Islamophobia in America

Published in Dawn September 28th, 2016

THE US elections have stoked excitement and fear among all, in and outside the country. The liberals hate Trump whom they think is dangerous and reckless and backed by uncouth rednecks; they say he would play havoc with civil rights if in power. A white Democrat American said (jokingly) to me that she would seek political asylum in Pakistan if Trump won.

Europe is concerned about his poor self-control and quick temper and worries he may “make snap decisions on national security — with the world’s most powerful army, navy and air force at his command and nuclear-launch codes at his disposal”, as put by The Economist.

Win or lose, the damage has already been done to American politics and society: Trump has ruined the Republican party, according to political pundits, brought out the worst in people, sharpened divisions and amplified the fear of ‘the enemy’ of America.

His call for a ban on Muslims entering the US, and for racial profiling has given a boost to the grand narrative of ‘Islam-(and Muslims) as an enemy of the-West’. Buffeted by political rhetoric, news coverage, social media and Hollywood movies, the meta-narrative is churning out localised hate crimes against Muslims. It may appear ridiculous to us but a recent research says that 30 per cent of white Americans think that the Muslims want Sharia laws (in the US). Perceived as a ‘threat to Western values’, Muslims are a mere 1pc of the total US population.

Though Islamophobia has existed in the US since earlier times, after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims spiked to 1,700pc nationwide resulting in 481 incidents in just four months in 2001, according to a 2002 report. Since last year, violent anti-Muslim acts have increased by 78pc, says a 2016 report released by the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The spike came particularly after Trump’s call for banning Muslims’ entry in 2015 though the Paris attacks also played a role. In 2015 there were 418 hate crimes. In the second week of September the Huffington Post Islamophobia tracker reported 261 hate crimes in 2016.

As a Muslim visiting the US, I wonder about this hatred of the common people for the Muslim community. Generally one finds Americans to be nice and friendly; on the surface the society appears to believe in the dictum ‘live and let live’. But one wonders what goes on beneath the surface — if Islamophobia is being manufactured like any other consumer item and people are being made to buy it.

According to a June 2016 report released by the University of California Berkeley’s Centre for Race and Gender and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamophobia has become a multi-million-dollar business. The report has identified 74 organisations that contribute in one way or another to Islamophobia in the US. Of these groups, the main purpose of 33 “is to promote prejudice against, or hatred of, Islam and Muslims” among the populace. The report states that these organisations had access to $206 million funding between 2008 and 2013.

What if Trump wins? What will be their future in the country they made home one or two generations ago?

“Anything can happen. Remember the US government interned the Japanese in 1942,” says an old friend of mine who made America her home in the late 1970s. A committed professional who loves her job, is 60 plus and content with her life, my friend feels integrated in society. Nonetheless, she thinks the situation for the Muslims in the US is turning from bad to worse.

Young Muslim Americans learn in grades 8 and 11 about the internment of the ‘enemy’ en masse: 120,000 Japanese-American citizens were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in camps. It was in 1988 that the Civil Liberties Act conceded that “the government actions were based on ‘race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership’.”

The ‘enemy’ of the US keeps changing. When it defeated its enemy, Japan, and devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it found a ‘new’ enemy, Russia, whom Europe had always perceived as the ‘other’. The overriding image of Russians, writes historian Paul Sander, since Early Modern Age, was that of the “barbarians at the gate”. After the Cold War, Islamophobia replaced Russophobia. Trump has now warned his nation that “radical Islam is coming to our shores”.

I find the second-generation Muslim Americans to be different from the first generation of settlers like my friend. The young Muslim Americans, born and bred in the US, are assertive about their identity as Muslims and their rights as American citizens. They consider America as their only home and do not feel connected to the country of their parents.

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