The Saturation of Islamophobia Activism

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The Saturation of Islamophobia Activism

Islamophobia activism has done more to unite American Muslim activism under a common umbrella than perhaps any other social issue. Other activist issues, from immigration, to U.S. foreign policy, to Palestine have paled in comparison to what the threat of Islamophobia has been able to achieve. The cause of combating Islamophobia is such a strong unifier of Muslim activism because it is premised on a positive set of ideals that strike a chord in American immigrant narratives. Not only does it promote a form of social change, but it also succeeds with a wide array of American Muslims because it presents a way for them to participate in the project of resolving identity conflicts between what it means to be both an American and a Muslim.

For many millennial Muslims, for example, combating Islamophobia has helped shake off the often conflicting double identity of Muslim and American, by empowering them to re-claim the narrative of what it means to be Muslim in America. Islamophobia activism is different from other types of activism in that it seeks to educate people about Islam; it therefore has an edge of advocacy in that the bad guys, or the Islamophobes, are often absurd and almost always lacking in knowledge or understanding about Islam. But the problem of Islamophobia is no longer about presenting the right information about what Islam is to a public that lacks it. Islamophobia activism gives purpose to the project of defining American Muslims today.

One of the ways Islamophobia activism is able to serve as a wide umbrella uniting otherwise disconnected Muslim communities is based on the universal nature of the problem. Fear of Islam and Muslims affects anyone that looks Muslim. Therefore, Islamophobia is not an Arab problem or an Iranian problem, but a Muslim problem. This universal quality of Islamophobia is in part what has enabled Muslim organizations and advocacy groups to shift their focus towards a domestic agenda of Muslim activism a few years following the Sept. 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, as is well known, American Muslim advocates were externally-oriented, and as a result, the number of engaged and empowered activists from the 1960s on through the 1990s was relatively small and limited to early institutions such as the Muslim Students Association and the Islamic Society of North America. The Palestinian cause and other crises caused by U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world were the rallying points of this pre-9/11 activism.

Today, under the banner of combating Islamophobia, American Muslim activism has grown considerably, but this growth has also faced an increasing saturation of its core strategy. The concept of saturation in social science research is a point where nothing new can occur or be discovered in the data set you are interpreting or analyzing. In the more practical realm of Islamophobia activism, the cause of Islamophobia itself has become saturated because it has, perhaps paradoxically, largely achieved much of its intended mission and agenda. This is not to suggest that Islamophobia does not manifest itself regularly. It does. Just look at the annual F.B.I. records, which show disproportionately high levels of hate crimes toward Muslims, or look at the record low favorability toward Islam according to the Pew Forum polls, and in the realm of social power, where there are still very few recognizable American Muslim media figures.

Islamophobia is indeed a real issue that affects American Muslims and the entire country, as it is rooted in many of the same racist tendencies at the heart of American civic consciousness. American identity is founded in opposition to hostile native others and a system of oppressive slavery that refused to recognize the humanity in the black slave population for over a hundred years of its early life as a nation. This legacy cannot be separated from understanding fear and prejudice toward Muslims, as it is in line with the same tendencies and patterns of fear and prejudice that have operated on other immigrant populations, including Jews, Italians and Catholics.

But the media cycle of Islamophobia that used to repeat with predictable frequency based on the very few domestic terror cases has lost its muster. From 2006–2011, Islamophobia was fuelled by a set of right-wing bloggers and pseudo intellectuals who have now mostly waned in their ability to set Islamophobia fires, such as the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. Following the Arab Spring and effective journalistic reporting that has delegitimized their tactics, these banal actors are no longer able to pull the mainstream media toward the wild and the bizarre, even though we are living in an age of turmoil in the Mideast and the rise of the militant group Islamic State, or ISIS. What gave this fringe group of right-wing activists much of its clout was its partnership with the desperate and ultimately failed conservative campaign of John McCain. Its zenith came in the form of the media spectacle of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the Lowes debacle. But the Islamophobia industry has fallen off the radar of mainstream issues in the second term of Obama’s presidency largely due to the maturation of the wider American public about American Muslims. The lack of hysteria following the Boston bombings serves as proof of their inability to stoke panic about alleged Muslim plots or Shariah law taking over America. The fact that they haven’t been able to cause panic over ISIS is further proof of their slipping influence.

But Islamophobia activism has saturated not only because it lost its classically (and banal) evil enemy in the Islamophobia industry. Islamophobia activism has become saturated due to the way in which American Muslim organizations conceive of the solution for dealing with the problem of Islamophobia and the means by which they deploy tactics to address Islamophobia. What is at stake here is the very basis by which the problem is formulated. What are the predominant strategies that American Muslim organizations have developed to combat Islamophobia? In other work, I have identified two theoretical models for combating Islamophobia: the integrationist and the critical model. In the integrationist model, Islamophobia is understood as a “general fear of the other” that requires a relationship with a Muslim to repair or cure. The critical model dissects Islamophobia as a systemic problem, generated in a nexus of cultural, governmental and civil discourses, and not as a subjective phenomenon in need of a “cure.” In what follows, I outline the ways in which the integrationist model has come to dominate American Muslim activism and has come to dominate the sphere of policy and social change that American Muslim organizations should be pursuing more vigorously.

The integrationist model argues that integration into mainstream society—an always vague term that seems to include the nexus of the state, media and common culture of America—is the means by which Islamophobia can be reduced. This type of activism is also very concerned with changing the perceptions of non-Muslim Americans about who Muslims are—and by extension, to allay fears and anxieties they have built up about Islam. What this suggests is that the problem of Islamophobia is an individualist problem, and prejudice toward Muslims or fear of Islam, should be dealt with as a problem of correcting individual behavior and perceptions of Muslims and Islam. At face value, it is a pitch for a type of activism that says everyone can play a role because everyone can modify their innate fear of the other—and for Muslims this means the more they affirm the unity of their American and Muslim identity, the more they are able to push back on the nebulous narrative out there in the mainstream society about who Muslims are. In the process of this negotiation with the nebulous ‘mainstream’ of American society—of seeking approval and the offering of assurance that you are a good Muslim, and then receiving approval—the mainstream archetype of “American Muslim identity” is forged.

The Integration Paradigm

The most visible strategy for combating Islamophobia is through civil rights activism, which frames the problem of Islamophobia along similar lines to how the Anti-Discrimination League has historically framed anti-Jewish sentiment for nearly the last 100 years. For the ADL, discrimination toward Jews had to be continuously tied to a project of integration of Jewishness and of Jewish culture and identity into the mainstream society. To achieve this goal, the ADL would constantly defend and advocate on any and all forms of discrimination, and present Jewish discrimination as a permanent crisis of prejudice toward Jews. This is not to suggest that discrimination toward Jews was a minor issue. At the height of the Cold War, Jewish intellectuals faced the blacklist and the fallout from centuries of anti-Semitism was palpable in American cities in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But what is worth highlighting is the way that the ADL was able to isolate this prejudice as a rallying point for Jewish activism, which in turn mobilized and empowered the larger Jewish American community to see integration into the American fabric as a fight they could win by building effective social capital.

Much of this strategy is repeated in American Muslim civil rights activism, where the key objective is to focus on integration through empowerment triggered by Islamophobia alarmism. This model encourages Muslims to identify with a cultural narrative that resembles that of a racial other persecuted by government apparatuses of power. While mostly led by immigrant Muslims, due to privilege and resource allocation within the community, this model often suffers from being unable to connect its narrative to the long history of black civil rights activism that might otherwise strengthen its present strategies. Black Muslims exist in this model largely in theory, invoked in sermons and speeches, and a handful of articulate spokespersons grace immigrant Muslim conferences, but they are not given substantial leadership roles. This may be one of the reasons that, at the grassroots level, the civil rights model of activism has been unable to rally black Muslims to the cause of Islamophobia. A separate study is required to delve into this dynamic all together.

A second prominent institutional model of combating Islamophobia is tied to re-envisioning the mainstreaming of American Muslims by influencing powerful media, business, charitable, and civic thought leaders. This model has hobbled and waned since the Arab Spring, where resources have been directed to Arab civil society actors and away from American Muslim community groups. However, its initial investment in money and ideas, starting shortly after 9/11, have gone a long way toward forging a network of powerful business and charitable leaders in partnership with Muslim thought leaders from a range of sects and national heritages. This strategy seeks to mainstream Islam and Muslims through positive civic engagement, by creating social capital with other faith communities and through influencing mainstream media by responding to crises affecting Muslim Americans. The premise of this model is squarely based in the field of controlling American public opinion, in “winning the center” of American favorability toward Muslims. The logic goes like this: the higher favorability Muslims receive in pubic opinion polls, the greater the sphere of influence Muslims can find in mainstream America, and by extension, greater levels of public trust between American Muslims and other citizens will be developed.

This was the approach of the charitable organization One Nation for All, which began supporting Muslim institutions shortly after 9/11, and then re-focused its investment toward supporting grassroots non-Muslim organizations to increase their capacity to work more effectively with Muslims.  While it is questionable whether this strategy has succeeded in developing effective cross-organizational unity and crisis response messaging within Muslim institutions, it has had an important strategic influence on many leading American Muslim organizations. The resources that have been pumped into this mainstreaming strategy have in fact succeeded in many ways, as we will explore below. But where it has not succeeded is in presenting a more rigorous policy critique concerning Muslims outside the United States, and in addressing the rise of pervasive illegal surveillance of Muslim communities and other issues that are highly important to American Muslims. The mainstreaming model in turn conceives of Islamophobia as a temporary individual illness that can be cured through a relationship with a Muslim, but does this premise not run the risk of reproducing the logic of liberal racism, which insists that my neighbor Muhammad is the exception? He’s the good Muslim, but the rest of them can’t quite be trusted.

In the age of ISIS, most resources for combating Islamophobia at the level of foundations and non-Muslim charitable giving are lumped into the problem of how to counter violent extremism (CVE). CVE is an Obama era catchall term for counter-terrorism that turns to the cultural and community level for support and partnership. These policies, while ostensibly approaching extremism from the angle of community empowerment, end up reproducing the same logic of the integrationist approach as they argue that the solution is modifying individual behavior. There is harmony between the integrationist model and Obama’s CVE approach in that it’s a win-win for both groups. Muslims gain higher levels of political influence and societal inclusion with policy positions as advisers and experts on Muslims issues.

The logic that this model reproduces is the same as what the Jewish community has done at the level of influencing policy. An oft-repeated reason as to why there exists an inordinate level of Jewish influence in Washington is that the Jewish community has been able to fill the cabinet of the White House and think tanks with Jewish advocates and advisers. This model has been imitated under the banner of Obama’s CVE program, however, it faces the challenge of inclusion on the basis of the state’s demands for revealing information about the community and not addressing more substantive issues affecting Muslim communities. This “disciplinary inclusion” into the halls of power presents great symbolic value for American Muslim organizations but it has yet to result in substantive policy influence on issues such as the ongoing drone strike program, immigration or surveillance practices.

The third model of the integration paradigm is a more overtly religious type of proselytization that is premised on the notion that spreading the message of Islam can serve as the most effective antidote to the pervasive misunderstanding Muslims face in America. While this type of activism has gained traction more recently, it is questionable the extent to which it is sincerely combating Islamophobia, or merely deploying the popular catch-word of Islamophobia to drum up funding support and compel activist-minded religious Muslims to connect their activism to a type of da’wah. This form of activism spans the theological spectrum, from Sufi spiritual groups, to neo-traditionalist types of retreat activism, and even to neo-Salafist activism. Like the other two models, it too seeks an integrationist agenda that does not effectively challenge power in a strong manner. Importantly, this model is not necessarily independent from the other two models, but is worth pointing out based on the large level of resources that it captures to run advertisements promoting Islam and other such charitable giving, much of which is tied to the bigger idea of combating Islamophobia.

What do these three approaches have in common? For starters, they are all approaches being taken up by organizations, i.e. by institutions, and they thus have built in limitations: problems of leadership, organizational mission inertia, scarce resources, competition for resources with other Muslim groups as well as crises requiring charitable giving in Muslim majority societies, narrowness of vision and disconnection from the larger segment of American Muslim life. Gallup polling has found that American Muslims identify most positively with the Council on American Islamic Relations, but the number of people who feel that they connect with CAIR is startlingly low at only 18%.

The Saturation of Integration

Is it possible that these integration strategies have worked? Well, if you judge their success by the persistence of Islamophobia in the popular media, by the fact that FOX News and Bill Maher are able to confess their bigoted views with considerable support, then they have not. However, at the level of building understanding of who Muslims are and mutual tolerance toward Muslims as fellow Americans, public opinion shows that they have made a difference. According to polls compiled by Religion Research Associates, people who know Muslims personally tend to see the category of Muslims in a more favorable light compared with those who profess to not knowing a single Muslim. But this favorability does not translate to favorability to the religion of Islam. In our age, where the vast majority of images of the “Muslim world” and “Islam” are associated with politics and violence, this comes as no surprise. However, it is further telling that many of those people who harbor positive views of Muslims as American citizens, still tend to hold negative views toward Islam by almost 60%. What this suggests is that liberal racism, which holds that the one American Muslim friend I have is the exception, is commonplace for many.

This trend is further substantiated in Pew Forum polls from 2007 to the present, where we find that the problem with Islamophobia is not at all about Muslims, in fact, those Americans that report having an actual relationship with an American Muslim show that they are mostly positive. It is the 65% of Americans that simply do not know a Muslim personally who pose the problem. Coaching the non-Muslim “mainstream” to reform their behavior and shaming them into censoring their fears and anxieties that the media stokes on a daily basis feels like too much to ask of everyday Americans. Due to the rather small population of Muslims – 3 million and largely concentrated in urban areas – most Americans don’t live next door to a Muslim family. But as the community grows, this strategy of integration will continue to reach success at the level of the community and civic life. What else can be done, or what else is being done?

Toward a Critical Activism Model

The root causes of Islamophobia must be diagnosed with recognition that it has a deep connection not only to Islam and Muslims but to American racism, and the primary points of antagonism that drive Islamophobia are not the media cycles generated by Islamophobes, but the draconian policies the U.S. government has taken towards the Muslim world, deployed without break from Bush to Obama. Since the integrationist premise has become saturated and largely achieved much of its goals, how might such a new model come about and can such a model sustain itself in the American Muslim organizational space?

The emergence of this more critical model has already taken place, in a nascent form, with the type of activism found in the large network of millennial Muslim activists. These young American Muslims, 18–35, simply do not feel represented by the current organizational arrangement and they have lived through the economic downturn, witnessed the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the failure of Obama’s progressive promises over the last 6 years. Instead of being able to channel their desires for social change through American Muslim institutions, they have taken to social media and have exerted resounding moral authority on public cases of Islamophobia. Most recently, they have responded to the apologist narrative condemning ISIS under the #NotInMyName hash tag with the ironic alternative, #MuslimApologies. Over a year ago, they created such profound Twitter buzz over “Alice in Arabia,” a pilot television show, that ABC subsequently canceled it due to the social media shaming for its racism.

It was the Gaza war of July 2014 that opened the crisis of the integration strategy and with it came some of the harshest internal criticism American Muslim institutions have faced in some time. From Tariq Ramadan’s boycotting of ISNA, Reviving the Islamic Spirit and other groups, to the large boycott of the annual White House and State Department iftar dinners, to the harsh critique of the Shalom Hartman Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). MLI sent over a dozen young American Muslim thought leaders to Israel to learn Judaism and build bridges with progressive Zionists. In full disclosure, I interviewed many of the participants as part of my role as ombudsman for The Islamic Monthly. Many of the Muslim participants said their motivation to attend the program was to combat Islamophobia. They felt that the program would give them access to key Jewish thought leaders and the possibility of changing their hearts and minds about Muslims.

From my interviews with the Jewish participants, they told me that this strategy worked, and they shared several stories of how they had opened their minds about Muslims. But did this approach contribute to shifting their interlocutor’s policy position, or is such a shift not part of what it means to dialogue and change one’s views? Each of the Jewish leaders at Shalom Hartman expressed strong support for Israel’s actions during the Gaza war, even going on to write opinion pieces in strong support of the military action. To the credit of the American Muslims who participated in MLI, their strategy did result in several high profile public actions that helped to repair Jewish and Muslim relations on a big scale. Without getting into the details of these actions, it is fair to say that the basis of their trip revealed the inherent limitations of the integrationist approach to Islamophobia activism.

How might we begin to envision a more critical model of American Muslim activism? If we accept the premise that Islamophobia serves as the glue that unites a common platform of American Muslim activism, could a more critical approach to combating it be presented? Such an approach would have to continuously deconstruct Islamophobia, not as a problem rooted in individual perception and etiquette, but from the perspective of a much wider set of power relations and policies of the state that become deeply embedded in the structure of American life. Whether the Muslim community is able to re-frame Islamophobia and address these structural aspects through its existing institutions may not be the solution. New actors and leaders are already emerging within American Muslim activist spaces, but they often lack the backup of organizations. Once this more critical approach to combating Islamophobia is given a more prominent place at the table of activism, the sooner the identity politics and apolitical nature of American Muslim activism will begin to transform.

This article was published by The Islamic Monthly on January 5, 2015. 
ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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