by Melissa Spatz and Alex Poeter
Several months ago, we went out to dinner with an old friend, and had the opportunity to meet his sixteen year old daughter for the first time. A thoughtful and passionate young woman, she chatted away about her internship with a girls’ leadership program, her love of cooking, her future dreams, current affairs and religion.
She is a young woman of color and a devout Muslim, and the conversation turned to the current wave of Islamophobia in the United States. We asked her what she thought about the 2010 Time magazine poll, in which 32% of the people who responded said that a Muslim should not be allowed to run for President, and 28% said that a Muslim should not be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court.
Her response was stark.
“My friends and I have been talking about this, and we think that different groups get oppressed at different times in history. During the Holocaust, it was the Jews. Now it’s our turn to experience oppression. This is what our lives are going to look like.”
With the 10-year anniversary of September 11 approaching, we – as white, non-Muslim adults – feel a responsibility to contribute to a world in which this young woman can have better expectations of her role in society and what she is likely to experience throughout her lifetime. The wave of anti-Muslim bigotry that we have all witnessed over the past 10 years has increased exponentially. Now, at this milestone, we have written this article as a challenge to ourselves and to other white non-Muslim allies, to take action to create a more just world.
What we’re up against
For centuries throughout the world, fear mongering has been one of the most effective tools used by the privileged elite and politicians to maintain their power monopoly, which is always based on others being oppressed and persecuted. In the early days of Nazi Germany, before the genocide began, Jews were already scapegoated as enemies of the state by the political establishment. During World War II, Japanese Americans were similarly scapegoated as enemies of the state, and had their basic freedoms taken away as a result.
These dynamics continue to be present in the U.S. now. Powerful individuals belonging to the privileged elite in this country have been investing enormous amounts of resources into maintaining the status quo, which is to maintain a system which grants privilege and power to some at the expense of others.
Using the age-old tactic of scapegoating, and convincing the public that there is a common enemy, conservative media outlets have worked hard to present a picture of a United States under attack by its Muslim citizens and Muslim immigrants. The intent of this rhetoric is to sow fear and panic, justifying oppressive policies. In much the same way that conservatives in the 1980s effectively branded low income women of color “welfare mothers,” and created a well-accepted mythology in order to justify policy changes resulting in drastic social benefits cuts, conservative media outlets are promoting fear of immigrant and people of color Muslims.
Rush Limbaugh, for example, has called Islam “the first anti-American, anti-Western religion.” Fox News repeatedly runs stories framing Islam in these terms. As Media Matters points out, if the channel reports on any negative story that happens to involve a Muslim, the word “Muslim” becomes highlighted, suggesting that the religion itself is to blame for the country’s woes.
While Islam is painted with a broad brushstroke, it is Muslim people of color, in particular, who are most targeted by conservative media pundits. In December 2009, for example, as one of a string of commentators on Fox News suggested that profiling of Muslim men was justified for national security, Ann Coulter appeared on Glenn Beck’s show. She called on President Obama to “start looking for passengers who look like the last three dozen terrorists to attack airplanes. He could engage in — whatever you want to call it — racial profiling, ethnic profiling, looking for young Muslim males, foreign-born Muslim males.”
Politicians, such as Rep. Peter King (R – Long Island, N.Y.) or Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have been adding their contribution to stoking Anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. While Cain said he wouldn’t feel comfortable appointing a Muslim either to his cabinet or to a federal bench and that communities have the right to ban mosques, King went so far to initiate congressional hearings with the goal of outing and prosecuting Muslims accused of extremism. These hearings have been compared to the McCarthy hearings in the early 50s, which resulted in the imprisonment of many innocent people belonging to the targeted populations.
The mythology of Islam as a dangerous religion, and of Muslim people of color as intent on destroying the United States, has become so well-accepted in the media that racist attacks on Barack Obama during (and since) the last election often have taken the form of assertions that he is Muslim. Those making this patently false claim did not need to explain why being Muslim would make him any less patriotic or fit to be President; the racist subtext already has been clearly set out by right-wing media pundits and politicians.
As reflected in the Time magazine poll that we discussed with our friend’s daughter, this consistent media uproar has had an impact on many non-Muslims’ understanding of Islam. These results are supported as well by a Pew Research survey in August 2010 entitled Public Remains Conflicted Over Islam. This survey found that only 30% of Americans have a favorable view of Islam – down from 41% in 2005.
In this way, conservative media and politicians have helped to create an atmosphere of distrust that sometimes turns violent. This is the reality of what has unfolded across the United States over the past 10 years, but especially during more recent years.
A June 2011 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Center for Race & Gender at the University of California – Berkeley, entitled Same Hate: New Target – Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States, examines Islamophobia for the period of 2009 – 2010. It points to a steady “growth and acceptance of intolerant discourse” (p. 24) and a steep increase in particular since January 2009.
The report, which is well worth a read, includes concrete examples of Islamophobia, including in the private sector, public sector, media, workplace, schools, and more. Some of these cases – such as Pastor Terry Jones’ call for an international “Burn the Koran” day – received extensive media attention and are part of the public consciousness. Others, including the often daily insults that Muslims may experience at work, at school, and in public, may be surprising to non-Muslim readers.
While it often is difficult for non-Muslims to comprehend the discrimination Muslims in this country are facing, it is important for us to educate ourselves about the ways this type of discrimination is manifested in our society, in the media, in politics, in the employment sector, and in our day-to-day lives. We must challenge ourselves not to look the other way and not to distance ourselves emotionally from the discrimination and oppression of others, but to try putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are suffering and imagine how we would feel if loved ones of ours had to face such dehumanizing treatment.
Why we ALL need to act
A sixteen year old resigned to a life of oppression based on her religion should be a wake-up call to all of us. It forced us to step back and ask ourselves, “What have we done, as non-Muslim, white adult allies, to make her path easier? Have we had any impact on Islamophobia in our country?” Is this what we want the US to look like? Are we really willing to accept this type of discrimination and mistreatment as a reflection of our personal and our country’s values?
It is not enough to “feel” or “think” opposition to those in power spreading and stoking Islamophobia. It is also not enough to not be anti-Muslim. Every single one of us needs to do our part to actively support those who are oppressed and discriminated against.
As the conclusion in the Same Hate: New Target report shows, the majority of Americans are not Islamophobic. It is a small minority in the country that is engaging in acts of hate against their Muslim neighbors. However, as white non-Muslims, we don’t believe that this lets us off the hook.
Being a good person is about acknowledging oppression and taking responsibility, especially if one has privileges while others are being systematically oppressed. As white non-Muslims, we have to acknowledge our privileges and the power that comes with being privileged. We need to challenge ourselves to use our privilege and power for good and to help foster equity.
History is filled with examples of what happens when allies do – or don’t – step up.
We write this article from the position of our multiple identities, and for the two of us, this includes our identities as an American-born Jew and an East German-born non-Jew. Our many discussions of the Holocaust, and our readings and study of the Holocaust, have led us to understand that the vast majority of German citizens did not take place in acts of hate against Jews. It was a minority that was able to commit atrocities – but always with the silence of the majority. When those with privilege in society do not speak up, a small group is able to commit acts of oppression at will.
Nazi Germany should always serve as a warning to us and as an example for what can happen if people who are privileged don’t speak out against the discrimination of targeted groups and minorities. Millions of innocent people died as a result, many of whom were tortured in the cruelest ways imaginable.
On the contrary, the Civil Rights Movement shows us how important it was for white allies to speak out against the discrimination of African Americans and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed when they kept being attacked by the enforcers of racist institutions and systems.
While contemplating our role and responsibilities as allies to people who are being discriminated against, it is also important to acknowledge our own ingrained prejudice and discriminatory behavior and thoughts. We are being bombarded on a daily basis with messages that encourage us, the privileged, to act and think in racist and discriminatory ways, and to defend the institutions and systems, which benefit from racism and oppression.
We all, including the two of us, must be honest with ourselves when we see someone at an airport for example, who fits the Arab Muslim stereotype and who makes us feel unsafe and anxious. It is important in those moments to not suppress these thoughts and behaviors because they remind us and associate us with the worst atrocities we know humans a capable of, but to allow them to rise to the surface so we can replace them with positive and just thoughts and behaviors. This can be painful, but we must face our own demons in order to be able to grow and increase our level of consciousness, so we can serve as allies in the most effective ways possible.
Five concrete action steps YOU can take:
Here are some ideas on what you, and we, can do in this time leading up to September 11.
(1) Share this article, but not just with the usual suspects.
Last year on the anniversary of September 11th, as we watched the rise of Islamophobia across the country, one thing we did was to repost articles that were critical of this hatred on our Facebook pages, or share them with our friends in the social justice community by email. While this statement of solidarity feels important in the moment, we want to suggest that it is more useful to share articles such as this one with people who may not already agree with its contents.
This is not to say that those in the social justice community are free from oppressive behaviors; our point is that we limit our reach if we only speak to one another. Think of your friends and acquaintances, co-workers, family members, and any others who may be influenced by the rhetoric on Fox News. Can you identify 3 people to share this article with? Or to discuss its contents, and your concerns about the treatment of Muslims in the United States?
When you reach out to others about this issue, you might want to remind them that in the end, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It does not matter what one’s political or party affiliation is. This is about being a responsible human being, and being committed to ensuring that everyone on this planet is treated equally and with dignity. Let’s remember that we should treat others the way we want to be treated ourselves.
(2) Learn about Islam, so that you are able to help present a more accurate portrait.
The Pew research study revealed that on the whole, non-Muslim Americans know very little about Islam, concluding: “As in previous Pew Research surveys, most Americans say they know little about the Muslim religion. Currently, 55% say they do not know very much (30%) or know nothing at all (25%) about the Muslim religion and its practices; 35% say they know some about the religion while just 9% say they know a great deal.”
One step that you can take is to educate yourself about Islam, so that you feel prepared to counter the ridiculous stereotypes promoted by the rightwing media.
Here are 3 informative sites about Islam and Muslim perspectives:
1. http://www.tariqramadan.com/-ARTICLES-.html (Professor Tariq Ramadan holds an MA in Philosophy and French literature and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Geneva. In Cairo, Egypt he received one-on-one intensive training in classic Islamic scholarship from Al-Azhar University scholars.)
2. http://www.suhaibwebb.com/?s=Islamophobia (This site is dedicated to enhancing the spiritual and religious development of Muslims through sound, balanced & moderate Islamic teachings. It seeks to bridge orthodox and contemporary Islamic knowledge, bringing to light issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West.)
3. www.balancedmuslims.com (This new website was created in order to promote a balanced and practical understanding of Islam. The stated objective is to give readers a clear vision of what Islam has to offer.)
Learn, too, about examples of Muslim organizations that are working to create a more socially just world. Here in Chicago, for example, the Arab American Action Network (AAAN – www.aaan.org) promotes youth leadership for social justice, including efforts to promote peace and end community violence; the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN – www.imancentral.org) works for social justice, delivers a range of social services, and cultivates the arts in urban communities. Another example is MAS (Muslim American Society) Youth Detroit (web.masyouthdetroit.org), which serves the Greater Detroit area and whose mission is “to move young people to strive for God-consciousness and social justice and convey Islam with utmost clarity”. In the past five years MAS youth leaders facilitated over 200 activities (serving the hungry at soup kitchens to restoring damaged housing) serving more than 5000 individuals from 30 different communities.
(3) Stand in alliance and solidarity with Muslim Americans when targeted as a group
Last year, in all of the controversy over building the Cordoba House in New York as an Islamic community center, several media outlets also touched upon the fact that mosques have become sites of protest and vandalism across the country. What rarely appeared in the media, however, was the fact that groups of people across the country – and in particular, those affiliated with other religions – were stepping forward in support of the Muslim community.
In Temecula, California, for example, when a group of 20 – 30 protesters showed up to block the opening of a mosque last August, the religious community organized, bringing 70 people to the event to stand in support of the mosque. This February, when a mosque in New Haven, Connecticut was vandalized, religious leaders of many different faiths came together to rally against hatred.
Similarly, as the King hearings were about to begin this spring, 500 protesters gathered in Times Square in New York to oppose the hearings publicly. Holding signs with messages such as “Today I am Muslim too,” non-Muslims stood alongside representatives of the Muslim community to make a public statement against these racist hearings.
This year in France, during protests against a law banning Muslim women from wearing burqa and hijab, non-Muslims wore headscarves in support of the Muslim women who choose to wear burqa and hijab at their own will.
These examples should serve as a call to action for the rest of us. We read about Islamophobic acts every day. The next time you read about such an act, consider reaching out to the Muslim community to offer support. Find out if they would like you to help reach out to allies to attend rallies, make phone calls in support of a mosque, or take any other action that could help. As allies, it is our responsibility to be proactive and to offer support, while respecting the leadership and guidance of those impacted by the issue.
(4) Create a different media dialogue
On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart has used his platform on national TV to draw attention to the hypocrisy and idiocy of anti-Islam sentiment. For example, he and John Oliver used humor to offer public support for the Cordoba Center last August. In Assif Mandvi’s February 2011, skits about a new Muslim family comedy, the Qu’osby Show, an Islamophobic focus group suggests there need to be more characters that fit negative stereotypes. And a May 2011 piece on the opposition to a church that opened its doors to Muslims ridicules fundamentalist Christians who “love Muslims, as long as they don’t practice Islam”.
But you don’t have to have a show on Comedy Central to help contribute to an alternative media message to counter the hate.
If you blog, consider writing a post about Islamophobia. Even if your blog usually focuses on a different kind of issue – and especially if it usually has nothing to do with politics – you will be reaching an audience that may not have thought about these issues. What thoughts can you offer to help people think about the issue differently?
Consider, also, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper in response to the news, and editorials, of the day. Letters supporting freedom of religion, opposing acts of hate, and promoting fair and just policies are an important step in offering a view to counter the mainstream media messaging.
Another online outlet is http://www.myfellowamerican.us/, a new online film and social media project that provides space for Muslims and non-Muslim allies to share their thoughts about Islamophobia.
(5) Put your money where your mouth is.
One way to support efforts against Islamophobia is to donate funds to support grassroots groups that are building a more just society. We’ve listed a few groups in this article, and there are many more in addition that you could support. In these challenging economic times, even a small donation to one of these organizations can go a long way.
Whatever you do, we encourage you to do something active to show your solidarity with Muslims who are experiencing discrimination and dehumanizing treatment every day due to Islamophobia and Racism. Allies taking action is an important part on the path toward justice and equality for all. We must always challenge ourselves to act on our values.
 Melissa Spatz and Alex Poeter are white anti-racist social justice organizers based in Chicago. Melissa is a non-profit consultant and coordinator of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women. Alex is Director of Training & Organizing at the Chicago Freedom School. We wrote this article as individuals and not as representatives of any particular organization. We thank Ammerah Saidi, Khadigah Alasry, Faraj Yousouf, and Luqman El-Amin for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
 http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,2011680-2,00.html (accessed 8-1-11)
 “Supporting the Right of Temecula Muslims to Build a Mosque,” LA Quaker, August 15, 2010, http://laquaker.blogspot.com/2010/08/supporting-right-of-temecula-muslims-to.html; Laurie Goodstein, “Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” New York Times, August 8, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?pagewanted=1
 Melinda Tuhus, “Religious Community Rallies Around Targeted Muslims,” New Haven Independent, February 25, 2011. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/religious_community_rallies_around_targeted_muslims/