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The Changing Face of Islamophobia in America

The extremely vitriolic, partisan and contradictory political discourse in the United States is making it difficult to accurately assess social and political conditions in the country. Consider the state of media freedom. There is so much hullabaloo about how President Donald Trump is threatening media and press freedoms and putting journalists at risk, but turn on any media channel or browse through major newspapers and you will see an endless stream of Trump bashing. Whether Trump makes a major foreign policy faux pas or a mispronunciation, the media outrage is incessant and at full blast. Nearly every comic and every news outlet (except Fox) in the country is mocking Trump. This display of freedom of expression in the age of Trump in America is spectacular. So, understanding what is truly happening to freedom of the press requires a more sober and analytical — and less partisan and ideological — approach.

The same applies to how we must assess the state of Islamophobia in America.

In this highly contentious political moment, Islamophobia is increasing and getting noticed, but it is also transforming. It is important that all those advocating for a tolerant and pluralistic America, along with Muslim organizations trying to combat Islamophobia, understand the changing nature of the phenomenon in America without being caught up in the fog of Trump-era political discourse.

A Greater Threat, or a Different Approach?

The general perception in the Muslim and mainstream communities and to a great extent in the media is that Islamophobia has increased since the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign and his promise to ban Muslims from America. His efforts and court battles to realize the so-called “Muslim Ban” are also portrayed both as an example and as a cause of growing Islamophobia. An American Muslim scholar of Islamophobia called it the “Korematsu moment” for American Muslims.  

There has certainly been a significant spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In the past two recorded years, there was a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims followed by another 24 percent increase. Clearly, this is profoundly problematic. But it is part of a broader environment in the United States, where hate crimes against Jews and other racial and ethnic minorities have increased as well. There is greater awareness, much more meticulous reporting, and recording, and because of social media and the strong anti-Trump mood in the nation, a higher degree of sensitivity to these reports. But a rise in hate crimes is not the only determinant of the state of Muslims in America.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing that the dangers of Islamophobia in America are “fake news.” Instead, I am contending that Islamophobia has changed in nature rather than spreading widely.

Where Islamophobia Is Concentrated

In 2006, I hosted the first conference on Islamophobia involving the U.S. government and American Muslim communities at the Brookings Institution. At that time, the government argued that while there were hate crimes against Muslims, there was no Islamophobia. The unstated message was that the anger toward Muslims was not irrational, but justified in light of the Sept. 11 attacks. But today no one questions that Islamophobia is pervasive. According to Pew Research, 69 percent of Americans acknowledge that there is a lot of anti-Muslim discrimination.  

Islamophobia has become a characteristic of Western culture. In Europe, Canada, and Australia, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, while Islamophobia affects judicial culture, popular culture, and immigration and foreign policies. But in the United States, there are two opposing trends. There is a rise in hate against Muslims coming from a segment of America, and there is a rise in understanding and support for Muslims from another segment. While Trump’s xenophobic discourse and policies are making life difficult for Muslims, the majority of Americans who oppose Trump are sympathetic and supportive of Muslims.

Nearly 70 percent of those who are part of the Republican Party are tied to evangelical Christianity and have very negative views of Islam and Muslims. Their views are shaped by right-wing media and Trump tweets. On the other hand, two-thirds of those who lean left and are affiliated with the Democratic Party do not harbor Islamophobia. In fact, in the 2018 elections brought three Muslims to Congress — all of them Democrats. Keith Ellison, who became the first Muslim Congressman and is now the first Muslim state attorney general in Minnesota, is also a Democrat. He was very close to becoming the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Yes, there is Islamophobia in America. Hate crimes against Muslims have increased significantly. But on the positive side, there is a recognition that Islamophobia is a sad reality in America, like racism and antisemitism. There is also a realization that Muslims are a force for good in America, and more and more people are willing to vote for them. While acceptance of Muslims is mostly limited to the political left and center, hatred is concentrated in the far right.

This is good news. Islamophobia may be increasing in intensity, but it is now concentrated in an identifiable segment of American society. We can locate it and hopefully quarantine it. American Muslims can deal with this prejudice, develop defenses against it and, most importantly, develop alliances with the rest of America — a bigger, more tolerant, and better-educated segment of the population. The danger of Islamophobia is real and strong, but Muslims are not alone. They have powerful allies in America’s political, media, interfaith and academic circles.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow of the Center for Global Policy (CGP). His website is www.ijtihad.org and he tweets at @MuqtedarKhan. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.