Islamophobia, Close to Home

By Khaled A. Beydoun, author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear

Muslim Americans were intimately familiar with Islamophobia well before it became a cognizable term plastered on protest banners and echoed by media pundits. For Muslims, Islamophobia was central to their experience as American citizens or residents. It was manifested by the “random” checks at airports, the incessant stares while walking down the street, the presumption that they don’t speak English at the check out line, and the backlash that descended onto their communities after a terror attack. These experiences, and others, formed the core of the Muslim American experience after the 9/11 terror attacks and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump, but also characterized the lives for numerous Muslim communities well before these transformative moments.

On April 27, 1995, roughly one week after the domestic terror attack remembered as the “Oklahoma City Bombing” and years before the term “Islamophobia” existed, the phenomenon hit close to home. My family lived in Detroit, right outside the densely Arab and Muslim populated community in East Dearborn, widely regarded as the symbolic hub of Muslim America, and for hate mongers then and today, an easy target. One of my mother’s friends, Zeinab, a middle-aged Lebanese woman that wore the hijab (headscarf), was shopping at a grocery store on Dearborn’s (then predominantly white) west side. It was the evening, and as she was walking to her car in the dimly lit parking let, sensed footsteps tracking her own. As she stopped to unpack her cart and place her groceries in her car, two teens pounced on her.

“They weren’t trying to rob me, like I thought,” she recounted in Arabic, “but were trying to pull my headscarf off of my head, they didn’t try to take my purse.” The teens called her “stupid A-rab,” a racist slur for Arab, and told her “to get out of our country,” although her and her three children were citizens, and had made Michigan their home many years ago. Yet, their message was clear, and manifested a core baseline of the phenomenon we understand as Islamophobia today: that Islam was unassimilable with American values and identity, and Muslims were presumed to be foreign, subversive and terrorists. It did not matter that the culprit of the Oklahoma City Bombing was a white man, Timothy McVeigh, and that roughly 63% of mass shootings since 1982 were commit by white men. The terrorist stereotype eclipsed these statistics, and drove the violent backlash Zeinab endured in that grocery store parking lot and the frightening uptick in anti-Muslim bigotry unfolding in America today.

Source: Mother Jones’ Investigation: US Mass Shootings, 1982-2017 (6/14/2017)

And the law followed suit. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was enacted because of the Oklahoma City Bombing. But instead of grappling with the white separatist element that conspired to commit that horrific terror attack, it fixated on Islam. This, before 1995 and indeed well after it, is the very dynamic that not only embeds Islamophobia, but also advances it. Instead of dismantling or disavowing stereotypes about Islam or Muslims, the law, most potently through the War on Terror policy and strategy, endorses and advances it. Therefore, although Islamophobia is today a widely known term as a consequence of 9/11 and the Trump Era, it has long prevailed as a phenomenon and system deeply inscribed into the law. Muslims living in America know this quite well.


Khaled A. Beydoun is Associate Professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. A critical race theorist and political commentator, his writing has been featured in top law journals, including the California Law Review, UCLA Law Review, and Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. He is also the 2017 winner of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination (ADC) Advocate of the Year Award.


Remembering Those at Pulse in Orlando: One Year Later

Today, we remember the 49 people who lost their lives at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, FL. It is the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter; the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11, 2011; and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history.

Survivors and family members pay tribute to those in the community who were lost yet always remembered.

This day brings to light the discrimination and homophobia that those in the LGBTQ community experience, and how gun violence—and lack of gun sense—contribute to such tragedies.

Homophobia, sadly, begins early on. C.J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, notes in her Guest Viewpoint for The Register-Guard that homophobia is linked to our definition of  masculinity. Pascoe says that during her research, “[b]oys told me that homophobic epithets were directed at boys for exhibiting any sort of behavior defined as nonmasculine: being stupid, incompetent, dancing, caring too much about clothing, being too emotional or expressing interest (sexual or platonic) in other guys.”

And Pascoe notes in Dude, You’re a Fag that the “fag” insult “literally reduced a boy to nothing, “To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying that you’re nothing.”

Pascoe shares the story of Ricky, who “embodied the fag because of his homosexuality and his less normative gender identification and self-presentation.”

Even though dancing was the most important thing in his life, Ricky told me he didn’t attend school dances because he didn’t like to “watch my back” the whole time. Meanings of sexuality and masculinity were deeply embedded in dancing and high school dances. Several boys at the school told me that they wouldn’t even attend a dance if they knew Ricky was going to be there. In auto shop, Brad,a white sophomore, said, “I heard Ricky is going in a skirt. It’s a hella short one!” Chad responded, “I wouldn’t even go if he’s there.” Topping Chad’s response, Brad claimed, “I’d probably beat him up outside!” K.J. agreed: “He’d probably get jumped by a bunch of kids who don’t like him.” Chad said, “If I were a gay guy I wouldn’t go around telling everyone.” 

Pascoe later shares practical recommendations, focusing on schools to try and curtain homophobia in early settings. From ways administrators and teachers can take proactive steps to know about and enforce anti-discriminatory laws, modify the school’s curriculum and social organizations to be less homophobic, and reorganize highly gendered school rituals, Pascoe brings to the forth front ways we can help gay youth feel more included and be less preyed upon.

As both young Ricky and Pulse Night Club have shown us, homophobia is still a concern of life and death for many, even now. Despite the sadness that many feel today, we end on a note of hope, with the simple message that today is a day of love and kindness. #OrlandoUnitedDay

 


Brown and Uncomfortable in America

This post was originally featured in Latterly, a news magazine that covers social justice issues globally, and has been reposted here with their kind permission. 

By Deepak Singh, author of How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage

Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I usually work from a café. Every morning, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., you’ll find me there, often writing, sometimes reading. I can usually walk to the place, but sometimes I drive to the ones that are a little far. I park my car, walk in, drop my bag on an empty chair and get in line for a cup of coffee. This is a routine.

About a year ago, I was in a coffee shop, writing. The place had a chair against the wall with small square individual table in front. I liked to sit there because I could sit upright and focus, instead of lounging on one of its comfy chairs.

Since I was a regular customer, a lot of the staff members knew me by face and some of them by name. When I arrived, I set my computer on a table and went to the counter to order a cup of coffee. The barista took my money and said, “You are Abdullah, right?”

Author Deepak Singh, outside of a cafe.

“No, I am not.”

“Oh, sorry. You do look like Abdullah, the guy from Saudi.”

“Okay, but I am Deepak, the guy from India.”

“I’ll try to remember that, sorry.”

“No problem,” I said.

I got my coffee and sat down.

A few minutes later, I noticed people’s eyes skipping around me as they passed by or waited in line. Then I saw the person sitting on my left reading the news on his laptop. His computer screen had a picture of the couple who had killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. It was a day after the shooting had taken place. I looked at it for a few seconds and then went back to writing. I didn’t want to think much of it, but I looked at it again and then looked around. There was a woman sitting to my right wearing a hijab. She hadn’t been there when I came into the coffee shop. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed. She was busily chatting in English on her phone and typing on her laptop at the same time. Her white veil covered her head but not her face. Her long-sleeved top covered her arms and wrists. This was not the first time I had seen a hijabi girl in the coffee shop, but I didn’t remember when the last time had been. I looked at her from the corner of my eyes and then my eyes shifted to the picture on the laptop to my left. Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter, didn’t look very different from the lady sitting next to me. I thought that might be what people were looking at.

It dawned on me that I, myself, could be confused for someone who looked like Syed Farook, the male accomplice. There was an early morning rush, and there were more people in line now. A lot of them were looking at their phones and also looking at me. At least that is what I thought.

I was not able to focus on my work anymore. I was fidgeting. The lady next to me was still talking and typing. It seemed to me the more I tried to avoid attention, the more conspicuous I was getting.

“She’s not with me,” I wanted to say to them. “I’ve never seen her before!” Then I thought even if she moved away from me, the folks in the coffee shop could still think of me what they might have been thinking of her. A part of me thought that I was overreacting. But then I remembered all those times working a day job in an electronics store, when so many Americans asked me if I was from Syria or Iraq.

All kinds of thoughts were brewing up in my head as I sat there staring at my computer, my fingers frozen.

I was irritated at the people who were looking at us. I wanted to move to a different spot, but all the seats were taken. The only choice was to get up and leave. Or just sit there and let people stare at me. I left. Later, I thought to myself that I was being worried for no reason. It was all in my head.

Last week, as I read the news in another coffee shop, the big story was about two Indians enjoying a few drinks at a bar in Kansas. Reports say that a prejudiced man shot them and killed one of them. They didn’t look much different than me — in fact, they looked exactly like me. Now their parents are mourning back in India. I could have been one of those men.

I thought of my time at the coffee shop a year ago and how I had felt threatened and uncomfortable. I can only imagine how Muslims are feeling now that Trump is president.

I came home and held my wife and my daughter and felt happy and lucky to be together and alive. And then I thought about the most powerful men in America who seem to be waging war on everyone who resembles me.


Deepak Singh is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The AtlanticHe tweets at @deepakwriter and now lives in Brunswick, Maine.