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.

Living With Difference

by Adam B. Seligman, author of Living With Difference

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Christmas Day, which in 2015 was also a Friday and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad to boot, found me at the Jingjue Mosque in central Nanjing, a city of 8 million inhabitants with a Muslim population of about 100,000. There were about 900 people in attendance filling the mosque and the surrounding courtyards, which stretched out on both sides of the mosque and in front of it. What struck me right away was the great range of the congregants’ backgrounds: Han Chinese (converts to Islam), Uighurs from Xianjiang Province, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Central Asians, Indonesians, Arabs, North Africans, Africans from both East and West Africa, as well as Caucasians. There were students and old folk, men dressed in jeans and flowing robes, some with hip­ hop hats and Uzbek (and Kyrgyz) headgear, some bearded and others clean­ shaven (and everything in between, as befits some stylish young trends), some with socks and many without–all despite the thermometer being in the low 40s. New migrants from the northwest of the country added to the existing Muslim presence, now sadly depleted—only four mosques are left in a city where there were once dozens.

What I noticed next was the diversity within unity, the distinct and palpable individuality and uniqueness of each and every man bent in prayer. A religion that emphasizes practice, rather than belief alone, allows for, even requires, a fractile field of differences; people do not hold their hands in exactly the same position, maintain the self­same posture, or prostrate themselves in an identical manner, even if they are all striving for exactly the same prescribed positions.

I was suddenly reminded of a colleague, an expert on religion in Europe, who once remarked that in his view Islam is a religion inherently hostile to individualism, because Muslims pray “all bunched up together, not like people in a church or synagogue.” His comment seems to me to represent, in the kindest of readings, a strictly secular and perhaps sociological perspective, which sees and possibly structures reality for one lense only: the observer looking in from outside. Yet from the perspective of the believers, the men and women actually praying in that space, of course they are individuals—how else should they approach God? The view from outside looking in, especially the view trained in one reality and one way of looking at the world, by its nature imposes a certain unity, if not homogeneity, on what it finds strange and unsettling. Those gathered for Friday prayer do not in fact lack individuality; rather, the Western, Christian, and post-­Christian eyes are just not trained to see it. To make sense out of what we find both foreign and, especially in these times, threatening, we lose “granularity”–we lose the specifics. We abstract, generalize, lump together, and homogenize—and in the process we see not individuals, but only an undifferentiated mass. But what we see is not necessarily the reality.

During my stay I spent a good deal of time in different mosques, and meeting with different Muslim communities and individuals in and around Nanjing. I was visiting China to explore setting up a summer school on how to live with religious and ethnic difference, based on the blueprint developed by CEDAR. For a while now, China has been experiencing massive population transfers, generally from the north and west to the southeast. These economic migrants face prejudice and social ostracism, as their very presence challenges established boundaries of community, religious practice, and ethnic identity. Engaging with difference is therefore an important mandate, in today’s China as in many other parts of the world.

China today is also struggling with its policies and often outdated laws affecting Muslims and adherents of other religions among its citizens. Should group prayer on university campuses be permitted? Who can be a prayer leader? Where may donations to religious organizations originate? The government seems to be searching for a manageable, middle­-of-­the-­road policy that would allow religious expression, without also opening the floodgates of religious and ethnic separatism —all the while, to be sure, taking care not to do anything that will lead to a greater sense of disenfranchisement and grievance. As in so many other places in the world, policymakers—indeed, all of us—are having to learn to see the world a bit differently and shift our focus as we view the other and the unfamiliar.

As for myself, at the end of Juma I joined the congregants at lunch, forgoing the meat soup and eating only hard­-boiled eggs and bread. And outside the mosque I bought some wonderful sweet rolls for my own Shabbat, which began at sundown that evening.

Adam B. Seligman is Director of CEDAR and Professor of Religion at Boston University.

An Author’s Travels through Saudi Arabia

By Loring M. Danforth, author of Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi ArabiaIn 2012, Prof. Danforth and 16 students from Bates College spent nearly a month traveling through Saudi Arabia. Here is a glimpse into their travels–and into the Saudi Arabian culture.  

From your travels, what misconception do you most wish to dispel regarding Saudi Arabia? 

IMG_0297I confronted one of these misconceptions a few months after my return to the United States from Saudi Arabia. A FedEx driver delivered a big package to my door. As he handed it to me, he noticed it was from Saudi Arabia and said, “It must be oil.” “No,” I replied with a smile, “it’s art.” I was expecting a gift from a Saudi artist I had met during my trip.

As an anthropologist, I knew that the usual images Americans have of Saudis – rich oil executives, oppressed women, conservative Muslims, violent terrorists – were grossly oversimplified negative stereotypes that are deeply dehumanizing and destructive. I knew this. But nothing could have prepared me for the unique, concrete, and intense individuality and humanity of the Saudis I met – a young Saudi lesbian who was eager to learn about the lives of gay women in the United States;  a high school student who moved his teacher to tears with a mournful Saudi folk song; a Saudi medical student who described wearing a full length black abaya as restricting, suffocating, fashionable and comforting, as well as showing respect for her community and preserving her culture. If Saudi voices like these can be more widely heard, then the Orientalist stereotypes that dominate the media will lose some of their power.

Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book?

For most of my career I have worked in Greece. I had no specialized background in Islam or the Arab world before traveling to Saudi Arabia. I had naively assumed that the more religious Saudis were, the more conservative they would be and that the more secular they were, the more liberal they would be. I learned that the situation was far more complex than I had thought.

In Jeddah, I met Dr. Sami Angawi a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, a
prominent Sufi leader of the Hijaz, a public intellectual, and a highly respected architect, who has dedicated his life to the preservation of traditional Hijazi architecture and material culture. His face was framed by a thinning gray beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a traditional gold-and-white Hijazi turban. Dr. Angawi offered some thoughts on freedom, humanity, Islam, and Allah.

IMG_0305“The Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, and the Quran are our points of reference. They are the tools we use to create balance and order in society. Unity in diversity is an example of balance. Islam is the most flexible religion I’ve ever experienced. Islam is the religion of freedom. Allah is the God of everyone, even people who don’t believe in Him. We are trying to share love with you now—Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans. We’re not angels. Angels do good naturally; we humans have to struggle. God made us so that we come back to Him through love.”

One of the most religious Saudis I had met was also one of the most liberal. It was as if I had met a Muslim Quaker or a Muslim Unitarian Universalist. I clearly had a lot to learn.

If you were to go back to Saudi Arabia, are there particular areas that you’d like to visit, experience, or re-experience? Why?

After Danforth-CrossingTheKingdomvisiting several art galleries in Saudi Arabia, I became very interested in the work of some of the leading Saudi artists who are pushing the envelope of what constitutes acceptable forms of expression in Saudi society. These artists are offering provocative critiques of conservative Islam, the role of women in Saudi society, and the impact of modernization on traditional Saudi culture. I would very much like to return to Saudi Arabia to learn more about the world of contemporary Saudi art. This would involve visiting several new art galleries, attending exhibits and workshops, and interviewing Saudi artists. Their work is characterized by a delightful combination of humor and playfulness, on the one hand, and incisive and bitter social commentary, on the other.

Ahmed Mater, for example, photographs iron filings standing erect in concentric rings around a black cube-shaped magnet to evoke the spiritual power that attracts pilgrims to the Kaba in the Holy Mosque in Mecca. In another work Mater presents an eerie blue x-ray of a man holding a pistol to his head that morphs in stages into a gasoline pump whose nozzle is lodged at its side. To an interpretive anthropologist interested in analyzing symbols, works like these offer wonderful opportunities to explore the richness of Saudi culture.

Loring M. Danforth is Professor of Anthropology at Bates College. He is the author of The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Firewalking and Religious Healing, The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, and Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory.