AUSTIN, Texas — From anti-Muslim legislation to violence targeting mosques and those who worship there, it’s clear that Islamophobia is on the rise in the United States.
While opponents of Muslims’ religious freedom often cite terrorist attacks carried out by religious extremists to justify their bigotry, analysis of the sources of Islamophobia reveal ties to broader, national issues of systemic racism and xenophobia in the U.S., and the people who stand to profit from fomenting hate.
A November poll by the Brookings Institution showed that 61 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam and 46 percent hold an unfavorable view of Muslims.
And compared to other forms of hate speech, anti-Muslim speech remains surprisingly acceptable. Saeed Khan, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, told MintPress News:
“When it came to the rhetoric against Muslims … it was one of the few communities or groups by which politicians and opinion makers could speak with impunity against without facing any kind of repercussions either politically or economically.”
Khan co-authored “Manufacturing Bigotry: A State-by-State Legislative Effort to Pushback Against 2050 by Targeting Muslims and Other Minorities,” a 2014 report and interactive map from the institute which identify key areas of overlap between legislation targeting Muslims and bills that seek to disenfranchise other minority groups.
Khan puts anti-Muslim rhetoric in the context of a larger “moral panic” — a social, political, and cultural backlash against the changing face of America that’s only grown stronger in the current election cycle.
Islamophobia: ‘A symptom of a broader disease’
In a 2013 analysis for The Islamic monthly, media expert Dalia Mogahed declared that “Islamophobia is made up.” She found that anti-Muslim bigotry is linked not to any actual terrorist attacks, but to political expediency.
“[W]hat if I told you anti-Muslim sentiment is almost entirely independent of the events of international conflicts, or even terrorist acts on U.S. soil, and much more tightly linked to election cycles and building domestic consent?” she wrote.
And according to “Manufacturing Bigotry,” Islamophobia serves as a wedge issue, a politically acceptable form of hate speech that can open the doors to other attacks on minorities.
In their report, Khan and his co-author, Alejandro Beutel, begin by examining anti-Muslim bills passed or proposed by state legislators between 2011 and 2013. In the process, they identify six key issues of legislative overlap in the U.S. “culture wars” — meaning that if a state legislator supported a bill related to one issue that in some way disenfranchises a segment of America’s increasingly diverse population or aims to curtail civil liberties, he or she was likely to support other causes with similarly restrictive aims.
The report identifies 102 anti-Sharia laws passed during the three-year period, which formed the basis of their study. Sharia is traditional Islamic law, and these laws purport to ban the practice of “foreign laws” on U.S. soil. But, as the report notes, the sponsors of those bills and other “anti-Muslim activists most frequently engage in alarmist rhetoric and typically have little to no formal education and expertise in Islamic studies.” Since U.S. law already supersedes any foreign or religious laws, many believe these bills actually serve to amplify Islamophobia.
Khan and Beutel revealed that just 16.5 percent of the country’s Republican legislators had sponsored or co-sponsored at least one of these 102 anti-Sharia or anti-”foreign law” bills.
“However, a relatively small number of lawmakers, 480 out of 3813 (12.6%) Republican state legislators are sponsors of restrictive bills proposed in more than one issue area,” they wrote. “This indicates that, more than ‘red vs. blue’ politics, this is a ‘red vs. red’ issue, reflecting internal disagreements within the Republican Party at the state-level.”
Further, 80 percent of the anti-Sharia bills were sponsored or co-sponsored by a sponsor of a bill from one of the five other overlapping areas: bills that limit LGBT rights; bills that limit access to abortion; voter ID bills; anti-immigration bills; and “right-to-work” or anti-union legislation.
“It is critical to note that the greatest overlap with anti-sharia/anti-’foreign law’ legislation is not with anti-immigration laws as might be thought but with strict Voter ID laws and Right-to-Work laws. Both of these types of laws negatively and disproportionately impact African-Americans, women and Latinos. Thus, if a lawmaker wants to support legislation marginalizing the most people at one time, antisharia [sic] along with Voter ID and/or Right-to-Work would help to achieve that end.”
Speaking to MintPress, Khan noted “the curious case of North Carolina,” in which a bill combined two of these overlapping issues into a single piece of legislation. In 2013, faced with little resistance to an anti-Sharia bill, legislators added multiple extreme abortion restrictions to the law as amendments.
“I started to wonder whether all of this venom against Muslims was really because of Muslims or whether it was a deflection from other anxieties,” recalled Khan of his research.
He realized that all the overlapping issues they’d identified either disenfranchise minority groups or otherwise reinforce the wealth and political power of the country’s current, mostly white Protestant majority, at a time when the country is undergoing a major demographic shift.
The U.S. is “becoming less white and more brown, less Anglo-Saxon and more Latin, less Protestant and more Catholic,” Khan said, echoing data showing that non-white births already outnumber white births, and members of other religions now outnumber Protestants.
In 2012, the Census Bureau estimated that the U.S. would become a “majority-minority nation,” where whites no longer represent a majority of the population, as soon as 2043. Khan told MintPress:
“People call Islamophobia a disease. I tended to disagree with that. I saw that it was actually a symptom of a broader disease, of this moral panic of people really frightened as to where America was going and the uncertainty of that future, particularly as it pertained to the majority-minority attainment within a generation.”
‘Infectious’ bigotry continues into 2016
“If there are politicians who, for example, can go ahead and demonize entire swaths of people and then present themselves as lord protectors or people with the ability to do something about it, that becomes infectious,” Khan warned.
And state legislators continue to introduce laws targeting the same groups, although the specific details of their bills tend to change over time.
For example, Jodie Laubenberg, a Republican state representative from Dallas, was a key sponsor both of HB2, the anti-abortion bill recently partially overturned by the Supreme Court, and of Texas’ 2015 anti-foreign laws bill. She’s also served as the state chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council, suggesting the influence of right-wing think tanks that write many of these bills, which are then introduced by what Khan calls “Koch Brothers-sponsored and -purchased politicians.”
And with the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., attacks on LGBT rights have moved on to so-called “religious liberty” bills and laws that would limit transgender access to public restrooms. North Carolina’s controversial anti-transgender “bathroom bill” also targeted labor rights by blocking minimum wage increases. John Kavanagh, the Arizona state senator who had authored a previous failed attempt at a transgender bathroom bill, authored a bill this year that would block the census from counting undocumented immigrants. Kavanaugh also infamously told racist jokes at the expense of Muslims and Latinos at a 2014 “roast” of Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
‘Vital’ to build coalitions
“There’s a lot of profit in paranoia,” Khan told MintPress. “I think that the idea of fomenting fear and then people being able to exploit that fear in a particular direction is very, very lucrative for people who have certain agendas.”
“The fact that it can occur on a state and local level means that it can be custom-tailored in rhetoric on issue and on priority to each of these states without having to be … one size fits all on a national level,” he added.
“Confronting Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the U.S. 2013-2015,” a report published last month by the Council on American Islamic Relations, identifies 33 key organizations that support Islamophobia in the U.S. which had access to over $205 million in funding between 2008 and 2013.
Faced with the massive financial war chest of its opponents, “Confronting Fear” highlights coalition-building across intersecting issues as a key strategy for pushing back against Islamophobia, including the areas identified by Khan and Beutel.
“[‘Manufacturing bigotry’] highlights the need for unity among the different targeted communities,” said Corey Saylor, director of CAIR’s Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia and the author of “Confronting Fear,” in an interview with MintPress.
Khan suggested the reaction to the Pulse Nightclub shooting, in which Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people and wounded 53 others at an LGBT club in Orlando, shows this concept is already in action. He told MintPress:
“After what happened in Orlando, it was remarkable how many people in the LGBTQ community spoke out reflexively and very passionately saying, ‘We don’t hold the Muslim community responsible for this.’ That is a direct consequence of channels of communication being opened.”
Khan acknowledged that coalition-building can be challenging for some conservative Muslims when it comes to issues like abortion or the LGBT community, but he believes more are “realizing that there are these bigger priorities that need to occur when it comes to forming coalitions with people, and particularly when it comes to targeted communities.”
In a follow-up report, “Strength Through Diversity,” published November 2014, Beutel and Jelena Jankovic analyzed several coalitions between Muslims and their allies that successfully opposed anti-Muslim legislation
“Coalitions are important to securing success,” Beutel and Jankovic wrote. “This report’s findings reaffirm the need for organizations to work together to achieve a particular goal.”
Khan emphasized the diversity of issues that could be brought together under one umbrella through solidarity and unity:
“Women are being targeted when it comes to their reproductive rights by some of the very same individuals who are targeting people of color, people based on their immigrant status, people based on their religious classification, people based on their union status, people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And how then to push back on this? It is vital to go ahead and have the coalition build.”
Saylor agreed, urging coalitions to bring their fight to the ballot box:
“I would also highlight that it needs to be unity among the groups that are active in campaign issues. CAIR is a nonprofit, we don’t get involved in issues, we can [only] do nonpartisan [voter] registration. But you really need to get the groups that can be partisan allied together and looking at those members of Congress that have been targeting minorities.”