I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. “Please don’t be Muslims, please don’t be Muslims,”
These four words reverberated through the mind of every Muslim American that day and every day after, forming a unifying prayer for Muslim Americans after every attack.
This system of inculcating fear and calculated bigotry was not entirely spawned in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks but is a modern extension of a deeply embedded and centuries old form of American hate.
Now more than ever, Islamophobia is not limited to the irrational views or hateful slurs of individuals, but is an ideology that drives the president’s political worldview and motivates the laws, policies, and programs he seeks to push forward.
Crossroads and Intersections
“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, out the thorns thick around you. . . . There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.” Gloria AnzaldUa, Borderlands/La Frontera
“If you know who you are, nobody can tell you what you are or what you are not.” My momma, Fikrieh Beydoun
I took my seat in the back of the Uber car, plugged in my phone and reclined my head to recharge on the way to the hotel. The road ahead is going to be a long one, I thought as I sank into the backseat, settling in for a temporary respite from the oncoming storm. “As-salamu ‘alaikum,” the young driver greeted me in Spanish-inflected Arabic, abruptly ending my break.
“Wa ‘alaikum aI-salam,” I responded, thoroughly surprised that these familiar words came out of the mouth of my tattooed Latino Uber driver, Juan. Was he Muslim? I pondered, wondering whether his neat beard signified more than a recent fad or fashionable grooming.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Professor,” he said, and continued, “I’m very familiar with your writing and work, and I’m happy you’re here speaking at Cal State LA. I wish I could’ve been there to hear your talk.” Another sign that Juan might in fact be Muslim, given that my work centers on Muslim American identity and, increasingly, Islamophobia.
“Thank you so much,” I responded, taken aback by the fact that he knew who I was, and still contemplating whether he was a recent Muslim convert or born into a Muslim family. As a longtime resident of Los Angeles and a scholar familiar with Muslim American demographics, I was well aware that Latinx Muslims were the fastest growing segment of the Muslim American population. I had attended Friday prayers with sermons delivered en espanol in California and in Florida, where I lived and taught law for two years, and prayed alongside brothers from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico as often as I did next to Muslims from Egypt, Syria, or Pakistan. However, I was still unsure about Juan’s religious identity, and to which destination he might steer this conversation.
I learned, en route from the East Los Angeles campus to my downtown hotel, that Juan was neither born to a Muslim family nor a convert. He was, rather, a man on the cusp of embracing Islam at a moment of unprecedented Islamophobia and rabid xenophobia, of imminent Muslim bans and Mexican walls.
“I have been studying Islam closely for some time now, and try to go to the mosque on some Fridays,” he shared. “I am considering making my shahada,” Juan continued, referencing the oath of induction whereby a new Muslim proclaims that “there is only one God, and Mohammed is his final messenger.” “Everybody assumes that I am a Muslim already,” he said, with a cautious laugh that revealed discomfort with his liminal status. Juan turned down the radio, and the voice of Compton native Kendrick Lamar rapping, “We gon’ be alright,” to engage in a more fluid conversation. And, it appeared, to seek a response from me about his spiritual direction.
“That’s wonderful,” I responded to Juan, who was likely no more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old, trying to balance my concern for the challenges his new religious affiliation would present with the answer that I thought he wanted to hear, and perhaps expected, from a Muslim American scholar and activist whose name and work he recognized.
As he drove, we discussed the political challenges posed by the Trump administration, and specifically, the policies that would directly or disproportionately target Muslim and Latinx communities. Indeed, Trump capitalized heavily on demonizing these vulnerable groups, as evidenced most clearly by the two proposals, the Muslim ban and the Mexico Wall, that became the rallying cries of his campaign. We also discussed how our kindred struggles with poverty complicated our pursuit of education, and how Trump’s economic vision exacerbated conditions for indigent Americans, including the 45 percent of Muslim Americans living below, at, or dangerously close to the federal poverty line. The city’s infamous, slow moving traffic enabled a fast paced conversation between my new friend and me and gave rise to an LA story seldom featured in newspapers or on television.
Juan’s responses focused on his everyday struggles living in LA and the stories of family and friends from his Pico Union neighborhood. He pointed out that the onslaughts on Muslims and Latinx communities were hardly separate and independent, or parallel and segregated. Rather, they were, and are, overlapping, intersecting, and, for him, very intimate.
“As an undocumented Latino from El Salvador living in Pico Union”, a heavily concentrated Latinx community on the margins of downtown Los Angeles, “I am most fearful about the pop-up checkpoints and the immigration raids,” he told me. These fears were more than imminent under the administration of President Obama, dubbed the “Deporter in Chief” by critics who opposed the accelerated mass deportations carried out during the final stages of his second term. But without question, Juan’s fears have become more visceral, more palpable during the Trump administration.
“I think about this every time I drive to school, work, or visit a family member,” Juan recounted, reminding me of the debilitating fear that comes over me after any terror attack. Yet his fear was far more immediate and frequent than mine, and loomed over him at every moment, including this one while he and I weaved through Los Angeles traffic, talking animatedly about politics, faith, and fear. He could be stopped at any time, whether alone or while whizzing customers through the city he knew better than the life lines on his palms.
I thought about the very imminent dangers these xenophobic policies and programs posed for Juan and people in similar situations in Los Angeles and throughout the country. I knew this city well and understood that the armed and irrational fear directed at nonwhite, non-Christian people was intense in LA, descending (among other places) on the city’s galaxy of dense and large Latinx neighborhoods. This armed xenophobia was aimed particularly at those communities gripped by poverty, where Spanish was spoken primarily, and was concentrated on people and families lacking legal documentation, indeed, the very intersection where Juan began and ended each day, and lived most of his hours in between.
Years before I rode with Juan, Los Angeles was my home away from my hometown of Detroit, the city where I began my career as a law professor, earned my law degree, and only two weeks into my first year of law school at UCLA, the setting from which I witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks. I remember the events of that day more clearly than I do any other day, largely because every terror attack that unfolds in the United States or abroad compels me to revisit the motions and emotions of that day.
For Muslim Americans, 9/11 is not just a day that will live in infamy or an unprecedented tragedy buried in the past; it is a stalking reminder that the safeguards of citizenship are tenuous and the prospect of suspicion and the presumption of guilt are immediate.
My phone kept ringing that morning, interrupting my attempt to sleep in after a long night of studying. As I turned to set the phone to vibrate, I noticed that my mother had called me six times in a span of fifteen minutes. My eyes widened. Was something wrong at home? Three hours behind in California, I called her back to make sure everything at home in Detroit was alright, still in the dark about the tragedy that would mark a crossroads for the country, my community, and indeed, my life.
“Turn on the TV,” she instructed, in her flat but authoritative Arabic that signaled that something serious was unfolding: “Go to your TV right now.” I had an eerie sense of what she was alluding to before I clicked the television on and turned to the news, but I could not have imagined the scale of the terror that unfolded that early Tuesday morning. My eyes were glued to the screen as I awoke fully to what it would mean for me, my family, and Muslim Americans at large if the perpetrators of the attacks looked like us or believed like us.
I recall the surreal images and events of that day as if they happened yesterday. And just as intimately, I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. “Please don’t be Muslims, please don’t be Muslims,” I quietly whispered to myself over and again, standing inside my small apartment, surrounded by bags and boxes not yet unpacked, a family portrait of my mother, sister, and brother hanging on an otherwise barren white wall. I was alone in the apartment, far from home, but knew in that very moment that the same fear that left me frozen and afraid gripped every Muslim in the country.
The four words I whispered to myself on 9/11 reverberated through the mind of every Muslim American that day and every day after, forming a unifying prayer for Muslim Americans after every attack.
Our fear, and the collective breath or brace for the hateful backlash that ensued, symbolize the existential tightrope that defines Muslim American identity today. It has become a definitive part of what it means to be Muslim American when an act of terror unfolds and the finger-pointing begins.
Indeed, this united state of fear converges with a competing fear stoked by the state to galvanize hatemongers and mobilize damaging policies targeting Islam and Muslims. That state stoked fear has a name: Islamophobia.
This system of inculcating fear and calculated bigotry was not entirely spawned in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, I have gradually learned, but is a modern extension of a deeply embedded and centuries old form of American hate.
Following 9/11 it was adorned with a new name, institutionalized within new government structures and strident new policies, and legitimized under the auspices of a “war on terror” that assigned the immediate presumption of terrorism to Islam and the immediate presumption of guilt to Muslim citizens and immigrants.
Thousands of miles away from home and loved ones, my world unraveled. Islamophobia and what would become a lifelong commitment to combating it were thrust to the fore. Although raised in Detroit, home to the most concentrated, celebrated, and scrutinized Muslim American population in the country, my activism, advocacy, and intellectual mission to investigate the roots of American Islamophobia and its proliferation after the 9/11 terror attacks were first marshaled on the other side of the country. For me, 9/11 was both a beginning and an end, putting to rest my romantic designs on an international human rights law career for the more immediate challenges unfolding at home.
I left for Los Angeles a wide-eyed twenty two year old in the late summer of 2001. I was the first in my family to attend university an graduate school, the first to pack his bags for another city, not knowing what direction his career or life would take. After three years and three wars, those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the amorphous, fluidly expanding war on terror on the home front, I was fully resolved to take on the rising tide of Islamophobia ravaging the country and ripping through concentrated Muslim American communities like the one I called home. I learned about the law at a time when laws were being crafted to punish, persecute, and prosecute Muslim citizens and immigrants under the thinnest excuses, at an intersection when my law professors, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Devon Carbado, were equipping me with the spirit and skill to fight Islamophobia in the middle grounds it rose from, and even more importantly, at the margins.
On February 22, 2017, more than a decade and a half after 9/11, I found myself back in Los Angeles. I was now a law professor and a scholar researching national security, Muslim identity, and constitutional law. I was to give a series of lectures on Islamophobia at several colleges and community centers in the LA area. My expertise was in high demand as a result of the 2016 presidential election and the intense lslamophobia that followed. I delivered the lectures roughly one month after newly elected President Donald Trump signed the executive order widely known as the “Muslim ban.”
Seven days into his presidency, Trump delivered on the promise he first made on the campaign trail on December 7, 2015, enacting a travel ban that restricted the entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations: Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. To me, the Muslim ban was not merely a distant policy signed into law in a distant city; it was personal in a myriad of ways. First, I am a Muslim American, and second, I had close friends from several of the restricted nations and had visited several of those nations. Moreover, since the war on terror had been rolled out in 2001, all of the countries on the list had been either sites of full-scale American military aggression or strategic bombings.
“The bombs always precede the bans,” my mother said out loud as she watched the news one day, observing a truism that ties American foreign policy to immigration policy, particularly in relation to Muslim majority countries.
The Muslim ban was the first policy targeting Muslims enacted by the man I formally dubbed the “Islamophobia President.” It certainly would not be the last law, policy, or program implemented by the man who capitalized on Islamophobia as a “full-fledged campaign strategy” to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.
President Trump promised a more hardline domestic surveillance program, which he called Countering Islamic Violence; a registry to keep track of Muslim immigrants within the United States; legislation that would bludgeon the civic and advocacy programs of Muslim American organizations; and other measures that would threaten Muslim immigrants, citizens, and institutions. He was poised to integrate Islamophobia fully into the government he would preside over and to convert his bellicose rhetoric into state sanctioned policy.
If Trump demonstrated anything during his first week in office, it was an ability to follow through on the hateful promises most pundits had dismissed as “mere campaign rhetoric” months earlier. He kept his promises. Islamophobia was not merely an appeal for votes, but a resonant message that would drive policy and inform immigration and national security policing. His electioneering was not mere bluster, but in fact a covenant built on Islamophobia, an Islamophobia that motivated large swaths of Americans to vote for him. In exchange, he delivered on his explicit and “dog whistle” campaign messaging by generating real lslamophobic policies, programs, and action.
Trump, like many candidates before him and others who will follow, traded a grand narrative of nativism and hate for votes, which registered to great success at the ballot box.
Memories of the trials and wounds Muslim Americans endured in the wake of 9/11, which I witnessed firsthand and examined closely as a scholar, and those unfolding in this era of trumped-up, unhinged Islamophobia raced through my head as I walked to the Uber waiting for me outside the California State University, Los Angeles campus. Scores of mosques vandalized, immigrants scapegoated and surveilled, citizens falsely profiled and prosecuted, the private confines of Muslim American households violated in furtherance of baseless witch hunts, immigration restrictions and registries imposed, and innocent mothers and children killed.
Yesterday, and with this intensified third phase of the war on terror, again today. I set my bag down in the car, thinking about the turbulent road ahead. I thought about how the challenges ahead compared and contrasted with those that ravaged Muslim Americans following 9/11. More than fifteen years had passed, and the face of the country, the composition of the Muslim American population, and I myself had all undergone radical, transformative change. I had recently bid farewell to and buried my father, Ali, who in 1981 brought his three children and wife to the United States in search of all the things Donald Trump stood against, values his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” sought to erode. Life after loss is never the same, and my season of mourning was punctuated by the fear and hysteria that followed Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
The world and the country were spinning faster and more furiously than ever before, it seemed. Locked in between the two, my life raced forward at a rate I had never experienced. The Black Lives Matter movement unveiled institutional racism that was as robust and violent as ever, as evidenced by the killing of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, and a rapidly growing list of unarmed black children, men, and women gunned down by police, all of them memorialized and uplifted as martyrs by youth and adult, black and non-black activists marching up and down city blocks or taking protests to the virtual sphere on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
Black Lives Matter inspired mass actions across the country and an ongoing march of social media protests that spawned new generations of activists and trenchant thought leaders. I saw this unfold, in dynamic fashion, on city blocks, in neighborhoods, on college campuses, and on social media feeds. It left an indelible impression on my activism, writing, and worldview.
In the face of a political world seemingly spinning out of control, I decided to write this book. I hope to provide general readers, students, and activists an intimate and accessible introduction to Islamophobia, what it is, how it evolved, how we can combat it in Trump’s America, and most importantly, how to fight it beyond the current administration.
As a Muslim American law professor and civil rights activist, I hope to help readers view Islamophobia through a unique lens. I draw on a range of sources, from court cases, media headlines, and scholarship to my own experiences in walking the walk every day. Along the way, I make links and assertions that might be new to many readers: pointing out how Islamophobia has a long, notorious history in the United States, for example, and showing how the Black Lives Matter movement intersects with, and inspires, activism against Islamophobia. My aim is to offer a succinct, informed handbook for anyone interested in Islamophobia and its prolific growth at this definitive juncture in our country’s history.
I wrote this book at a time when American Islamophobia was intensifying at a horrific clip, giving immediate importance to my research and expertise and simultaneously endangering the people I love most. In addition to examining the roots and rise of American Islamophobia, this book also looks to humanize the individuals and communities impacted by it, so they can be seen beyond the frame of statistics. Many stories are interwoven, some are well known and others are not, to facilitate an understanding of Islamophobia that treats Muslim Americans not as distant subjects of study or analysis, but as everyday citizens. Citizens who, like members of other faith groups, are not only integral and contributing members of society, but are also part of a group that will define the future of the United States moving forward.
The United States is indeed at a crossroads. The rise of mass social protest movements fueled by calls for dignity, justice, and an end to structural racism have been met by an opposing front galvanized by demographic shifts toward a majority minority population and eight years of scapegoating and systematic obstruction of the first black president. Echoing through it all is the dread of an “end of white America,” a fear that politicians on the right readily stoked and fervently fed to the masses.
Much of this opposing front is fully wed to racism and xenophobia, and it backed a businessman who peddled a promise to “Make American Great Again”, a promise that was not just a campaign slogan, but was also a racial plea evoked at a time when whiteness was the formal touchstone of American citizenship and white supremacy was endorsed and enabled by law. Trump dangled before the electorate studies that project that people of color will outnumber whites by 2044, and that over half (50.2 percent) of the babies born in the United States today are minorities, and he inflamed the ever present fear that foreigners are stealing our jobs.
As a cure for these supposed ills, Trump’s campaign offered to a primed and ready audience a cocktail of nativism, scapegoating, and racism; his campaign met with resounding success and helped polarize the nation along the very lines that colored his stump speeches. Much of Trump’s fearmongering centered again on Islam and the suspicion, fear, and backlash directed at its more than eight million adherents living in Los Angeles, Detroit, and big and small American towns beyond and in between.
Islamophobia was intensifying throughout the country, relentlessly fueled on the presidential campaign trail, and after the inauguration of President Trump on January 20, 2017, it was unleashed from the highest office in the land.
Now more than ever, Islamophobia was not limited to the irrational views or hateful slurs of individuals, but was an ideology that drove the president’s political worldview and motivated the laws, policies, and programs he would seek to push forward.
This had also been the case during the Bush and Obama administrations, but the Trump moment marked a new phase of transparency in which explicit rhetorical Islamophobia aligned, in language and spirit, with the programs the new president was poised to implement.
I found myself wedged between the hate and its intended victims. Muslim Americans like myself were presumptive terrorists, not citizens; unassimilable aliens, not Americans; and the speeches I delivered on campuses and in community centers, to Muslims and non-Muslims, cautioned that the dangers Islamophobia posed yesterday were poised to become even more perilous today. The road ahead was daunting, I warned audiences after each lecture, hoping to furnish them with the awareness to be vigilant, and the pale consolation that today’s Islamophobia is not entirely new.
I was feeling alarmed for Juan, my Uber driver, even as I felt I should celebrate his being drawn toward Islam. I could not help but fear the distinct and convergent threats he would face if he embraced Islam. As an undocumented Latino Muslim in Los Angeles, Juan would be caught in the crosshairs of “terrorism” and “illegality.” Los Angeles was not only ground zero for a range of xenophobic policies targeting undocumented (and documented) Latinx communities, but also a pilot city where, in 2014, the Department of Homeland Security launched its counter radicalization program, Countering Violent Extremism, in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department.
This new counterterror program, which effectively supplanted the federal surveillance model ushered in by the USA PATRIOT Act, deputized LAPD members to function as national security officers tasked with identifying, detaining, prosecuting, and even deporting “homegrown radicals.” Suspicion was disproportionately assigned to recent Muslim converts, particularly young men like Juan, keen on expressing their newfound Muslim identity by wearing a beard, attending Friday prayers, and demonstrating fluency in Arabic, the language tied to Islam, and in line with Islamophobia, terrorism.
I feared for Juan’s wellbeing, whether Muslim or not. I knew that the dangers he dodged every day would be far greater in number and more ominous in nature if he embraced Islam. The president, from inside the White House, was marshaling islamophobia and mobilizing xenophobia to inflict irreparable injury on Muslims, Latinx communities, and the growing population of Latinx Muslims that Juan would be part of if he walked into a mosque and declared that “there is only one God, and Mohammed is his final messenger.” He would be vulnerable to the covert counter-radicalization policing that was descending on Los Angeles mosques and Muslim student associations and simultaneously exposed to the ubiquitous threat of immigration checkpoints and deportation raids. He would also be a prime target for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE, the new catchan-“illegal-alien” hotline installed by President Trump.
This seemed far too much for any one person to endure all at once, and the boundary Juan contemplated crossing by becoming a Muslim, during the height of American Islamophobia, might very well be one that he should drive far away from.
All of this rushed through my head as Juan drove me to my hotel, sharing with me his concerns and fears about the country’s current condition. I remained silent, gripped by the desire, if not the responsibility, to advise Juan to reconsider embracing Islam at this time. I tried to muster up the courage to tell him to postpone his conversion for a later time, when Islamophobic attitudes and policies were abating, when, and if, that time should come. I feared that if he did convert, the ever expanding and extending arms of the state would find him at once, brand him a radical, and toss him from the country, sending him far from the only home he has ever known, and the second home that summoned me back during a fateful moment in his life and mine.
Before my conversation with Juan, I’d been gripped by memories of the post 9/11 period. But for those moments in the car, I felt overwhelmed by the dangers that would encircle Juan if he took his shahada. Islam in America has never been simply a religion one chooses. From the gaze of the state and society, Islam was and still is an indelible marker of otherness, and in war-on-terror America, it is a political identity that instantly triggers the suspicion of acts of terror and subversion. The urge to advise Juan against converting reached its climax when the car came to an abrupt stop near Grand Avenue and 11th Street, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, not far from Pico Union.
Juan stepped out to greet me on the right side of the car. “It was an honor to meet and speak to you, Brother Khaled,” he said, extending his hand to bid me farewell.
“Likewise Juan, I wish you the best,” I told him, extending my hand to meet his. I then turned away from the stranger who, after a thirty minute drive through grueling city traffic, had pushed me to grapple with my most pressing fears and had given me an intimate introduction to new fears that I could not turn away from.
I stopped, turned back toward Juan, and mustered up the strength to implore him, “But I ask you to think about whether now is the right time to become a Muslim,” attempting to cloak a desperate plea with the tone and language of evenhanded guidance. This was more difficult than any lecture or presentation I had given during the past several months, and the many more I would give later. “Your status already puts you in a difficult position, and falling victim to Islamophobia would put you in a more dangerous place,” I pled.
Voicing the words released a great weight off my shoulders. At the same time, they felt unnatural because they clashed with the spiritual aim of encouraging interest in Islam. The paradox mirrored the political confusion that gripped the nation. But the challenges and perils I lectured about in university classrooms, community centers, and mosques had to be extended to the street, and to the most vulnerable. My words were met with a look of utter surprise by Juan, who stood there and said nothing.
“Either way, you are my brother,” I closed, before we walked off in opposite directions. He thanked me, circled back to the driver’s seat, and turned right on 12th Street, in the direction of Pico Union, perhaps feeling disappointed in or spurned by the individual whose activism he admired.
I often wondered what decision Juan made, and whether he made his shahada. I also feared the worst, wondering whether he was still in the country. Was he profiled on the grounds of his Latino identity and detained because he was undocumented? Did he embrace Islam and fall victim to the counter-radicalization policing unfolding in Los Angeles? Or had he become a victim of the intersecting xenophobic backlash and Islamophobic violence authorized by Trump’s rhetoric and policies, inflicted by a bigot on or off campus?
My fears were stoked daily by bleak headlines and backward actions taken by the Trump administration, but I tried to remain optimistic. I hoped that Juan was still enrolled in classes, zigzagging his car through the maze of Los Angeles traffic to help his mother make rent, to pay his college tuition, and to drive toward his goal of becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree. And most importantly, I prayed that he was safe and sound while working toward realizing this and other aspirations, academic, professional, and spiritual, in a country where informants and officers, bans and walls threaten to crush these very dreams and the people precariously holding onto them.
American Islamophobia. Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear
by Khaled A. Beydoun
get it at Amazon.com