Written by Aleyah Hassan
Islamophobia doesn’t just stop with a random man whispering “ISIS” under his breath as a Muslim walks past him, or a couple of teenagers grabbing spray paints from their garage and sprawling the message “go back to your own country” on the walls of a mosque. This anti-Muslim sentiment becomes men with guns wearing “F*** Islam” T-shirts protesting outside of a mosque. It becomes the NYPD spying on Muslim Students Associations and trying to “trap them in terror plots” by sending in undercover detectives and asking inappropriate questions. It becomes a very well funded group called Stop Islamization of America headed by Pamela Geller who proudly, ardently, and incorrectly boasts an essentialist, securitist, and nativist message that Islam is at odds with American values and that Islam is inherently primitive and violent. It becomes those who wear hijabs, those who speak in Arabic (or any other foreign language), those who jot down complicated math problems that could be mistaken as Arabic, and those who read books that look a tad bit too suspicious being escorted of airplanes. It becomes government officials in Western democratic countries calling for a ban on harmless religious garbs, and an increased surveillance of Muslim communities, and a requirement of a Muslim ID. It becomes the easily passed government acts that allows the erosion of civil liberties, like allowing indefinite detention, searching homes and businesses without the occupants consent or knowledge, and pre-emptive prosecution. These forms of anti-Muslim sentiment do not endanger Muslims alone. Sikh’s and Hindu’s have relentlessly been targeted and ironically, Native American store-owners have been shot and killed after being told to go back to their own country.
After the attacks in France, Belgium, and San Bernardino, Muslims are often confronted with xenophobic comments and accosted with anti-Muslim rhetoric. They are being advised, again and again, to walk with a friend, to put on a beanie or a hat when they’re driving so people won’t try to run them off the road, to carry pepper spray or better yet, enroll in a self-defense course. These concerns are very reminiscent of those that were present following the events of 9/11, and similar to those days, today, women are having their hijabs torn off their heads, mosques are being vandalized with slurs spray-painted on the doors and pig heads left at the entrances, and men with beards are being tragically shot on their way to afternoon prayer.
Muslims, people who look like Muslims, and people who have Muslim or Arab sounding names are seldom strangers to Islamophobia. Since 9/11, crimes against Muslims have jumped 1,700 percent, as the FBI reported 28 hate crimes prior to 9/11 and 481 hate crimes against Muslims the following year. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been around a lot longer than the spewing of Trumps vitriol, but it seems that things that were frowned upon before, are now becoming more acceptable. So how have Muslims been responding to and meeting the challenge to this rise in Islamophobia?
There have been different responses to meeting this challenge. Muslims actively participate in their communities and eagerly show up to the voting polls on Election Day. They make it a point to give up their seats on the bus, smile at strangers, and hold the door for people behind them, even if there is a bit of an awkward distance. They do this to prove that they aren’t as bad as they are shown to be. In short, they aim to reject and overturn this essentialist orientalist notion that Muslims are innately backwards.
Muslims also challenge this anti-Muslim sentiment by being critical of and denouncing America’s foreign policy. Since 9/11, Dalia Mogahed found that Islamophobia had spiked three times: during the 2008 and 2012 elections and the run-up to the Iraq war, which indicates that Islamophobia is more a political tool than a fear that arises after every single attack, international or domestic. Manning Marable writes, “In general, whenever the United States mobilizes militarily and goes to war, white racism goes hand in hand.” Conflict abroad that benefit corporations and elites perpetuates racism at home and this is something that is evident today as those who look like, speak like, act like, or dress like a Muslim become a possible target for collective blame and verbal or physical harassment.
Although these responses differ, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they are both very in sync with the teachings of Islam. Muslims look primarily to two sources for guidance: the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the wife of the Prophet, A’isha R.A, Prophet Muhammad was a physical example of everything the Quran taught. And thus, it would be beneficial to look at the life of the Prophet in order to figure out how to meet the challenge of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing new in the history of Islam. Prophet Muhammad faced his fair share of conflicts and distressing encounters, but he dealt with them in the best way possible. There is a very touching story of Prophet Muhammad and an old woman. On the way to run his errands, he came upon a woman who was trying to move all of her things out of the city. Seeing this, he asked why she had decided to move. She responded by saying there was a man named Muhammad who was spreading an awful message and trying to get her to change her beliefs, and that did not sit right with her so she decided to leave. Clearly, she did not know the identity of the man she was talking to. Prophet Muhammad patiently stood and listened while she spoke ill of him and his message, and once she was done, he asked if he could help her move, seeing as though it would be a difficult task for her. She agreed and thanked him generously. Once she found a good place to lay down the foundation of her house, Prophet Muhammad asked if he could lay it for her. Once again, she agreed and thanked him generously. He laid the foundation of her house, cleaned it, and put all of her things together. Once he was finished, he turned to her and asked her permission to leave and go about his daily routine. She was taken aback by his kindness and said of course. As he was walking away, she called after him and asked what his name was. He responded by saying that he was the Muhammad that she hated so much. She, at that point, became Muslim. From this example, we can see that taking that extra step and being polite and honest was a trait of Prophet Muhammad. Even his enemies called him “the truthful” and “the trustworthy.” These traits are as central to Islam as liberty, equality, and tolerance are.
As important and integral as these traits are, Islam is also a religion that strongly believes in social justice. Condemning not just the growing list of causalities as a result of the drone program and the use of cluster bombs, but the increasing police brutality right here on US soil. Islam teaches Muslims to organize, rally, and speak out against the loss of civil liberties, and condemn the mistreatment of Muslims and other minority groups both here and overseas. And Muslims have been doing just that by voicing their opinions in political spaces, carrying out social experiments, or using their artistic abilities and creating spoken word or hip-hop lyrics to illustrate their discontent with what’s going on in the world.
At a time when it seems many Americans are soaking in what they hear from President-elect Trump, Pamela Gellar, and Bill O’Reilly, and making snap judgments about a group of 1.6 billion people, so much so that 59% of Americans already, following the Paris attacks, think Islamic values are at odds with American values, a Muslims best response may just be to emulate Prophet Muhammad: strive to have the best character, and stand up for what is right.