Islam isn't the problem: American Muslims should be on the front lines of questioning U.S. policies that have contributed to destabilization, sectarianism and bloodshed in the Middle East

As a community we've internalized Islamophobia in a desperate attempt to prove we belong. We need a new approach

Published December 17, 2015 12:58PM (EST)

Armed anti-Muslim protestors stand across the street from a mosque during a demonstration in Richardson, Texas, Dec. 12, 2015.   (AP/LM Otero)
Armed anti-Muslim protestors stand across the street from a mosque during a demonstration in Richardson, Texas, Dec. 12, 2015. (AP/LM Otero)

The American Muslim community is beleaguered. It seems we’re all trying to understand how -- despite our monumental efforts to combat Islamophobia in the years since 9/11 -- the discourse on Muslims has only gotten worse, reaching the fascist-like levels seen today, with violent, often fatal results.

After 9/11, Muslim leaders and institutions across the country faced greater scrutiny and marginalization, making them less likely to be at the forefront of critiquing U.S. domestic and foreign policy in the political aftermath. Seeing themselves as underrepresented in the political establishment, they made combating Islamophobia and representing the American Muslim narrative in the corridors of power and influence their top priority.

Be it in media, entertainment, business or public policy, there have been innumerable initiatives to ensure Muslim representation at the highest levels of government, and special effort has been made to highlight the contributions of Muslims to American society. We have endured the indignity of having to humanize our identity, even having numerous anthologies dedicated to showing how we love, and make love, like everyone else.  At this critical juncture, when hate crimes against Muslims are at an all-time high, the question must be asked: Where has this approach taken us? And are we partly responsible for the cumulative bigotry that has now peaked against us?

The time for American Muslim self-reflection at the community level  is long overdue.

Internalized Islamophobia 

It should be clear that in our response to accusations of terrorism and the like, we have internalized Islamophobia. By this I mean that we as a community have uncannily accepted a direct link between Islam and violence, and the narrative that there is a “problem” with our religion, or rather an interpretation of it. So, when Paris or Boston happens, we scream at the top of our lungs that “our” Islam is a religion of peace, that not all Muslims are terrorists, etc. We make feel-good videos, holding up signs that say #notinourname, and write article after article talking about our normal aspirations of taking long walks on the beach and how ISIS’ Islam doesn’t represent us. An unopened Coke can on a United flight gets us more riled up than secret agents parading through our mosques. We “understand” that “surveillance” is for our own “good,” thereby agreeing that this is an issue borne within our communities, and not a symptom of a larger cancer that is not of our making. It should come as no surprise, then, that when Trump calls for special registrations for Muslims, we make our own Muslim IDs showcasing our many privileged accolades. We are desperate to prove that we belong. “Look, I am a lawyer, a father, a connoisseur of potato chips, and an avid Broncos fan!” This ensures that the conversation always remains superficial; the debate is sidetracked into one of a clash of values and whether we belong in this society, the exact discussion that Islamophobes want us to have.     

We are at our lowest point in this country, and this approach has not worked. The rhetoric has deepened, its supporters only multiplied.

It has not worked because we fundamentally misunderstand the root causes of the issue that we are dealing with.

We have bought into the state narrative that Islam is the problem. This is despite the fact that since 9/11, there has been even greater American and Western interference in Muslim-majority countries. From Afghanistan to Yemen, to Libya and Iraq, American policies have contributed to destabilization, sectarianism and bloodshed. American Muslims should have been at the front line of questioning these destructive state policies and imperialistic economic interests that have led to the emergence of groups like ISIS.

American exceptionalism

For too long, American Muslims have been led to believe that we are the most privileged Muslim community on the planet, i.e., American exceptionalism. This, in turn, has led to a belief that “we” have a responsibility to dictate true Islam to the rest of the world. As a result, our engagement with international issues has been haphazard, and deeply schizophrenic. At one level, being an American Muslim has meant that issues affecting Muslims elsewhere are of little concern to us unless and until they have an impact on us—take the shocking silence on Yemen or drones in Pakistan—as we try to build our utopia here. The domestication of the American Muslim agenda is seen as a source of empowerment, but is in fact an attempt to dictate the terms of what the community can and cannot advocate for. Nothing exemplifies this arrogance more than the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a program that displaces Palestinian voices and situates an issue of Israeli occupation of land, illegal invasions and colonization as one that can be resolved by “inter-religious dialogue” and not as one that addresses the question of justice.

Meanwhile, critical Muslim voices that question the impact of destructive imperial, military and economic policies abroad and our own community’s complicity in it are drowned out by voices that are far more palatable to the mainstream American audience.

If American Muslims have to bear responsibility for one thing, it is not terrorism; it is for contributing to the problematic narrative that allows the political establishment to evade responsibility for its destructive policies.

To solutions

In these terrifying times, the P.R. campaigns to humanize our existence might very well be needed for basic survival. Yet, this cannot exist in a vacuum. If we are to think long-term, we must speak truth to power and align ourselves with marginalized and oppressed groups both here and abroad. American Muslims can’t expect Muslim bodies in the U.S. to be treated with dignity and respect when they are being decimated abroad.

Islamophobia is not exceptional; it exists in the same political hell as anti-immigrant racism and the atrocities being committed against black and brown bodies. There can be no freedom or equality for Muslims if other bodies are not treated equally.

Hafsa Kanjwal is a Ph.D. candidate in history and women's studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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