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Islamophobia Is Structured Into the State

The West has racialized Muslims for centuries.

Part of the Series

Scholar Khaled A. Beydoun argues that the state apparatus has incorporated Islamophobia into law and policies throughout US history. In this Truthout interview, Beydoun holds out hope that Islamophobia can be ameliorated by challenging the systems that “embolden” it.

Mark Karlin: Islamophobia has deep historical roots not just in the US’s xenophobia, but in law. How so?

Khaled A Beydoun: Although a novel concept, Islamophobia is anything but a novel phenomenon. The modern form of animus is rooted in a centuries-long’ discourse and system known as Orientalism, which divides the world into two spheres — the West and the Muslim world — whereby the Muslim world is defined and demonized in mirror opposite of the West. Therefore, if the West is where modernity, democracy and liberalism flourishes, then the Muslim World is caricatured as arcane and backwards, totalitarian and tyrannical. The fundamental stereotypes and misrepresentations embedded by Orientalism, as a political and legal narrative, gave rise and continually drive forward Islamophobia today.

To be Muslim during the war on terror was to be guilty until proven innocent.

Orientalism is the mother of Islamophobia, and we saw this play out in the legal system. To cite an important example, American citizenship laws — from 1790 until 1952 — mandated that immigrants that wanted to become naturalized citizens had to be white. Whiteness, however, was more than color or appearance, but also intimately tied to religious identity. The courts positioned Islam as the antithesis of Christianity, which was central to how whiteness was understood and assigned, which in turn barred Muslim immigrants — and also those presumed to be Muslims — from becoming naturalized immigrants. This policy, and the cases involved with it, illustrates how Muslims have long been racialized as unassimilable foreigners and societal threats.

How did the so-called war on terror come to be a war on Muslims?

Khaled A. Beydoun
Khaled A. Beydoun.

Days after the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush declared, “You are either with us or against us” — the infamous words that marked the beginning of the “war on terror” that was collaterally felt by Muslim citizens and residents. The war on terror was built upon a baseline that I highlight as my foundational definition for Islamophobia in the book: The belief that Muslim identity is correlative with terrorism. This baseline, and the presumption tied to it, not only drove the range of strident and sweeping policies targeting Muslims at home and abroad — most notably the Patriot Act and NSEERS [National Security Entry-Exit Registration System] (a Muslim registry) — but also enabled two wars, a “Clash of Civilizations” foreign policy, and the wholesale restructuring of the domestic national security apparatus. War was being launched on Muslims via bombs and airstrikes in Iraq, drones in Yemen and electronic surveillance in the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed by US military efforts in the name of the war on terror, driven by the Islamophobic fear that specific nation-states had weapons of mass destruction — when in fact, they did not. In the United States, the newly created Department of Homeland Security set aside the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Muslims, stripping citizens and residents of their constitutional rights by way of broadly conflating Islam with terrorism, and Muslim identity with the threat of it. To be Muslim during the war on terror was to be guilty until proven innocent, and in many cases, no opportunity to due process to even prove innocence.

There is a paradox in US foreign policy, however, isn’t there? After all, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Islamic states are strong allies of the United States, not to mention nations around the world with majority Muslim populations.

US foreign policy is riddled with paradoxes, particularly as it relates to Arab and Muslim nations. One of the most glaring contradictions is the US’s longstanding and seemingly unshakable alliance with Saudi Arabia — a nation-state whose domestic human rights record indicts it as one of the world’s most inhumane, and a monarchy wed to a foreign policy that ravages the region and deploys petrodollars to spawn and embolden terror groups. Therefore, although the stated public objective of the American war on terror is to bring down terror groups, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa and so on, American economic and political policy is facilitating their growth and expansion. By virtue of aligning with Saudi Arabia, which is the ideological sponsor of these groups with elements within the monarchy financing these groups, the US is enabling terrorism more than diminishing it.

The 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated that racism and xenophobia seldom unfold on separate tracks, but furiously converge.

However, this paradox is consistent with what I call “structural Islamophobia,” or state-sponsored Islamophobia. We must understand — and this ranks as one of my book’s principal takeaways — that structural Islamophobia can be and is usually rational, meaning that the state — whether through its domestic or foreign policy — capitalizes on its relationship with Muslim actors to carry forward its stated objectives. This is evidence through its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it calls an ally on the war on terror, although its fringe interpretation of Islam and petrodollars are strengthening terror groups in the region and beyond.

How does racism overlap with xenophobia?

The 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated that racism and xenophobia seldom unfold on separate tracks, but furiously converge. This intersection has remained during the beginning of the Trump administration, illustrated by the three renditions of the Muslim Ban and more. With these Bans, we saw how fear of immigrants was framed in both racial and religious terms, and specifically, Brown and Black Muslims coming from (at first) seven Muslim-majority nations. The central Islamophobic tenet — that Muslim identity is presumptive of terrorism — was at the heart of the xenophobic scapegoating and racial imagining of Muslim threat. In short, racist and Islamophobic animus toward Muslims fueled xenophobic fears.

We also see racism and xenophobia intersecting with the demonization of Latinx immigrants, evidenced through the threat against DACA, the Mexican wall and expedited deportations; and also, in relation to Black immigrants from Haiti and African nations, which Trump dubs “shithole countries.” Xenophobia not only disproportionately unleashed against Brown and Black peoples, but in this era, perhaps entirely conflated with the racism steered against these groups, including Muslims.

What does the phrase “one attack away” mean to you?

“One attack away,” for Muslims in America means many things. It is a reminder that life can radically change in a split second. An ever-looming fear that the state can, again, strip one’s constitutional rights with tenuous or nonexistence evidence. An existential state-of-being that, in three words, perhaps defines what it means to be Muslim in [the US] best: that all the rights the Constitution theoretically extends — from the freedom to practice your faith freely to the freedom of speech — can be chilled or set aside after an attack by a Muslim, or even a non-Muslim.

As a result, the collective Muslim American psyche is in a constant state of fear of what may come after an attack — particularly one of significant scale. Again, as I articulate throughout the book, Islamophobia is tied to the idea that the notion of Muslim individuality is virtually non-existent within the war on terror. Muslims are collectively guilty and collaterally punished after a terror attack. Vulnerable to the suspicion and policing from the state, and at the same time, the violent backlash from (private) Islamophobes. In order to rebuff this violence, they must condemn and apologize for every attack, and perform the “good Muslim” role, or else be punished. And in many instances, even when they do apologize or condemn, are still punished.

How can Muslims organize to resist Islamophobia?

Above all, it must be understood that Islamophobia is dynamic, fluid and a central part of the American fabric. It is longstanding, deeply woven into conceptions of American identity and citizenship, and not going anywhere. However, this does not mean that it cannot be diminished or, in part, dismantled.

Islamophobia is tied to the idea that the notion of Muslim individuality is virtually non-existent within the war on terror.

The most important dimension of organizing against it is to first, understand that Islamophobia is state policy and programming — not merely irrational hatred or violence unleashed by hatemongers or fringe actors. It is spearheaded by surveillance and monitoring policies, travel and immigration bans, “see something/say something” programs, profiling measures, jointly and severally, state action that endorses the broad societal views that Muslims are a demographic threat that must be policed and punished. These Islamophobic laws instruct private citizens to partake in this war on terror project, and we see this through the vigilante violence and hate crimes sweeping the country today. In short, when the laws are saying “Muslims are suspicious,” they are moving private citizens to keep tabs on their Muslim neighbors, classmates and fellow citizens. Muslims and their allies must organize, lobby and litigate to bring down these laws, and just as importantly, refuse to partake in carrying them forward.

Beyond fighting Islamophobic policy and laws, Muslims must continue to build lasting coalitions with other subordinated groups. These strategic alliances are vital, and the spirit of this book, above all, is a call to deepening alliances in order to not only confront Islamophobia, but the racism, sexism, classism and many systems of subordination that it intersects with.

Islamophobia has become a mainstream social justice issue, but fighting it without also confronting the systems that embolden it will prove to be futile. But Muslims, of all races and ethnicities, economic classes and ages, are rising to the challenge, and we must acknowledge that this moment of rife Islamophobia has inspired a Muslim American renaissance in leadership and consciousness.

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