“IT ALL STARTED with pig races,” said Dawud, the groundskeeper at the Muslim American Society’s mosque in Katy, Texas. Soon after the group purchased the land, their neighbor, Craig Baker, began hosting well-publicized hog heats for some 300 spectators every Friday evening. Baker’s timing was deliberate, chosen to correspond precisely with the jummah prayers—the holiest time of the week for Muslims—and to offend their dietary restrictions, which forbid pork.
That was back in 2006. Today, things are more peaceful. Follow the narrow road that curves amid loblolly pines and sage grass, and you’ll see sun gleaming off the black roof of the now-finished mosque. “It was a matter of disagreement, but it’s over now,” said Dawud last fall. “I am happy it’s done and we are at peace.”
But while the pig races have ended, signs of hostility linger: Two blue and white billboards bearing a Christian cross and a Star of David are posted just off the edge of the mosque’s property. The intended message isn’t subtle: “Muslims, you don’t belong here.”
Though many Americans actually had favorable views of Islam after 9/11, a recent study by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative found that those views became increasingly negative throughout the Iraq war. In fact, in a 2014 Pew survey, researchers found that the American public viewed Muslims more negatively than every other religion or belief group.
But official data only tells part of the story. Every day, Muslims bear the brunt of Islamophobia in flesh and blood. Just look at recent headlines: “Chapel Hill Shooting Stokes Climate of Fear for Muslims,” reported the Huffington Post after three young Muslims were shot by their neighbor in their front yard in February. “Arson suspected in fire at Islamic center,” reported the Houston Chronicle several days later when a local mosque burned down. “Hundreds gather in Arizona for armed anti-Muslim protest,” reported The Washington Post in May following a protest staged at a Phoenix mosque.
Discrimination against Muslims because of their religion is called “Islamophobia.” It’s a contested term, at once imprecise and polarizing; this brand of bigotry includes the vilifying of Islam or its followers based on a fear that Islam is a political force incompatible with modernity and “the West,” inherently violent, and furthermore bent on “taking over America” and “killing Christians.”
Mixed with religious illiteracy, largely negative media portrayals of Muslims, and the stereotypical ways Muslims have been regarded historically—think of the depictions of Muslims as exotic and robed “others” dwelling in the desert, as bedeviling Bedouins, living in a world of heat and harems—this cruel cocktail has overflowed into a stream of general animosity toward Muslim Americans and, sometimes, violent attacks.
Islamophobia has also become quite profitable. “There is an industry that makes vast sums of money by calling themselves ‘terrorism experts’ or ‘scholars of Islam’ without any qualifications,” said Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, a Puerto Rican Muslim and civil rights lawyer who works with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in South Florida.
In a 2011 report, the Center for American Progress found that since 9/11, a small group of conservative funders provided $42.6 million to support a pool of Islamophobic speakers including Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel, and Pamela Geller as they dispersed their rhetoric on national television and online blogs and via grassroots organizations. Sadly, the likes of Geller profit from pain and persecution, as she and others get paid to speak at events such as the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,” which precipitated two deaths.
BUT, FOR AMERICAN Muslims, Islamophobia isn’t about someone making money or grabbing headlines. Take Zainab Shahan, an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Despite her proximity to Terry Jones, the Florida man who gained international attention by burning the sacred scripture of her religion, Shahan does not refer to Jones when asked what Islamophobia looks like. Instead, she talks about eyes.
“I could be walking around campus or going to dinner with friends and I see them, staring,” she said. “I used to think people gawked at me because I was strange or different or something, but now I feel sexualized and harassed in my hijab,” explained Shahan, noting the popularity of Mia Khalifa, a Lebanese-American porn star who has filmed adult movies wearing hijab. “Now I wonder if I am somebody’s fetish or if they fantasize about me.” No matter, Shahan said, “it is demeaning to be treated as an object—of disdain, oddity, or sexual fantasy.”
Thousands of miles away, in the Chicago suburbs, Abdullah Qazi is—or was—a soccer coach for his two young children. “Three parents teamed up on me one afternoon and told me I couldn’t coach anymore,” explained Qazi. “One man in a red ball cap told me I wasn’t ‘fit’ to be the coach of an ‘American’ soccer team. When I asked why, I was told it was because I am not from here. The problem is, I was born in Chicago, but I stepped down anyways for fear that my boys would bear the brunt of the abuse.”
Down in Texas, protesters recently gathered at the state capitol and at CAIR fundraising events to tell Muslims to “go home.” “There are ugly things being said, signs with racist, bigoted, sayings,” said Ruth Nasrullah, a freelance journalist and Muslim who lives near the Houston mosque that burned down due to arson. “It’s even worse on social media,” she explained. “Social media is the swamp of anti-Muslim opinions.”
“It stings; it’s hurtful and frustrating,” said Nasrullah, describing the sense of alienation felt by many U.S. Muslims. “The worst part is we are also seeing this sentiment being practiced in the streets and put into law,” she said, referring to “anti-Sharia” legislation introduced earlier this year in Texas and South Carolina. Similar legislation has passed in a handful of states, including Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arizona.
Ruiz said that in New York and elsewhere, police surveillance is on the rise—not against the perpetrators of Islamophobic hate crimes, but against Muslims who are suspect simply because they have taken the shahadah—the Muslim profession of faith. “The NYPD surveys Muslims just because they go to a mosque,” he explained. “They follow Muslims who go on spring break to Florida just because they are Muslims who get on a plane. It’s ridiculous.”
Sabir Amin, an administrator for a Muslim organization who lives in the Bronx, shared his story: “I am a government-targeted individual. I am followed, harassed, stalked, and threatened by local police, agents, informants, and neighborhood watch group members when I am out and about, shopping, with friends or family.” He said, “I am basically deemed a ‘national threat’ solely for being a Muslim. I have never committed a crime nor will I ever, and yet I’m being treated like a criminal, an outsider, in my own country.”
THOUGH SOME U.S. Christians have joined interfaith groups in expressing solidarity with Muslims during the latest round of anti-Muslim rallies, the same Pew survey that found negative feelings toward Muslims in the general population of the U.S. public found that these feelings were slightly stronger among U.S. Protestants. Similarly, a report issued earlier this year by Lifeway Research found that among Protestant pastors, nearly two-thirds—61 percent—disagreed that true Islam creates a peaceful society. In other words, if Christians want Islamophobia to end, we may need to start with ourselves.
U.S. Muslims affirm that Christians can be important allies in ending anti-Muslim discrimination. “Christian communities have a big role to play in fighting Islamophobia,” said Ruiz. “They can be the facilitators for greater civic engagement for Muslims.” What does he suggest? Starting education programs, inviting Muslim speakers, and hosting dialogue events to help counteract the misinformation put out by Islamophobic entities.
“The perfect partners are the Christian leaders who can open the doors for education and Muslims who are able to teach people about Islam,” said Ruiz, who sees these events as opportunities to “ask the hard questions, play hardball.” Ruiz emphasizes that “these events are not kumbaya, but that’s good. We need to have the tough conversations.”
Ruiz intimated that while he has been in Catholic, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian churches and Jewish synagogues, the vast majority of U.S. congregations have not thought about such programs. “It can only strengthen your faith when you engage your community by learning about the other,” he encouraged. “You don’t have to fear.”
Nasrullah echoed Ruiz’s comments and talked about her interactions with an evangelical blogger in Texas. “We developed a really good relationship because neither one of us had any problem with being up front with our religious beliefs,” she said. When it comes to exchanges with Muslims, Nazrullah challenged Christians to “be honest and open about your beliefs, but connect anyway.”
FOUR DAYS AFTER 9/11 I went to a church to hear a local imam speak on Islam. Though 30 or so people had signed up for the event the previous week, the room was chock-full, standing room only, to hear this man speak about his faith just days after the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. While I do not remember exactly what he said, I remember he spoke with compassion, wisdom, and grace. And I remember that after meeting him, I did not fear “the Muslims” anymore.
While education and instruction are good, ending Islamophobia will also require relationships, interaction, and experiential exchange between U.S. Christians and Muslim Americans. Not only are Christians compelled to do something by the commands of scripture and the example of Jesus, but we are liberated to do so as well.
Much of Islamophobia’s energy comes from what is called “identity politics.” Anti-Muslim ideology tells us that we must define and protect our own identity against others—in this case, a religious other, Muslims. For example, we can look to the rise of right-wing parties in Europe where Muslims are accused of not having integrated properly into “multiculturalism.” We can only hope that such political views will not gain more traction here in the U.S.
For followers of Christ, our identity is not wrapped up in our culture, our creed, our country, or our carefully constructed conception of the “religious other.” Instead, our identity is founded in Christ, and Christ alone. Indeed, it is an essential aspect of Christian faith that we, who were once far off—strangers, aliens, and outsiders—have now been brought near in Jesus. As the apostle Paul put it, “the dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down in Christ, “who is our peace” (Ephesians 2:11-22).
This message is immensely liberating. We, who are not defined by our animosity to God or our alienation from God’s family, likewise no longer need to identify ourselves by our opposition to the other. We are no longer enslaved to cultural constructions of antipathy such as Islamophobia.
Looking to the example of Jesus who sat with Samaritans, ate with tax collectors, and became friends with other groups who ranked low on first-century public opinion surveys (see John 4, Luke 7, 14), Christians are called to take up Jesus’ cue and pursue radical relationships in the face of Islamophobia. Indeed, in such an environment of hate and bigotry, friendships can be downright revolutionary. They can toss the world on its head.
The problem with Islamophobia, said Jon Huckins, co-founding director of the Global Immersion Project—an organization that “cultivates everyday peacemakers through immersion in global conflict”—is that it “forces people to pursue a different set of questions about safety, security, and persecution and not about hospitality, collaboration, and faithfulness.” And when we are preoccupied with our own safety, he explained, this “removes any ability to see the humanity and dignity in the situation and plight of many Muslims throughout the world.”
Huckins encouraged U.S. churches to move from a posture of defense to one of hospitality, to foster peacemaking in “the fertile soil of relationships.” “The move to eradicate Islamophobia has to be 100 percent relational,” he explained, “with the individuals around the table not being identified as Christian, Muslim, or whatever, but as friends.”