Islamophobic Nationalism and Attitudinal Islamophilia
Nazia Kazi, Assistant Professor of Anthropology
The election victory of Donald Trump at once marked a continuity of and an intensification in a long-standing Islamophobic reality in the U.S. Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the country would be rocked by the Executive Order that came to be known as the “Muslim Ban,” ostensibly institutionalizing the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had been a cornerstone of the 2016 election cycle (including in the campaign strategies of Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and other candidates). Trump’s victory seemed to herald a preponderance of Islamophobia. Yet in many ways, it fit neatly within the decades-old existence of anti-Muslim sentiment and policy: a vicious media campaign that has smeared Arabs and Muslims as greedy oil barons, barbarians, or terrorists; the existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that has incarcerated many Muslims without due process, even those cleared for release; the institutionalization of surveillance of Muslim spaces of worship and culture.1
Nearly a decade before Trump’s victory, when I had first begun my fieldwork with congregants of Muslim American advocacy groups, I found many of them making claims about the relative invisibility of Islamophobia in “mainstream” U.S. racial discourse. Lina, a major interlocutor in my ethnographic work, told me some years ago, “When people talk about race or American racism, it’s always about the struggles of African Americans or Mexican Americans. What about the struggles of Muslims though? Why don’t we get to be a part of the conversation on race?” That was 2011. In a matter of just five years, Lina’s statement would lose all relevance. Islamophobia undoubtedly entered the national conversation on race and tolerance. In the weeks following Trump’s inauguration, a Saturday Night Live monologue delivered by Muslim American comedian Aziz Ansari explicitly took Islamophobia as its central theme. CNN roundtables were devoted to the subject of anti-Muslim bigotry, and op-eds appeared in major newspapers dealing with the new racial landscape faced by U.S. Muslims. Islamophobia had undeniably gone from the margins of U.S. racial discourse to front-and-center, and all it seems to have taken was one election cycle.
Of course, this ushering-in of Islamophobia to public conversations about race and difference should come as no surprise. The lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections had seen Muslims placed explicitly on the political menu, so to speak. Most infamously, Trump called for a “total and complete” shutdown of Muslims entering the United States – a statement that somewhat mysteriously vanished from his website after coming under attack. Yet shortly after his election, he would issue the notorious “Muslim ban,” a piece of legislation so jarring that tens of thousands of protestors descended upon U.S. airports in defiance of the Executive Order. On January 29th, 2017, I stood inside the airport terminal in Philadelphia, absolutely stunned at the breadth of the outrage and solidarity that emerged in response to the Muslim ban. After reaching 17, I stopped counting how many protest signs contained the word Islamophobia. Muslims had become hypervisible2 long ago, many might say in the aftermath of the 9/11/2001 attacks.3 Now, in the wake of the Trump election, so too had Islamophobia.
In this chapter, I will begin to consider both the continuities and ruptures in U.S. Islamophobia marked by the dawn of the Trump era. Under Trump, it seems dog whistle politics are gone, replaced by a megaphone.4 Critiques of colorblind racism seem now an ancient preoccupation; anti-racist activists must now contend with Nazi chants shouted through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Yet, as Islamophobia was certainly not born after Trump’s inauguration, I also interrogate the fact that the Trump victory has disarmed many anti-Islamophobia advocates, many of whom have been attempting to combat anti-Muslim sentiment for well over a decade. How, I ask, do the valences of anti-Islamophobic engagement before the rise of Trump explain why so many Muslim organizations were caught off guard, unprepared to handle what clearly seems to be an inevitable, almost predictable outgrowth of a long-standing and already-intensifying American Islamophobia?5 I suggest that the strategies that anti-Islamophobia advocates have been using bypass confrontation with the systemic, state-based practices of anti-Muslim racism.
In the summer of 2017, Linda Sarsour spoke at the annual convention for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Sarsour has become increasingly well-known as a civil rights activist, a Muslim American spokesperson, and as one of the central planners for the massive Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration. ISNA was one of the organizations I focused on in my ethnography; it is the largest Muslim American organization. The annual convention brings together tens of thousands of attendees and features fundraising events, panel discussions, keynotes, plenaries, a bazaar, and even matrimonial events. As Sarsour addressed thousands of ISNA attendees that July, she implored them to remain steadfast in what she called a jihad against tyranny. Sarsour, who has sued the Trump administration and been quite vocal in her resistance to this new instantiation of Islamophobia, caused an uproar with these words:
“I hope when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
The outrage triggered in Sarsour’s opponents by her ISNA speech was overwhelming. Conservative commentators were aghast. They saw in Sarsour’s words a call for insurgency, holy war, or violence against the state. The kerfuffle even prompted a tweet from Donald Trump, Jr., who wrote, “Who in the DNC will denounce this activist and democrat leader calling for jihad against Trump?” Liberal commentators and left activists were exasperated at the conservative outcry. They were quick to rush to Sarsour’s defense. These aggravated defenders of Sarsour were clear about the true meaning of jihad: quite simply, an Islamic principle that asks Muslims to struggle against injustice, of which holy war is but one of many interpretations.
For well over a decade, Muslim spokespeople have been tirelessly explaining jihad’s meaning to the general public. At cultural awareness events on college campuses, at interfaith panels, in Introduction to Islam classes for undergraduate students, and in earnest op-eds, Muslims have been consistently, patiently reminding America that jihad does not mean ‘holy war.’ This type of cultural production was indeed the focus of much of my ethnographic analysis: the ways in which Muslim American spokespeople’s energies have been directed at campaigns of awareness and religiocultural literacy among ordinary Americans regarding Islam. Such explanations were offered in an attempt to deflate Islamophobia. (Muslims are certainly not the only ones expending energy on ‘clearing up misconceptions about Islam,’ as one of my interlocutors put it). National Geographic and CNN have had featured pieces trying to correct the widespread misunderstanding of jihad-as-holy-war, and popular books have been devoted to the subject.) The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) took out a series of billboard-sized ads in public transportation to tackle the misunderstanding directly. Each poster featured a Muslim American, along with a caption like “my jihad is to build bridges through friendship,” for example, or “my jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule.” (That last one prompted more than a few eye-rolls from critics of the billboard campaign.) CAIR’s billboard campaign would never have existed had it not been for another series of billboards that had similarly popped up in U.S. cities. An organization called Stop Islamization of America (SIoA) had placed billboards on city buses and subway platforms across the country. SIoA, formerly known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is an overtly anti-Muslim extremist group, deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. SIoA’s ads asked Americans to “oppose Jihad” and referred to Muslims as savages and as uncivilized. CAIR’s “My Jihad is” billboard series was thus a response, a defensive posture existing only as a counterattack to the vicious hate speech espoused by the SIoA billboards.
If we are to properly understand why the public conversation on Islamophobia has reached a seeming impasse, why “the Islamophobes won,” we must take seriously the poles of this debate, encapsulated in the billboard wars and the conversation about jihad. This is a fight in which, on the one hand, Islamophobes unleash vitriol on Muslims and, on the other, Muslims and their allies respond by generously explaining away misconceptions about the Islamic faith or Muslim cultures. Indeed, my fieldwork was replete with examples of Muslims responding to Islamophobia by waging what Mamdani calls ‘culture talk.’6 In what Lila Abu-Lughod calls the “persistent resort to the cultural,”7 we see how mainstream media, terrorism “experts”, and policy makers themselves have turned to understanding Islam – Muslim practices, customs, and ideologies – as a means to understanding global politics in general, and terrorism more specifically. Understanding the institutionalization of Islamophobia as a cornerstone of the U.S. war on terror requires us to grasp the centrality of culture talk as not only a social but policy-level preoccupation. For instance, the NYPD Demographics Unit sought to detect terror plots by deploying informants to spend time at Arabic bookstores, coffee shops in Muslim enclaves, and college student groups. This Orwellian program dubbed all aspects of Muslim life potential terrorist hubs. The Demographics Unit, now disbanded and deemed racist, collected data on how Muslims dressed, what shows they watched, and which preachers they listened to – all as a purported means to detect terrorism. Clearly, the assumptions Mamdani calls ‘culture talk’ had led terrorism prevention measures drastically awry, epitomized by the ineffective Demographics Unit (an initiative that detected and thwarted no terror plots). Under institutionalized culture talk, questions about Ramadan, hijab, or the various theological interpretations of jihad are rendered serious investigations into the nature of global terrorism.
Yet what often falls out of these necessary critiques of culture talk are the myriad ways Muslim Americans themselves, or anti-Islamophobia advocates in general, have taken this route as a way to combat Islamophobia. Culture talk is not the property of the Islamophobes alone; my research unearths the many ways well-intentioned Muslim American organizations and other allies in the fight against Islamophobia have turned to it as a defensive posture, an attempt to represent Islam and Muslims in the best possible light.
In my research, I noticed mainstream Muslim advocacy groups focusing on demanding prayer spaces, hijab days, Islam awareness events. This, while there was a striking silence on topics including that of growing militarism in Muslim majority countries, the mobilization of police presence as counterterrorism forces, and government infiltration of mosques and community spaces. When I spoke to my interlocutors about this glaring imbalance, many of them said Muslims can’t make these critiques in this political moment. A common refrain was “it’s just not the right time for us to talk about this.” Compulsory patriotism is a prerequisite for Good Muslim status. With the now infamous post-9//11 presidential declaration “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” the tendentious position of Muslims who expressed anything other than wholesale support for the War on Terror became clear. This might be why many can recall with clarity Gold Star farther Khizr Khan waving the Constitution in defiance of Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, yet few know that Khan has been a vocal critic of U.S. militarism in Muslim majority countries.
The limited spectrum of engagement, with both Islamophobes and their detractors often resorting to tactics shaped by eerily similar contours, is itself contested and provocative. Within Muslim American organizations, dissenting voices make clear their exasperation with representational politics that eschew the political and favor the cultural. These rifts reveal what I call the representational impasse, a sense of being ‘stuck’ in the types of demands the congregants of these groups feel empowered to make. In my work, I struggle to situate these coexisting realities: the fact that members of these organizations aim for counterhegemonic, anti-imperialist social transformation and the fact that these organizations often profess a deeply entrenched neoliberal multiculturalism.
These internal rifts surface without fail even in the work of smaller organizations, such as Muslim Student Associations (MSA) on college campuses across the country. These tensions are essentially a microcosm of those I encountered in my fieldwork with larger, national-level organizations. At one small MSA in New England, the organization was neatly divided into two camps in 2016. There were those Muslim students who felt the MSA’s duty is to be a cultural organization, not a political one. This camp believed that, as Amani told me, “if the MSA hosts the best damn campus bake sale, there will be no room for Islamophobia anymore.” They organized an annual hijab solidarity day to allow non-Muslim women to build sympathy with Muslims by sampling a headscarf, and they agitated for halal food options and Eid as an observed campus holiday. Yet a vocal subset in the MSA consistently brings up BDS – the boycott, divest, and sanctions movement aimed at drawing national attention to the humanitarian crisis in occupied Palestine. This contingent wants to force a campus conversation about anti-Muslim hostilities students face from the growing population of veteran students; they wish to host events on topics about military industrial complex and Guantanamo and the war on terror, on what one alumni dubbed “the inherent Islamophobia of the U.S. military.” These efforts are often shut down by the former, larger contingent. Some MSA members left the organization due to what they perceived to be an “apolitical” stance of the organization.
This rift is a critical component for making sense of Islamophobic nationalism, a social imaginary that has crystallized since the Trump campaign made explicit the anti-Muslim assumptions embedded in U.S. racism. For my interlocutors, there is no denying the reality of Islamophobic nationalism’s intensification under a Trump presidency. In my conversations with members of these organizations in the days, weeks, and months following the Trump victory, the awareness of American Islamophobia was undeniable. Often, this awareness surfaces in a crude type of humor, the “who’s your white friend who’d hide you in their attic?” joke. When Hasan Minhaj took the stage at the 2017 White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, he opened with, “My name is Hasan Minhaj, or, as I will be known in a few weeks, Number 830287.”
This nascent Islamophobic nationalism is angry nationalism. Two weeks after the Trump election, a visibly Muslim student sat in my office, telling me that classmates sat near her, turning the text on their “Make America Great Again” hats to face her in class. Another one of my students in a hijab was denied service at a local pizza place the week after the inauguration. She was told, “Now that Trump is president, you won’t even be here in two years.” A man in Michigan, Quadir, told me of cars filled with white teens who ride past his local mosque, yelling “Allahu akbar, ragheads,” as they screech past. Quadir says he has never seen anything like this in his 20 years of attending that mosque. I spoke to a 60 year old Muslim woman who was attending her first ever protest recently, rallying in support of the Rohingya Muslim minority who had been facing a genocide in Myanmar. She told me the rally was interrupted by a car full of people who rolled down the window and chanted ‘build the wall!’ at the protestors. This is indeed an angry nationalism, just as it was angry nationalism in 2016 when two white men were killed, a third stabbed, after coming to the defense of a black Muslim woman on a Portland train being verbally assaulted by a knife-wielding white supremacist. It was angry nationalism that saw a Hindu Indian man in Olathe Kansas killed, perceived by his assailant to be Iranian. Or consider the case of Robert Doggart, the man who, just a few short years after an unsuccessful run for Congressional seat, began stockpiling weapons in his plan to massacre Muslim Americans in a town in upstate New York. He called this a holy war and attempted to recruit others in this effort online. He was caught before he was able to carry out his terror plot. At this sentencing hearing, Judge Curtis Collier said to him, “You, sir, are no monster. In many respects, you lived a life of honor.” The egregiousness of Doggart’s case is only outdone by the relative silence in mainstream media and political discourse, indicating just how taken-for-granted an Islamophobic nationalism has become.
In beginning to make sense of Islamophobic nationalism and the immense momentum it carries, first, I’d like to suggest that we consider carefully what Beydoun calls the dialectical relationship between state-sponsored Islamophobia and personal Islamophobia.8 I refer to these as systemic Islamophobia and attitudinal Islamophobia. Systemic Islamophobia refers to the institutional apparatuses (for instance, the NYPD demographics unit, the USA Patriot Act, or the “Muslim Ban: Executive Order) that single out Muslims for profiling, surveillance, or policing. Beydoun shows how these apparatuses are not to be seen as separate from individual animus (i.e. personal or attitudinal Islamophobia), but rather that the two have a uniquely dialectical relationship.
With this in mind, I’d like to think about the ways in which attitudinal or personal Islamophobia has dominated the realm of anti-Islamophobia organizing on the part of large Muslim organizations. In so doing, we can begin to see how systemic manifestations of Islamophobia have remained largely unaddressed in much of the public conversation on Islamophobia. The immense effort to combat anti-Muslim racism on the part of well-funded Muslim American organizations and coalitions spans well over a decade is stunning. Yet the bulk of the representational strategies of an organization like ISNA has been focused on presenting Muslims as patriotic, peaceful, and compatible with a quintessential Americanness, a strategy I refer to as Islamophilia. It has been, in short, a concerted effort to show the general public that Muslims are not terrorists, backward, or intolerant. All too often, this focus has left the fundamental realities of systemic Islamophobia intact. I do not delve into the motivations of these organizations in this piece, nor do I discuss here the relative privilege that spokespeople of these organizations enjoy along lines of class, immigration status, or educational attainment. Instead, I focus here on how these representational strategies have led to a deep impasse, a foreclosure of engagement around material and geopolitical realities in favor of a particular brand of ‘good Muslim’ multiculturalism.
While I was conducting my fieldwork with large, national-level Muslim American organizations, they deployed vast resources to host events that fostered interfaith dialogue. They invited Congress people to Ramadan dinners and offered op-eds in local papers that explained the tenets of Islam. During this era of abundant “Muslimsplaining” (as one of my interlocutors, Samar, termed it), there was a striking intensification of institutional apparatuses that criminalized Muslim life. In an eerie precursor to Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” the National Security Entry-Exit Registry System, or NSEERS, spanned the administrations of both George W. Bush and Obama. Also known as Special Registration, NSEERS was established shortly after 9/11/2001 and its legal framework was only repealed during Obama’s lame duck window, many felt in anticipation of the undeniable anti-Muslim wave that loomed in a Trump presidency. In other words, the figure of Trump was not to be trusted with the Islamophobia that had been somewhat unchecked in the hands of Obama and Bush. The aforementioned NYPD Demographics unit also formed and disbanded during the era of Muslim American culture talk, and of course the notorious USA PATRIOT Act was established, renewed, and expanded during the bipartisan ‘terror age.’
It is noteworthy that each of these measures prompted outcry from civil rights advocates and Muslim Americans, yet nothing on the scale of the wholesale uprising against Trump’s travel ban. Perhaps it was the outlandishness of Trump’s Islamophobia that was being protested by thousands who gathered at airports and on city streets in the weeks following the inauguration, not the fact of it. Instead, Trump stands out not as an Islamophobe, but as the most overt Islamophobe in such high political office. With 2016 Presidential candidates Ted Cruz calling for greater surveillance and profiling of Muslims, Bobby Jindal saying “let’s be real, Islam has an America problem,” and Hillary Clinton asking Muslims to be the ‘eyes and ears on the front lines against terrorism’ (assuming Muslims possess some special knowledge of terrorism), it is clear that Islamophobia is a sine qua non of American political culture.9 While dog-whistle politics10 have been part and parcel of the U.S. racial landscape, this “resistance” energy reveals that overt Islamophobia is roundly rejected by wide swaths of the American population. Many of my interlocutors expressed to me a sense that perhaps Trump-era Islamophobia would force the hand of civil rights advocates to abandon a futile project of culture-talk, grappling head-on with the institutional foundation for Islamophobia instead.
With Muslim American advocacy groups generally poised to deem Islamophobia a matter of prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance, I turn now to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs that were established in 2014 and continue today. Under CVE, the government promotes collaboration between law enforcement, religious leaders, school teachers, health professionals, and social service workers to detect and deter threats to extremist violence. Under President Obama, CVE disproportionately focused on Muslim extremism, drawing criticism from civil rights advocates and legal experts who saw this discriminatory focus as obfuscating a very real threat - often from extreme Christian white nationalists. Regardless, Obama's CVE program was race neutral, at least de jure. Now, the Trump administration is poised to change the name from Countering Violent Extremism to Countering Islamic Extremism. This would eliminate all funding except to that countering the Muslim threat. Almost seamlessly, dog whistle becomes a megaphone.11 CVE has been another reminder of the deep rift carved through Muslim American advocacy spaces. Indeed, many imams, Islamic school teachers, and other Muslims have themselves accepted CVE funding. This collaboration has upset those who regard CVE as an expansion of Islamophobia, a way of recruiting ad-hoc homeland security agents from the Muslim community itself. As Sahar Aziz put it, it serves as a “guise for deputizing well-intentioned Muslim leaders to gather intelligence on their constituents that places their civil liberties at risk.”12
The CVE programs are a useful example for understanding the impassive position of Muslim American spokesmanship. On the one hand, many Muslim activists are eager to demonstrate Muslims’ willingness to cooperate with authorities and be pliant with state processes. Yet, on the other hand, many understand the dangers and injustices of the inherently Islamophobic practices of the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local law enforcement. For those who choose to collaborate with CVE or accept CVE funds, they see it as a chance to expose Islam’s ‘true’ character (virtuous, peaceful, with nothing to hide) to a state that seeks to eradicate terrorism and extremist violence. It is, in a sense, the end-game of culture talk, the MSA bake sale in its final iteration. It rests on an assumption that “showing” Islam to potential Islamophobes will deflate Islamophobia. Perhaps the quest for legitimacy in an Islamophobic racial context necessitates this collaboration. The defeated realization among many Muslim Americans that certain Muslim community leaders, imams, and teachers would cooperate with the state’s own project of Islamophobia is a recognition of the futility of such inclusionary ambitions.
With such vast Muslim American representational energy aimed at shifting perceptions and explaining the tenets of Islam, Islamophobia’s institutional tentacles have remained firmly intact, even grown stronger. As such, Muslim advocacy groups are disarmed by the rising tide of Islamophobic nationalism, stuck repeating clichés about Islam as a religion of peace, Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of a Quran13, or other banalities that do little to mobilize a far-flung population of Muslims against the impending wave of a dialectical Islamophobia that leaves Muslims vulnerable – vulnerable to the state, their neighbors, even their very own Muslim community leaders. It remains to be seen what happens not only to Islamophobic nationalism under Trump, but whether and how the tactics meant to fight anti-Muslim animus shift.
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Cainkar, Louise. Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience after 9/11. New York: Russell Sage, 2009.
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Alsultany, Evelyn. “Introduction: Arab Americans and US Racial Formations.” In Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects, edited by Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber, 1–45. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
Salaita, Steven. Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes From and What It Means for Politics Today. London: Pluto Press, 2006.↩
I hesitate to use the phrase 9/11 as shorthand for the events in New York City, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, which problematically erases the historical and political relevance of other events that took place on that date in other times and places. I do this for the sake of readability.↩
Blades, Lincoln. “Trump Won by Turning Bigoted Dog Whistles into Megaphones.” Rolling Stone, May 4, 2016. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/trump-won-by-turning-bigoted-dog-whistles-into-megaphones-20160504↩
Aretxaga, Begoña. “Terror as Thrill: First Thoughts on the ‘War on Terrorism.’” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2002): 138–50.↩
Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: The US, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Harmony Books, 2005.↩
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Cambridge: Harvard University, 2013.↩
Beydoun, Khaled A. “Islamophobia: Toward a Legal Definition and Framework.” Columbia Law Review, 116 (2016).↩
Kazi, Nazia. “Voting to Belong: The Inevitability of Systemic Islamophobia.” Identities (2017): 1–19.↩
López, Ian Haney. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.↩
Dahir, Zeinab A., "Blurred Intersections: The Anti-Black, Islamophobic Dimensions of CVE Surveillance" (2017). All Theses, Dissertations, and Other Capstone Projects. 728.
Beydoun, Khaled A. "Between Indigence, Islamophobia, and Erasure: Poor and Muslim in War on Terror America." Cal. L. Rev. 104 (2016): 1463.↩
Aziz, Sahar. “Opening Statement.” Islamic Monthly Debate – CVE – June 27, 2015. http://theislamicmonthly.com/tim-debate-cve.↩
Kazi, Nazia. "Thomas Jefferson Owned a Quran: Cultural Citizenship and Muslim American Representational Politics." North American Dialogue 17, no. 2 (2014): 53-63.↩