Islamophobia in the US is mainstream

A UN report condemns Israel’s arrests of Palestinian children.

Sliman Khader APA images

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Charlotte Silver on new studies on Islamophobia in the US

The Electronic Intifada: Let’s begin by having you lay out the climate of racism against Muslims in the US. Talk about these reports and the rising statistics of violent attacks, and how, as you say, this is a diverse population that has been shrunken into a single suspect class.

Charlotte Silver: Sure. So I think what these reports provide, is something that we really don’t have as of yet, despite the fact that we’ve been talking about the rise of Islamophobia since 11 September 2001, it obviously has its origins before that, but this era of Islamophobia really begins in the post-9/11 political atmosphere. But what these studies provide are actual surveys of Muslim populations.

So as opposed to relying on individuals reporting incidents of physical attacks or discrimination to organizations like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, or even the FBI, which they do on a much lower rate, of course, the people who conducted these studies in California and the Bay Area, selected a wide group of Muslim Americans in the Bay Area and also in California and asked them, in focus groups or individual surveys, what their experience has been.

And what we see is a very large majority of Muslims in America experience discrimination and physical attacks. In California as a whole, the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that 30 percent of Muslims have experienced a physical attack. And in the San Francisco Bay Area alone, the number was 23 percent. The number of 30 percent of those experiencing a physical attack is the highest number that anyone has ever asserted. And this is in California, which is considered to be a more “tolerant” state. I don’t like to use the word “tolerant,” because it suggests that we’re tolerating something.

But both studies say that if this is happening here in California at this high rate, we can assume that it’s happening elsewhere at this rate, if not higher. So seeing the pervasiveness of negative attitudes towards Muslims, 30 percent have experienced physical attacks, 40 percent have experienced some sort of discrimination, and 60 percent of those interviewed in the Bay Area study said they knew someone who had experienced some sort of discrimination based on their religious appearance or identity.

And so what I think is important to emphasize is that Islamophobia is not confined to the margins of society. It’s not just the Pamela Gellers out there who are perpetuating an Islamophobic environment. And physical attacks and hate crimes don’t occur in a vacuum. And this is something that the Islamic Human Rights Commission really emphasizes — that individual prejudices are occurring within a climate of, and a history of, American colonial enterprise, which relies on demonizing another.

When I spoke to Zahra Billoo of CAIR, she actually said that Pamela Geller probably did something that she could never do — which was to create this image of an Islamophobe that nobody wants to identify with.

EI: And remind people who Pamela Geller is.

CS: Pamela Geller is a kind of shock jock — one of the most famous Islamophobes. We know she’s responsible for funding ads in San Francisco asking people to fight the “Islamic Jihad.” So that incident got a lot of attention, and drew people’s attention to the issue of Islamophobia. And it also made people think that they don’t want to identify with that.

I think it’s important to emphasize that people don’t want to identify as being Islamophobic, but the statistics from these studies suggest that it is more widespread than we probably realize.

EI: Charlotte, let’s go back to the subject of the FBI that you mentioned earlier. How does the FBI play a role here, as we see the agency infiltrating Arab and Muslim communities and enacting entrapment schemes, and then reporting relatively low numbers of hate crimes against these communities. What do you attribute to the data here?

CS: Well, I think that it makes a lot of sense that people in the Muslim community are loath to report or contact the FBI, when the FBI itself has proliferated 15,000 informants into the Muslim community. The FBI has identified the Muslim community as basically the sole source of domestic terrorism.

So as a result of this informant program, the FBI has fragmented these communities and has made them very fearful of having any kind of contact with local law enforcement or the FBI. So it’s not a surprise that you don’t see individuals going to the FBI for help. They probably want to get as far away from this agency as they can.

But even reporting incidents to an organization like CAIR, which is an advocacy organization, what these studies suggest is that Muslims don’t particularly want to rock the boat, they don’t particularly want to draw attention to the issues that they’re facing.

I think another issue that the Bay Area study draws attention to is really the diversity of the Muslim community. So we’re talking about this like there’s one kind of Islamophobia that is inflicted upon the entire Muslim community, and I think that just like we can’t reduce this very diverse population into one group, we also can’t reduce their experiences with Islamophobia.

And I think that what the Bay Area study — it’s the first study of its kind, and it’s laying the foundation for what could hopefully be more investigations and examinations of the Muslim community and their experiences with Islamophobia. One thing that I think is interesting is the question of what role socio-economic status plays in one’s experience with Islamophobia.

Actually, the incidents reported are higher within the middle-class and upper-class communities. But whether or not that is accurate is really unknown. It could be due to the fact that Muslims belonging to a lower economic group very likely feel much more vulnerable. They’re struggling with language barriers, potentially; the jobs they’re in are more vulnerable, less secure — many more reasons we don’t know.

So this is an example of the ways in which studying and examining Islamophobia really can be expanded. And I think that’s what these sort of foundational studies are hoping to allow and enable.




It seems to me that if we focus on the source of the problem we would be talking about (not Jews or Judaism but) Zionism, the Likud party/government and especially the influence of the Israeli Lobby on American politics.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).