Islamophobia in America is, in great part, a racial project. It is spawned by a master discourse that drove European supremacy and today powered by popular views and state policy seeking to safeguard its domestic progeny, white supremacy. The narrow racial framing of Muslim identity, deeply embedded in the American imagination, not only converges with the rising tide of anti-Muslim animus we now understand and know as ‘Islamophobia’ – but indeed, an integral part of it.
Islamophobia is far more than merely “dread or hatred of Muslims,” or “fear or dislike” of the religion and its followers. These prevailing definitions tend to fixate on explicit or irrational animus, and far too often, the behaviors and actions of individuals. The role of the state, and its vast network of agencies and agents, is often removed from discussions of Islamophobia. However, the actions of the state and the state’s relationship to the actions of citizens, is vital to understanding Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is also state law and policy. It is expressly found in its letter and hidden in facially neutral terms intended to discriminate, affixed with the state seals of approval that obliges the polity to adhere to the message that Muslim identity is presumptive of terror threat, and Islam a civilizational foil that must be confronted, or contorted in a form palatable to the state. Approaching a definition and framework for understanding Islamophobia, in all of its complexity, enables an appreciation of its numerous tentacles, and how these tentacles intersect with other forms of racism and bigotry, are extended by law and policy, and reach to color the perspectives of not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims, and everybody and anybody conditioned by the American Islamophobia that prevails today.
This historical context, coupled with its modern complexity, inspired my new definition and framing of Islamophobia. Above all, Islamophobia is founded upon the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien, and unassimilable – driven by the belief that expressions of Muslim identity correlate with a propensity for terrorism. In addition to this foundational definition are three attendant dimensions: (1) private Islamophobia; (2) structural Islamophobia, and; (3) dialectical Islamophobia.
First, 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 America 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.
Structural Islamophobia, the second dimension, is the fear and suspicion of Muslims on the part of government institutions. This fear and suspicion are manifested and enforced through the enactment of and advancements of laws, policy, programming, or formal pronouncements by state agents. Laws like the US PATRIOT Act or Countering Violent Extremism, the vile anti-Muslim rhetoric of President Trump and the campaigns of state congressmen to pass anti-Sharia legislation distinctly and diversely illustrate structural Islamophobia. Structural Islamophobia has been openly extended by statesman on the Right, including Presidents George W. Bush and Trump, but also democrats like President Barrack Obama, who established counter-radicalization policing as his signature counterterror policy. Unlike private Islamophobia, structural Islamophobic policy and positions are just as often driven by rational motives as they are irrational, strategically deployed to carry forward specific domestic and international state objectives.
Third, 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.
This definition enables an understanding of the epistemological and legal roots of American Islamophobia, and its ferocious rise during the past several decades. Just as critically, this framework enables analyses of Islamophobia as it interacts and converges with other systems of stigma and subordination, and indeed, the most ominous among them.
Beyond its popular cover, Islamophobia is everything from law to Hollywood misrepresentations, violent assaults on conspicuous Muslims and innocent bystanders wrongly profiled as Muslims. Islamophobia is all of this, but also far more. It is, above all, a fluidly shifting and intricate system that cannot be reduced to mere “fear or dislike” of Islam and its followers, who occupy a range of distinct stations in society and experience it differently, and for the most vulnerable, disproportionately.
Reckoning with Islamophobia requires situating it within the American context that feeds and foments it, which perils a broad population of could-be victims that manifest the multi-layered diversity of the country they strive to call home – against the collaborative efforts of the state and elements in society that fight to keep Muslims at the margins.