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United States and the rising Islamophobia, built on top of political chasm

From left: Actor Mahershala Ali. (Photo: David Livingston / Getty Images) | Captain Humayun Khan. (Photo: Supplied) | Democratic Representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erik S Lesser) | American civil rights activist Malcolm X (1925-1965) circa 1963. (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images) | Hakeem Jeffries. (Photo: Wikimedia)

In the wake of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, where is the current fear and anger over Muslims in America coming from — and where is it going?

A quarter of a century ago, when I was serving one of those periodic multi-year tours of duty in Washington after over a decade working abroad, one of my assignments was supervising the Voice of America’s news and feature radio transmissions to Southeast Asia, especially to Indonesia and — to a lesser degree — to listeners in Malaysia and Singapore for those following our Bahasa Indonesia language broadcasts.

Indonesia, of course, is the world’s most populous, predominantly Muslim nation, and the religious traditions for hundreds of millions of Indonesian Muslims stretch all the way back to the 14th century. Unlike so many other places, their faith and way of life came to those many islands largely through peaceable conversions after contact with adherents such as teachers and traders, rather than through conquest. 

Given the heightened tensions and rhetoric arising from the presumed clash of civilisations between the West and Islam gaining traction in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf war, in order to expand the range and depth of our coverage of the US, we were always on the lookout for stories about America and its connections with Islam. Hopefully, these would include stories well beyond that usual “clash of civilisations” trope. Now, hold that thought for a moment.

As readers may already know from cinema and television, in an echo of larger changes occurring in American society, a growing number of prisons were drawing upon the service of Muslim chaplains. Moreover, prison administrators were generally accepting the efforts of Muslim lay preachers from among the ranks of prison populations to counsel other prisoners. In this vein, the story of Malcolm X/Malcolm Little’s initial prison conversion to the Nation of Islam’s tenets is well known from his own writing, biographies about him, or from the Spike Lee biopic, even if the Nation of Islam was not usually seen as part of mainstream Islam. Within prisons, since most prison inmates who hold to or have converted to Islam are black, as a consequence of that new faith, many have moved in a positive way away from the behaviours that led them to prison in the first place.

Of course, there is also the well-known saga of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali’s religious conversion, his then-controversial opposition to military service in the Vietnam War, his sports superstardom, and his eventual evolution into a national hero and symbol transcending politics, race and religion. His life arc helped normalise — at least for legions of fans — the idea a belief in Islam can also be a part of the American tapestry.

Now, let’s return to our time at the VOA. One particular story, concerning a Muslim chaplain, actually came to us courtesy of the US Army. Like most military establishments (although probably not in North Korea or the People’s Republic of China), the American military has always had chaplains to provide religious and moral support to military personnel and their families. Traditionally, of course, the chaplain corps drew from the various Christian denominations, but there were also Jewish chaplains.

As part of our work day — before the ubiquitousness of web browsers — one of my self-imposed tasks was to look through a variety of magazines and newspapers, keeping an eye out for ideas our service’s broadcasters might explore further, especially stories not carried by the VOA’s own internal news feeds or other regular wire service reports. One morning, I happened to see a small announcement about the US Army’s appointment of its first full-time Muslim chaplain who was an active duty army officer. 

We contacted the Pentagon’s public affairs office, and a few days later, the chaplain came to the VOA’s studios for an in-depth interview. Having heard about the chaplain’s visit, several other language services whose own audiences were other predominantly Muslim nations also took up the opportunity to interview him for broadcasts of their own. 

The extraordinary ordinariness, the normalisation of the story was what made it so interesting. He was a soft-spoken man, with a gentle, slightly self-deprecating sense of humour, and an accent that betrayed an origin from the American South. He wore a regular army uniform, of course, with the difference that his service insignia was one newly designed for a Muslim chaplain, rather than the more usual small cross that identified most of the members of the chaplain corps. 

Back in 1993, he was unique, and the first. Now there are numerous others, serving the six thousand or more practising Muslims in the active-duty military, as well as the broader chaplain’s duties to all military personnel. There is now even an association of Muslim chaplains in the US military and among the country’s various corrections services.

As “The American Homefront Project”, a programme of National Public Radio noted some three years earlier, “the military has become more diverse, it has also sought more religious diversity in its chaplains. While the vast majority of chaplains represent Christian denominations, the armed services commissioned its first Buddhist chaplain in 2004, while the military named its first Hindu chaplain in 2011. Muslim chaplains have served since 1993, and the Army appointed its first division-level Muslim chaplain last year: Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz at Joint Base Lewis-McChord…” For the military to normalise such things is important.

Academic researchers have also done archival digging to point out soldiers of Muslim religious faith have served in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, even though such service has rarely been publicised. The 2016 Democratic Party nominating convention, of course, had made a major impression nationally on this very question. Then too, the parents of a young army officer of the Islamic faith who had died on active duty in Iraq, Captain Humayun Khan, appeared at that convention and on broadcast TV, registering their pride in their son, but also offering their pain about how people of their religious background were being denigrated by certain rabble-rousing, populist politicians.

Back at the VOA in the 1990s, I had continued to search for stories that could transcend that standard “Islam versus the West” trope that was gaining traction. I remembered that a long-time musician friend whom I had known in Japan (where he had studied the traditional Japanese bamboo flute) as well as South Africa (where he had performed and taught saxophone and clarinet) had, many years earlier, converted to Islam. I spoke with him about other American musicians who were also Muslims and he gave me an impressive list. Our reporters interviewed many of them for our broadcasts and this was yet again a rather different story from the dominant narrative that was evolving out of the emotions surrounding the first Gulf War.

Stories like those and the wider canvas they portrayed now remind me of popular entertainment characters (or actors) with a Muslim background. Arguably, the first among them was a key supporting character, the peddler, Ali Hakim, in that monster Broadway hit, Oklahoma!, premiered back in 1943 and with innumerable revivals everywhere.

Or perhaps it was Signor Ferrari, the competing owner of the Blue Parrot café to Rick Blaine’s establishment in Casablanca. Ferrari might possibly have been Italian — but Ferrari wore a fez, so you could see he was certainly exotic —  or possibly a local Moroccan. Then, of course, there has been actor Omar Sharif in such leading roles as Sharif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (okay, that was actually a British film, but Americans loved it too), as well as, currently, Tony Shalhoub and Alexander Siddig’s many film and television characters. Film archivists have also pointed to Frank Lackteen, a brooding character actor from cinema’s early silent era. 

All of these observations become prologue to a discussion of the changing circumstances of Islam and people of Islamic faith in contemporary America — and in the minds of many Americans — both positively and negatively. As part of its broader consideration of circumstances and developments arising out of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, The Economist recently pointed to the disconnect between the growing presence and prominence of people of Islamic faith in many parts of American life, and the continuing — and, in some cases — growing fear and animosity towards that same faith.

Post-election survey data analysis, the paper went on to say, has “suggested Islamophobia was his voters’ most characteristic trait. It is a form of bigotry that persists because of the grievances of a dwindling white majority, in other words. It is scarcely about Muslims — especially the reality of America’s prospering minority — at all.” 

As the publication’s Lexington columnist explained, being demonised has not stopped American Muslims’ impressive rise in American life and society, even as anti-Muslim sentiment has become deeply entrenched among many Republicans. As they noted, “The number of mosques has also more than doubled since 2001. The minority’s secular growth is even more striking. Muslims are one of America’s most educated religious groups. More than 15% of doctors in Michigan are Muslim, though less than 3% of the state’s population is.”

The article noted the rise and rise of Muslim artists, journalists, and politicians in America, including award-winning actor Mahershala Ali, Congressman Hakeem Jefferies, and Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, as well as a large and growing cohort of Muslims being elected to local school boards and local governmental positions. But the paradox is that a significant majority of Republicans (and half of Americans more generally) say Islam encourages violence — double the number holding that view two decades earlier.

As The Economist noted, ‘Though we try to integrate, these are things we live with,’ Ali Dabaja, an emergency-care doctor from Michigan, told your columnist. And then he sobbed down the phone as he recalled the time a trucker in Florida tried to run him and his two headscarf-wearing sisters [one a doctor, the other a lawyer] off the road.” 

This, of course, takes place with a backdrop of incidents (post-9/11) of domestic terrorism that have produced substantially fewer victims by virtue of “Islamic terrorism” than other reasons such as right-wing insurrectionists. From official records, some 107 people perished from Islamic terror incidents since 2001, but almost half of those were in one mass shooting at a gay club which may — or may not — have been motivated by religion. No one actually knows for sure.

It may help to see the rise in fear or anger over Islam (and thus Muslim Americans) in a broader historical context. Historically, new immigrants — from Ireland, then Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe or East Asia — have given rise to waves of the nativism and paranoia that eventually led to laws sharply restricting immigration, after decades of allowing largely unfettered immigration (at least from Europe) as a natural fulfilment of American growth and that national “American dream”. Those restrictive immigration regulations based specifically on national origin were done away with in the 1960s. As a result, a wave of skilled immigrants, including many South Asian Muslims, entered the nation. 

The Economist observed, “Having found in America opportunity, religious freedom, civic culture and physical distance from their old lives, such Muslim migrants and their offspring tend to be more patriotic than their European counterparts and much less interested in jihad. The American dream was always an antidote to extremism.

“Indeed, it is striking how many Muslims, especially younger, America-born ones, responded to the discrimination they faced after 9/11 by citing America’s promise of liberty. Mr [actor/comedian Hasan] Minhaj, whose hit Netflix show was called Patriot Act, describes his father’s and his own conflicting responses to the thugs who smashed their car windows; the older man fearful and resigned, the younger one astonished and incensed.”

Still, the horrific circumstances of 9/11 cannot easily explain the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment. We can point to a rise in a grievance culture that flourished in the wake of a black president with a clearly Muslim-sounding name, Barack Hussein Obama, many of whose policies or positions older, less-well educated, more rural, white conservatives strongly objected to. One legacy of Donald Trump’s racially charged campaigns leading up to and then including his two presidential races of 2016 and 2020 slyly made just that point, suggesting Obama was both Muslim — and, worse — effectively a dangerous foreigner to boot, and thus antithetical to “real American values”.

Post-election survey data analysis, the paper went on to say, has “suggested Islamophobia was his voters’ most characteristic trait. It is a form of bigotry that persists because of the grievances of a dwindling white majority, in other words. It is scarcely about Muslims — especially the reality of America’s prospering minority — at all.” 

Rather, at its heart, it is based upon a sense of grievance, anger and fear over the declining status of the people who hold such views as they contemplate an increasingly multiracial, multicultural, multireligious nation. Even so, in the broader picture, perhaps the feeling may be less threatening than it appears to be, on its face.

Or, as Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Institution, one of the country’s foremost think tanks, argues, that since America’s Muslim population is largely based in cities and is relatively small compared with the population as a whole, around 1% or so of the total, those angry, disgruntled nativists among Americans actually have relatively little contact with actual Muslims and so such people may be unlikely to focus on Muslims for long.

As Hamid argues, “We are not the main target of xenophobia because there are bigger groups to be racist about.” Perhaps the current and growing brouhaha about the new rise in what seems to be unchecked Latin American and Haitian migration across the southern border is just such a larger fish. Such a focus would be dangerous politics too, but different from the anti-Islam one. 

The irony is, as The Economist concludes, “The anti-vaxxer Trump voters who are now likeliest to be hospitalised with the disease tend to be the most anti-Muslim Americans. The doctors treating them are quite likely to be Muslim. The irony of this is not lost on Dr Dabaja. ‘But when people are coping with the reality of death or the death of their loved ones,’ he says, ‘their political agendas tend to fade’.”

As always in American history, the continuing pressure to absorb immigrants and new racial, religious and ethnic populations will continue to churn away. At least, that should be our hope. DM

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  • As someone involved with the arts, it is quite surprising to me that you omitted such American musicians as Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones – Ahmad Jamal, what a much more distinctive handle than Fred Jones!) Yusuf Lateef (born William Emanuel Huddleston) and Ahmed Abdul-Malik (born Jonathan Tim) to name but a few. Not forgetting our own Abdullah Ibrahim (born Adolph Johannes Brand and formerly known as Dollar Brand).

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