As we witness an unprecedented rise in Islamophobia across the country, there is a pressing need for a robust definition of the term Islamophobia. In past weeks, CAIR has noted a surge of anti-Muslim hate and rhetoric, which is directly linked to the ongoing violence against Palestinians in Gaza undertaken by the Israeli government.
CAIR is therefore reissuing our definition of Islamophobia here as we continue to urge employers, schools, media, government entities, and others to identify and address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism wherever it may appear.
What Is It?
In short, Islamophobia is anti–Muslim racism.
At length, Islamophobia is a fear, hatred, or prejudice toward Islam and Muslims that results in a pattern of discrimination and oppression. Islamophobia creates a distorted understanding of Islam and Muslims by transforming the global and historical faith tradition of Islam, along with the rich history of cultural and ethnic diversity of its adherents, into a set of stereotyped characteristics most often reducible to themes of violence, civilizational subversion, and fundamental otherness. Islamophobia must also be understood as a system of both religious and racial animosity that is perpetuated by private citizens as well as cultural and political structures.
Who is Affected?
In addition to Muslim women, men and children, those who share characteristics that have been racialized as “Muslim” – whether it be language, clothing or skin color – are also affected by Islamophobia. Thus, Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Hindu Indians have been targets of anti-Muslim animus.
How Is It Manifested?
Islamophobic sentiment utilizes ideas which dehumanize Muslims and their heterogenous cultures, beliefs, customs and practices and deny the dynamic nature of Islam.
Islamophobic acts occur at both an individual and institutional level and can take many forms. They may be physical attacks against those perceived to be Muslim or the damage and desecration of mosques and Islamic centers. They include law enforcement profiling, discrimination in employment and denials of service. Islamophobic acts can also take the form of anti-Islam legislation and policy measures.
Islamophobic rhetoric expressed by individuals and political and media institutions can include verbal harassment, intimidation and hate speech.
Where Does It Come From?
It is possible to point to five sources of contemporary Islamophobia:
- Media representation: The U.S. media overemphasizes negative coverage and news pertaining to Muslims and Islam leading to an exaggerated sense of threat, and consequently fear and hate. An academic study covered by The Washington Post found that in a four-year period, 12 percent of domestic attacks conducted by Muslims received, on average, 449 percent more media coverage than 88 percent of attacks committed by others.
- Political rhetoric: Politicians play on people’s emotions and exploit their fear to actively instigate Islamophobia when it serves their own political interests.
- Violent extremists: Although violent groups target and murder more Muslims than any others, these groups continue to color American perceptions of Islam and all Muslims.
- American foreign policy: Islamophobia is frequently utilized by the U.S. to justify its foreign policy in Muslim-majority regions of the world. Consider President George W. Bush’s failed War on Terror, which decimated Iraq. The policy was presented to the American public as essential for freedom and safety.
- U.S. Islamophobia Network: An influential, multi-million dollar network of groups and individuals in the U.S. who falsely cast Islam and Muslims as a malevolent existential threat, and work actively to promote prejudice, discrimination, and oppression towards the faith and its practitioners.
Different Forms of Islamophobia
The following definitions are adapted from Professor Khaled Beydoun and the Justice for Muslims Collective to provide a holistic understanding of the ways in which Islamophobia operates.
Private Islamophobia: “is the fear, suspicion, and violent targeting of Muslims by private actors. These actors could be individuals or institutions acting in a capacity not directed to the state. Craig Hick’s murder of the three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2015 is a clear example of private Islamophobia, as are arsons on mosques or attacks on visible Muslims. Acts of private Islamophobia, oftentimes driven by caricatured understandings of Muslims and Islam, also menace non-Muslim individuals and institutions thought to be Muslim, such as South Asian Americans or Sikh temples.” (Khaled Beydoun)
Institutionalized Islamophobia: “Institutionalized Islamophobia is a phenomenon meant to articulate contrived hate and fear of Muslims that is built into structures of the state and society for the pursuit of power and the justification of war and repression. Islamophobia is based on the social construction of Islam as violent, barbaric, uncivilized, and opposed to normative democratic values. Islamophobia positions Muslims as existing outside of moral boundaries extended to other communities such that their dehumanization results in consequences ranging from prejudice, to discrimination, detention, and even death. Intersectional identities of Muslims along various racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines makes the source of Islamophobia difficult to distinctly isolate. However, Islamophobia represents a particular type of oppression as it operates at the nexus of anti-religious animus and racism, cultural racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. Islamophobia is maintained and perpetuated by White supremacy which upholds notions of dichotomous ideological values between the ‘West’ and Islam. (Hilal, 2016)
Dialectical Islamophobia: “is the process by which structural Islamophobia shapes, reshapes and endorses views or attitudes about Islam and Muslim subjects. State action legitimizes prevailing misconceptions and misrepresentations of Islam and communicates these damaging ideas through state-sponsored policy, programming or rhetoric. Law is not merely policy, but also a set of messages and directives disseminated to broader society, instructing them to partake in the project of policing, punishing and extra-judicially prosecuting Muslims. We see this process functioning most vividly during times of crisis, such as the direct aftermath of a terror attack, when hate incidents and violence toward Muslims and perceived Muslims are pervasive.” (Khaled Beydoun)
Interpersonal Islamophobia: “Interpersonal Islamophobia is a form of oppression that occurs on the community/societal level and is rooted in contrived fear, hate, ideas of Muslims being inherently prone to violence, and other problematic narratives. Interpersonal Islamophobia results in behaviors ranging from discrimination, to prejudice, to hate crimes – all of which are modeled by the state.” (Dr. Maha Hilal)
5 Strategies to Counter Islamophobia
Changing people’s attitudes and institutional practices is not easy. Like working against other forms of prejudice and racism, countering Islamophobia as a system of a religious and racial animosity requires committed action and resources. Here are several things you can do to join the effort:
- Find local and national groups, such as CAIR, whose work you support and join them. Sign up for their email and social media lists and take action when they ask you to. Working together in an organized way amplifies individual efforts and advances the movement against prejudice.
- Work on practical community projects with people of various backgrounds to build interpersonal relationships and develop solutions to shared problems.
- Organize coalitions of community leaders representing different cultural/ethnic/religious groups and community sectors (such as schools, businesses, etc.) to examine existing policies and determine what needs to change.
- Keep your cool. When confronted by hate, be assertive and polite. Rudeness hurts the cause and can be used against you.
- Turn a negative into a positive. For example, if a place of worship is vandalized, bring communities together to repair and clean it up in a demonstration of solidarity.