Islamophobia: a complicated tale

Time magazine asks a provocative question with its August 30th cover: “Is America Islamophobic?” The story cites a number of statistics, including recent poll figures about whether Americans think President Obama is Muslim, to suggest that Americans have some qualms and/or misperceptions about Islam.

I have little doubt that there is truth in the article – the situation could certainly be improved. However, even with the generally negative tone, the story also  admits the situation is more complicated:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. 

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.

A couple things to take out of these two paragraphs:

1. Evidence of increased violence against Muslims is limited or doesn’t exist.

2. There is some anecdotal evidence. This is not necessarily bad evidence but it isn’t systematic or tell us how widespread the issues are.

3. This is not what we might typically consider “religious persecution” – which perhaps suggests how this is defined will change.

4. These issues may be worse in other nations – there is more written about this is in the magazine version as opposed to the abridged version online. Some of the part that is missing between the two paragraphs quoted above:

Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country’s first Muslim college will formally open in Berkeley, California…

This suggests that America is one of the better Western nations Muslims can move to. What about America has led to these feelings of safety and freedom among Muslims? We could ask another question: what about America has stopped the response to Islam from being worse, particularly considering the emotions and symbolism of 9/11?

Another quote in the article is intriguing: writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar says, “Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America…You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it.” The part about the potshots may be true but the first part of this quote ignores a long and complicated racial history in America, particularly antipathy toward African-Americans and other groups. Americans have an infamous legacy of dislike and hatred toward newcomers or “the other” – this is not simply an issue with Muslims.

This is a complicated situation that bears watching.

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