American Muslims are successful, optimistic and patriotic: But Islamophobia is worse than ever

By any measure, Muslims in America are doing great. Two decades after 9/11, why is there so much bigotry?

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published August 29, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

A protester outside the Islamic Community Center on May 29, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Getty/Christian Petersen)
A protester outside the Islamic Community Center on May 29, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Getty/Christian Petersen)

On Aug. 17, 2021, two days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, videos circulated of terrified Afghans clinging to airplanes as they were taking off, jam-packed with refugees in their cargo bays. Then we saw images of bodies falling tragically from those planes to their death. The fall of Kabul was harrowing to watch and those were some of its most disturbing images, but they paled in comparison to what came next.

T-shirts. Not just any T-shirts. The slogan type, that get printed on-demand when you order them. These T-shirts, which showed up, for example, on Etsy, featured silhouettes of two people falling from a military-style aircraft with a header that read "Kabul Skydiving Club" and below, "Est. 2021." The product description read: "Featuring the scene of the plane flying in the sky and suddenly, there are two people falling from it, the Kabul Skydiving Club Shirt is officially becoming a phenomenon and goes viral on the Internet!"

Imagine a similar type of shirt being sold with silhouetted images of people jumping out of the burning Twin Towers with the slogan "WTC Skydiving Club, Est. 2001." Would you buy that?

To be fair, the "Kabul Skydiving Club" T-shirts were met with swift condemnation in the social media community, forcing Etsy to eventually remove them from the site, though they can still be found on other platforms. But the really disturbing part of the story is the fact that they existed at all, and what it reveals about the toxic nature of Islamophobia. If you can imagine the "Kabul Skydiving Club'' shirts, but can't imagine a Twin Towers equivalent, then you already see my point.

The reason for this stark disparity in compassion lies not just in the stereotyping of Muslims; it is because the stereotyping is completely dehumanizing. Recall that in the 20-year war in Afghanistan there were numerous stories of U.S. and allied military personnel committing outrageous human rights violations. In addition to the state-sanctioned torture and murder of Afghans in places like the Bagram airbase, in 2010 five U.S. Army soldiers were charged with murdering three Afghans and collecting body parts as trophies, in 2012, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 16 civilians in Kandahar, and in 2012 a video surfaced of four Marines urinating on dead Afghans.  

But that's not even all of it. One of the men caught in that video said, a year later, that he'd gladly do it again. An Al Jazeera article noted that in the wake of the Kandahar massacre, mainstream news failing to even mention the names of the victims. Again and again, we saw not just the reporting of a war crime, but also evidence of a profound inability to see the Afghan people as human, or even living creatures deserving of care. As a point of comparison, imagine what would have happened if soldiers had been recorded peeing on dead cats and then bragging that they'd do it again.

Back on U.S. soil, Islamophobia mirrored these acts, even if the generalized level of hate was less violent. Political scientist Costas Panagopoulos conducted a study released in 2006 showing that public sentiment toward Muslims in the United States combined low levels of awareness of basic elements of Islam with growing anxiety and antipathy towards the community.

But here's the thing: As horrible as it has been to document the rampant Islamophobia in the United States since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, one would have expected that, with the distance of time, some of the aggressive stereotyping of the Muslim community might wane. That hasn't happened. Instead, it is both on the rise and increasing its spread across American society.

It would be a mistake to think that 9/11 marked the starting point for U.S. Islamophobia. In fact, Khaled Beydoun, author of "American Islamophobia," notes that structural Islamophobia dates back to the 18th century. Yet there is little doubt that after 9/11 Islamophobia spiked and was then exacerbated by the unabashed disparaging of the American Muslim community by the Trump administration. Faiza Patel notes that Trump's "vitri­olic anti-Muslim campaign rhet­oric was a preview for an unprecedentedly Islamo­phobic admin­is­tra­tion."

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What's especially concerning now is that the Biden administration has not led to any significant reduction in Islamophobia. If anything, as evidenced by a number of recent studies, American Islamophobia has only become more entrenched, more normalized and more widespread. In May 2022, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported a 9% increase in the number of civil rights complaints it received from Muslims in the United States since 2020.

Islamophobia in the U.S. is also highly funded. In June 2022, CAIR found that from 2017-19, roughly $105.9 million was poured into 26 Islamophobia network groups to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about Muslims and Islam.

New research by a team at Rice University shows that Muslims in America are five times more likely to experience police harassment due to their religion compared to those of other faiths: "The post-9/11 geopolitical environment has created a tense relationship with law enforcement for Muslim American communities. Many Muslim Americans fear state-sanctioned police surveillance through actions such as online tracking, airport security, routine stops, or monitoring within religious spaces."

Last week, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding released a status report with data from a nationally representative poll capturing a snapshot of diverse American Muslim experiences and trends over time. The report finds an alarming degree of Islamophobia in U.S. society. For example, nearly half of Muslims, or 46 percent. reported encountering religious discrimination from a social media platform.

The ISPU's recent data includes two additional findings of great concern. First, Islamophobia is increasing within the Muslim community, particularly among young Muslims. ISPU finds that "internalized Islamophobia is more prevalent among younger Muslims, who have lived the majority of their lives after 9/11/2001, in a country that has demonized their identity in popular culture, news media, political rhetoric, and in policy."

The group also note an alarming spike in Islamophobia within the white Muslim community, "who are also the most likely to report experiencing 'regular' religious discrimination." They suggest that this internalized racism may be "a defense mechanism against the trauma of bigotry."

Secondly, Islamophobia is on the rise in schools. The ISPU report notes that 48 percent of Muslim families with school-age children reported a child who faced religious-based bullying in the past year. This degree of bullying is starkly higher than that of other communities: Only13 percent of Jewish families and 18 percent of the general public report school bullying. One-fifth of Muslim families report that the bullying occurred practically every day. 

These findings are confirmed by CAIR, which also found extremely high levels of school bullying for Muslim American children. In Massachusetts, for example, 61 percent of children report being made fun of, verbally insulted or abused for being Muslim. They report that such incidents always spike around the anniversary of 9/11.

Extreme levels of Islamophobia in the U.S. point to more than just a problem of negative stereotyping. They reinforce the way that Muslims have been dehumanized, characterized as less than human. If prejudice is attributing common negative qualities to an entire group, dehumanization is doing so in a way that strips the group of its humanity entirely.

Islamophobia in the U.S., then, is an example of dehumanization, not prejudice. This dehumanization explains why the successes and accomplishments of the American Muslim community remain eclipsed by a culture of hate. For example, the ISPU report notes that American Muslims are job creators: "Self-employed Muslims employ an average of eight workers, resulting in at least an estimated 1.37 million American jobs created." And they are overall highly educated, with 46 percent of American Muslims over age 25 reporting a college degree.

American Muslims also serve in the military on par with other groups. White Muslims, in fact, are more likely than white Americans in general to serve in the military (17 percent vs. 11 percent).

Perhaps even more striking is the finding that, despite suffering extreme levels of Islamophobia, American Muslims are more likely than all other groups to express optimism about the direction of the country. Positive sentiments about the U.S. are shared by 48 percent of Muslims, 31 percent of Jews, 24 percent of Catholics, 17 percent of Protestants, a startlingly low 4 percent of white evangelicals, 17 percent of the nonaffiliated and 18 percent of the general public overall.

Moreover, despite reporting higher levels of voter repression, American Muslims vote. In fact, ISPU reports that the harder it is for Muslim Americans to vote, the higher their intentions to do so. Voter registration among Muslims has climbed significantly, from 60 percent in 2016 to 81 percent in 2022, on par with the general public (84 percent).

Despite misperceptions of the Muslim community as violent and a threat, it turns out that Muslims Americans reject violence against civilians at a higher rate than white evangelicals (80 percent vs. 62 percent). Pew Research has found, in fact, that more Muslim Americans believe in the "American Dream" than the general public. Do these findings suggest that American Muslims love their country despite considerable evidence that it hates them in return? If Muslim Americans are active, engaged and patriotic citizens working to make U.S. society better, why has that story been so deeply buried?

Again and again, widely shared negative perceptions of Muslim Americans do not match what Muslim Americans themselves believe, or the value they bring to American society. That leads us to the real takeaway from these recent studies: The problem isn't just rampant Islamophobia; it is the narrowness of the representation of Muslims as either demonized villains or helpless victims. Dehumanizing representations like the "Kabul Skydiving Club" shirts can produce only two real reactions: mocking approval or concerned outrage. In both scenarios, the diverse and complex humanity of the community is displaced by nothing more than a black silhouette.

The ISPU report ends by suggesting that the media should "portray Muslim communities accurately and creatively, keeping in mind the impact of trope-perpetuating media on Muslim self-concept, and public acceptance of prejudiced and anti-democratic policies."

What would happen if we replaced the images of dehumanized Muslims being bullied, dismembered, mocked and peed on with images of Muslims creating jobs, graduating from college, voting and serving their country? But of course that kind of humanized representation doesn't fit on a T-shirt.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

9/11 Bigotry Commentary Islam Islamophobia Muslims Racism Religion