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How Should We Combat Islamophobia?

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While the dust has yet to settle on the horrific Boston bombings by the Tsarnaev brothers, Muslims have already felt the impact of their association with Islam.  We have witnessed a rise in Islamophobic discourse in the popular media and blogosphere.  As an activist who focuses on studying and combatting Islamophobia, I have wondered how we might effectively re-frame the narrative to prevent more Islamophobia. But at the same time, I have also realized that in our rush to write op-ed's and respond via the media, we should take a step back to consider the literature on Islamophobia and what it might teach us at this moment.

After reading a diverse set of books and studies by different writers, including anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists and even activists who specifically address Islamophobia, I have identified two distinctive and quite different approaches to understanding how Islamophobia can be reduced in society. 

In one model, what I call the integrationist model, Islamophobia is understood as a "general fear of the other" that requires a relationship to repair.  The other model, what I call the critical approach, Islamophobia is understood as a systemic problem, generated by cultural, governmental and civil discourses, and not as a subjective phenomena in need of a "cure."

Both of these models not only present a different view on how to effectively treat or combat Islamophobia, each model also presents different theories of social change. While there are overlapping points of analysis regarding the causes of Islamophobia in both models, there are significant differences. These differences must not be overlooked because they inform the way in which programs and grassroots responses to Islamophobia occur. In the wake of the Boston bombing, these models can help us to think more carefully about whether the way in which we are combatting Islamophobia is contributing to the sorts of changes we want to see in the world, or whether they are re-enforcing some of the prejudices we are seeking to ameliorate.

The Critical Model

The first model, what I call the "critical" approach is articulated by writers such as Deepa Kumar in "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire," Stephen Sheehi in "Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims" and in Saba Mahmoud's work, in "Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation."

In this model, Islamophobia is not understood as a fear cultural of otherness, but as a political campaign that is tied to American power and discursive processes that subject Muslims to the power of the state and other interests. In this model, Islamophobia is understood as a symptom of American power and imperial interests, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11, and the bloated security state that followed from 9/11.

Stephen Sheehi sees the origin of Islamophobia in the rise of neoconservative think tanks following the cold war, specifically propagated by public intellectuals such as Bernard Lewis and the media commentators, such as Fareed Zakaria, who espouse his views.  Islamophobia is not about Islam as an identity, rather it is a construct that cuts across party lines and is propagated by the global elite to maintain the agenda of global capitalism. In Sheehi's framework, Islamophobia began on the ashes of Orientalism, and found its sprouting and coming into being inside the Beltway think tanks.

Similarly, we find in Deepa Kumar's text,"Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire," a situating of Islamophobia as a symptom of American imperial wars and engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The implication for both Sheehi and Kumar are that large international coalitions should be formed to advocate for international justice through solidarity with other marginalized groups, and issues such as poverty eradication, Occupy Wall Street, and so on.  Kumar points out that since 9/11, more than 700,000 Muslims have been interviewed by the FBI, which means that nearly 50 percent of all Muslim households have been touched by the FBI's "investigations" into Muslims.

Saba Mahmoud writes in "Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation" about how the RAND Corporation, a prominent Washington think tank, in their publication, "Civil Democratic Islam," helped to frame the cultural and media campaign the U.S. government would undergo in response to the war on terror. Then-President Bush's creation of the "World Muslim Outreach" center was built not exactly on combatting violent extremism, according to Mahmoud, but on identifying and creating a Muslim subject that can fit into the goals of American interests overseas.

The report argues that the government, through a number of different agencies working in loose concert, must identify the right type of Muslims to partner with.  The goal of these efforts must result in a new interpretation of Islam on behalf of Muslims.  The Quran must remain at the level of symbols and of metaphor, of allegory, but not literal truth. This think tank report recognize that moderate Muslims don't actually see the Quran this way, and many are what the report calls "traditionalists," i.e., they hold a view of the Quran as the true word of God, and these are the Muslims that are poised as suspect to U.S. interests. It is the reformers and the secularists that are the ones to that the U.S. should connect with and build alliances with to support U.S. interests.

The strategy for combatting Islamophobia according to this model is highly critical of any attempt to normalize Muslims into processes of power.  They place critique of the systems that subject Muslims to surveillance as more significant than seeking to fit into a normative western society.  By placing critique above integration, this model risks forever being the practice of academics and civil rights activists.  In Sheehi's framework, any attempt to defend Islam as a peaceful religion will tend to further entrench the dichotomies of the "good Muslim" vs. the "bad Muslim" that exists as a stereotypical construct.  In short, this model is difficult for many Muslim American families and civic leaders that wish to integrate into American society, but it is extraordinary helpful in its diagnosis of the cause of Islamophobia.

The Integrationist Model

The second model I have identified in the literature on Islamophobia is what I refer to as the "integrationist" approach.  In this view, the primary cause of Islamophobia is a more general fear of otherness, tied to a lack of inter-personal relations and contact with Muslims in western societies. Key books and studies that support this view include Robert Putnam and David Campbell's "American Grace: How Religions Divides and Unites Us," Eboo Patel's "Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America" and many think tank publications from groups that research Islamophobia, including the Brookings Institute, as well as the State Department.

In this model, strategies for combatting Islamophobia are centered on education about Islam and building personal relations with Muslims.  They tend not to encourage civil disobedience, or to situate the cause of Islamophobia in the context of a larger critique of American power or foreign policy.  Muslims in America are frequently compared to other ethnic minority communities that fought for a place at the table such as the Japanese, the Catholics or African Americans.  But the question these books pose is the classic debate that many African American thinkers have posed after the civil rights movement: are we advocating an assimilation or an integration into American society?

The integrationists promote the idea of building a relation with a Muslim as the cure to Islamophobia. This theory has some compelling proof in the social science literature where it is referred to as "contact theory." The idea here is that through personal contact with the other, in this case a Muslim, the prejudice or potential to be prejudicial also falls by the wayside.  Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, argues in "American Grace" that education about religion is less important for lessening prejudice than is fostering personal relationships.

Robert Wright picked up Putnam's notion when he pointed that the best way to combat Islamophobia is to get more Americans to know a Muslim, which is how America become less phobic toward the LGBT community.  Wright argues that by getting to know the other as a colleague and a family member, the practice of "coming out of the closet" steadily became more and more acceptable over time precisely because people got to know the other outside of their identity which was demonized in popular culture.

This "bridging model," where the Other is seen as a normal, everyday person with the same hopes, desires and dreams as anyone else helps to make them more easily accepted as a human outside of the stereotyped identity. Wright goes on to point out that the challenge for Muslims in the west is one of numbers: they are low in population and thus it may not be possible to promote a wide adoption of acceptance of Muslims until more people actually come into contact with practicing Muslims.

The Danger in the Integrationist Model 

Where the strategy for acceptance falls short is at the level of acceptance. It suggests that one must enter into some neutralized sphere that does not preserve or even celebrate the religious identity of the other. Once the other has been accepted in this neutral space, will the other, in this case, the Muslim, be permitted to more authentically express their religious identity in the future?

This engagement with the other that is predicated on a refusal to engage their authentic identity points to a danger in the larger integrationist view.  By stressing commonness not based on preserving and sharing one's religious identity, but based on first encountering the other outside of their identity, we deprive the free expression of Muslim identity and we force Muslims to be subject to the status of an enemy. The political philosopher Carl Schmitt defines the enemy as whoever is "in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible."

What many authors have pointed out in the critical model is that Muslim identity is seized and converted into an "in and an out" status in the public sphere. Muslims are either the enemy of the west, the Other, the non-Christian, the one religion or culture that can't fit into ours (Islamophobic side) or Muslims are the ones that are our friends (Islamophilic side).

The integrationist model thus presents a danger at the level of the identity of Muslims, forcing them to accept a false construction of what it means to be Muslim.  This is a process that unfolds in the self, the family, the community, the nation-state and the trans-regional diaspora.  Muslims are forced to take into account the prejudices and expectations of an imagined, non-Muslim observer at all times when this dichotomy between the good Muslim vs. the bad Muslim. As a result, new distinctions between Self and Other are constantly woven into Muslim self-definitions.

While the integrationist view of combatting Islamophobia usually results in higher levels of political influence and societal inclusion, it does come at a price.  This price is what one scholar has referred to as "disciplinary inclusion."  This idea of disciplinary inclusion was highlighted in an excellent Stanford law review article entitled "Establishing an Official Islam" by Samuel Rascoff.

Rascoff points out how the Obama administration's unique approach to collaboration with the Muslim community under the banner of "countering violent extremism" a new euphemism for countering terrorism, is to establish a version of Islam that is normative to the values of the United States government.  By recruiting so called "moderate Muslims" as agents of the United States diplomatic efforts abroad in Muslim countries and having government officials attend Islamic religious events and conferences, Rascoff argues that the government is promoting a threat to the establishment clause of the US Constitution and the First Amendment that preserves the right for private citizens to practice and define their religion without the incursion of any government agency.

The ostensible efforts of the U.S. government here seem to be well intentioned.  They want to strengthen moderate Islam and help to portray certain moderate strands of Islam as the correct and acceptable version of Islam. But what ends up taking place is a form of Muslim identity that is regulated by the government, whereby the government goes to co-define what is normative within Islam, and what is not. While many Muslims in the U.S. and the west more broadly participate in these efforts to strengthen moderate Islam by collaborating with the government, it is at the same time, a mode of of the philosopher Michel Foucault called governmentality that perpetuates a sense of religious insiders and outsiders. Muslim Americans, for example, have already shown time and again that they are often the first responders to radicalism and that their version of Islam is not in need of governmental collaboration in this hands on manner.

The truth is that Muslims living in the west, and around the world for that matter, have the most to lose when it comes to combatting radicalism in the name of their religion.  This is why the Muslim community in Toronto turned in the suspects in the recent planned terrorist attack.  While public condemnations of terrorism in the name of Islam coming from Muslims are a good thing to hear, we have to understand that combatting Islamophobia is a much larger systemic challenge that requires a combination of both the integrationist personal engagement as well as the critical approach.