The following section contains content of historical and current context of Islamophobic, or anti-Muslim, rhetoric and prejudice. This content may be sensitive to those who practice Islam or align with Islamic practices and identities.
- Muslim: Someone who follows and/or practices the religion of Islam. Like all followers of religions, Muslims reflect a diversity of spiritual practices. Muslims may consider Islam a cultural identity, heritage, and/or a religious practice. Most of the six billion plus Muslims do not live in the “Middle East”, but in South Asia. Others are spread throughout different countries and communities throughout the world. Not all Muslims speak Arabic and not all Arabs are Muslim; not all Muslims are Middle Eastern and not all peoples within the Middle East are Muslim.
- Islamophobia: a term widely used after the 9/11 attacks that describes the fear, hatred, or prejudice towards Islam and Muslims that results in a pattern of discrimination and oppression. Islamophobia is anti-Muslim discrimination/prejudice. Islamophobia creates and perpetuates a distorted, inaccurate understanding of Islam and Muslims, reducing a rich, diverse history to a set of stereotypes painting Muslims as violent, uncvilized, and inherently lesser. Islamophobia occurs at an individual, institutional, and legal level and can manifest in many ways from desecration of mosques and Islamic centers to racial profiling to employment discrimination to anti-Islamic legislation.
- Islamophobia dehumanizes Muslims and homogenizes the diversity of beliefs, customs/practices, cultures, and ethnicities that they practice. This dehumanization is perpetuated by media representation, political rhetoric, violent extremists, and U.S. foreign policy. Furthermore, harmful tropes authored by media and politicans entails that others who are not Muslim also become targets of Islamophobia. Individuals who are assumed to be Muslim, like Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Hindu Indians, are also affected by Islamophobia.
What is happening?
Islamophobia is ever present in U.S. culture: mosques are vandalized, local government officials denounce Islam, and state legislatures debate anti-Muslim laws. Political leaders and media voice extreme anti-Muslim statements and policies. Muslim Americans frequently find themselves being questioned on their citizenship, belonging, and safety in a space they rightfully call home.
In 2017, 75% of Muslim Americans reported that “there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims” , with 48% of them reporting incidents of discrimination within the last year. After President Trump’s 2016 campaign started, Islamophobia peaked, and the number of assaults against Muslims in America rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the previous peak that had been reached after 9/11. Other statements from President Trump uphold this Islamophobic rhetoric as well: he authored false and prejudicial statements claiming, “thousands and thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey” during 9/11, created an irrational justification for a “Muslim Ban”, stated he would “certainly implement a database to track Muslims”, and he said “Islam hates us”.
Stanford is not immune to Islamophobia. From the attack on students from anti-Muslim speakers to online hatred towards a Stanford student wearing a hijab, anti-Muslim sentiment and behavior proves the ever-present pervasiveness of anti-Muslim hatred.
Why is this happening?
While the term “Islamophobia” may be somewhat new, irrational fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims in the United States is anything but new. Islamophobia in the United States can be traced back to the forced conversion of African slaves from Islam to Christianity and the spread of Orientalism, or the distortion of Arab and Asian peoples and culture in comparison to white, European peoples and cultures. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonization of the Arab world by painting Arab people and cultures as “exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous” and therefore in need of enlightenment. This othering and fear of Muslims, and everyone perceived to be Muslim, has turned western perception of Islam from a religion to a race, completely reducing Islam’s multiracial and multiethnic diaspora to an exclusively “Arab-looking” representation.
This multi-dimensional prejudice towards Muslims also became prominent in United States legal and social structures as immigration from different parts of the world began to increase. This structural Islamophobia or state-sponsored Islamophobia is evident in the Naturalization Act of 1790, which mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship. Since Islam was associated with the definitively non-white Orient, anyone presumed to be coming from the “Muslim World” could not be white and thus not be a citizen. Thus as racial categories continued to change and shift to protect whiteness, many Muslims and Arab immigrants found themselves having to “prove” whiteness, sometimes by associating with Christianity.
This reduction of Muslim identities and communities and white supremacist ideas of race pervaded U.S. society as trade and interaction with Middle Eastern countries and peoples increased. Messages of exoticization and barbarism were fueled through inaccurate and exploitative depictions of Muslim, Arabic, Asian, and Middle Eastern communities as seen in early 20th century World Fairs, through U.S. film and media, and the narratives that are continued to be told today. Feeding on the Orientalist ideas of Arabs or those from the Middle East being uncivilized and dangerous, media portrayals of Muslims as “radical Islamic terrorists” grew through television coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (though the bomber was a young white man), and 9/11. “War on terror” ideology and messaging rationalized racial profiling, increased surveillance, and the dehumanization of Muslims and Muslim Americans.
These prejudicial and inaccurate messages have fueled modern-day Islamophobia. From anti-Muslim hate crimes and sentiment, to current legislation, to political rhetoric, Muslims (and all those perceived to be Muslims) continue to be seen as not only “other”, but the scapegoat for modern problems and rationale for U.S. military action.
What can I do?
This tolerance of hatred made up of daily Islamophobic sentiment impacts the mental health and physical health of Muslims and Muslim communities across the country. How can you aid in pushing back against this injustice? What can you do to fight Islamophobia?
Identifying and unlearning the messages from white supremacy is key to not only fighting Islamophobia, but contextualizing it as yet another tentacle of interlocking oppressions faced by marginalized groups. Experiences of Islamophobia range due to factors like perceived race, skin color, gender, and religious garb. For example, though Black Muslims make up almost a quarter of American Muslims, there continues to be sparse representation of Black Muslims. This lack of representation can be tied to a multitude of things from the racialization and commodification of Black bodies through enslavement, legal pressures to conform to whiteness in order to gain citizenship, continued respectability politics and proximity to whiteness, and erasure of the work of Black Muslim movements and organizations that threatened the status quo.
Like all other communities, the Muslim community encompasses a range of identities, perspectives, and experiences. Supporting the Muslim community would also include supporting Black Muslims, queer Muslims, unhoused and low income Muslim people, etc. Fighting Islamophobia means fighting all religious and racial prejudice, like fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness, and xenophobia. Being able to recognize the interpersonal, social, and systemic discrimination and persecution faced by Muslim people across centuries would also enable you to recognize the interpersonal, social, and systemic discrimination currently facing Black Americans, trans women of color, etc.
Continue to reflect and confront your own internalized Islamophobia. Learn more about Islam, its history, its culture, and historic and current figures. Research the many diverse cultures across the world that practice Islam. Like any religion, continue to learn about the many different ways Islam is practiced, preached, and lived. Intentionally include narratives of Muslim people in your entertainment and the media you consume. Question and reflect on how Muslim peoples are characterized in media and news. Reflect on your use of terms like “terrorism” and who it is used to describe. Follow Muslim influencers, artists, writers, leaders, and journalists of multiple races, ages, and genders. Learn about the differences and overlaps between Islamic cultures and Arabic cultures. Identify and challenge cultural appropriation of Muslim and Arabic cultures. Learn how COVID has impacted Muslim communities from Stanford scholars. Attend a virtual Anti-Islamophobia Workshop hosted by Stanford's Markaz Resource Center. You can sign up here! Download the Islamophobia Reading Resource Pack from UC Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute. Watch Al Jazeera's Islamophobia in the USA mini-documentary.
Call Out Islamophobia
Continue to learn about the origin of Islamophobia and Muslim stereotypes, discrimination, and hatred to better identify and challenge Islamophobia when you see or experience it. Like many jokes and regular uses of speech or idioms in our culture, be mindful and informed about where these stereotypes come from and how we may be unknowingly perpetuating them through language, speech, and microaggressions. With the knowledge of history, you’ll be better able to challenge others in their Islamophobic statements and be a better ally to the Muslim community. Denounce Islamophobia by rejecting discriminatory behaviors including, but not limited to:
- jokes or stereotypes about Muslim people
- assumptions of gender oppression and conservative values
- painting all Muslims as extremists, radicals, and terrorists
Become an upstander and intervene when you see Islamophobia being perpetuated.
Islam is practiced all over the world. Although Islam is a religion, Muslims choose to participate and identify in many diverse ways (and sometimes not at all). Many American Muslims are unaffiliated with religious institutions. Recognizing Muslim voices in larger discussions about diversity is an important step, not only toward inclusion, but also in providing opportunities for Muslims to use their history to better serve as allies to other marginalized groups. Reflect on the practices and spaces of the organizations you’re a part of. Does your organization, academic department, community space have explicit policies against religious discrimination? Do your work spaces have hiring and resume policies that fight against Christian favoritism and preference for English-sounding names? Do your spaces have images of different holidays and peoples? Does your organization hire Muslim employees, consultants, and guest speakers? Continue to challenge where the status quo comes from and who it is serving.
Additionally, much of U.S. culture, traditions, and systems are built upon Christian practices, from having Sunday referred to as God’s day (versus Saturday) to which holidays are federally and privately sanctioned as time off (e.g. Easter, Christmas versus Passover, Ramadan). This systemic exclusion can also be seen in our culture’s values and teachings from Christian beliefs about sex, identity, and Christian creationism being taught in public schools to centering all history and time around Jesus Christ (B.C./A.D.). This systemic exclusion can sometimes perpetuate the othering of Muslim people and other non-Christian spiritual communities. By expanding our language, calendars, and notions (saying “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas”) and continuing to identify where certain rituals and practices originate from can continue to fight othering and exclusion of Muslim folx (and other communities too).
Show Support & Vote
A huge part of fighting Islamophobia and pushing back on exclusionary practices and cultural norms is to leverage your power as a voter and consumer. Support elected officials, organizations, and policies that fight Islamophobia, religious persecution, and racism. Withdraw support from organizations that continue to perpetuate Islamophobia and Muslim stereotypes. Elect and include Muslims of various racial, ethnic, sexual identities in all levels of society and decision-making, not just as tokenized faces.
Find local and national groups, such as CAIR and the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose work you support and join them. Sign up for their email and social media lists and take action when they ask you to. Working together in an organized way amplifies individual efforts and advances the movement against prejudice. Work on practical community projects with people of various backgrounds to build interpersonal relationships and develop solutions to shared problems. Organize or join coalitions of community leaders representing different cultural/ethnic/religious groups and community sectors (such as schools, businesses, etc.) to examine existing policies and determine what needs to change. Connect with Muslim organizations on campus like the Markaz, Office for Religious & Spiritual Life, and QueerSalam.