suggest that ideas should not be debated, still less ideas about Islam. But if you are opposed to specific religious edicts—retrograde blasphemy laws, say, or unfair divorce laws—then why not say you oppose them? Folding distinct issues under the banner term “Islam”—a term that covers an entire religion, a geographical region and countless individual cultures—is imprecise and maybe even useless. By all means, denounce fatwas on free speech, speak out against misogyny, criticize hateful practices. But don’t deny that Muslims, too, defend free speech; that they, too, fight for equality; and that they, too, can be victims of hate. Muslims are just like you. Incredible? No, just true.