Muslims and Racialization: A Response to Foner

This year’s presidential keynote lecture at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual conference was given by Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology (CUNY). The conference theme was “Crossing Borders,” and Foner took up the question of whether or not Islam in Europe is similar to race in the United States.

Nancy Foner ESS Presidential Address

(Image source)

As a scholar who studies the racialization of Muslims in the United States, I was eager to hear what she had to say given her expertise as an immigration scholar. In my work, I argue that in a post-9/11 society we need to examine the experiences of Muslims as racial in nature.

This requires scholars to come up with newer ways to examine race that reflect the political, cultural and economic contexts within which we live in. Fortunately a growing number of scholars are doing the work of re-theorizing race, reflecting the fact that race shifts over time and is fluid rather than a static/rigid concept. For example, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues in his Latin Americanization Thesis (pdf) that the United States has moved from a bi-racial system to a tri-racial one.

Bonilla-Silva argues that due to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the racial classification has changed in the United States from a black and white one to one that includes collective blacks, honorary whites and whites. This framework makes space for an understanding of how various racial and ethnic groups experience race and racism differentially due to a myriad of factors aside from just skin tone, delving into the complexities of race in the United States.

Unfortunately, Nancy Foner’s analysis of European Muslims to “color-coded” race in the United States did not provide that complex analysis of race required to understand the connection of immigration and religion to race. Instead, Foner’s talk highlighted how race is perceived in the United States. Many people, including scholars, think race is limited to skin tone.

The need to equate someone’s racial experience with African-Americans limits an understanding of race to a black and white paradigm. It ignores the intersecting factors that contribute to the social construction of racialized identities, such as language, clothing, nation of origin and religion. It also assumes racial experiences do not change over time. For example, African Americans’ experiences with racism have changed over time, partially due to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While we do not live in a post-racial society, as some may claim, racism has changed over time. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow examines how mass incarceration is a new system of oppression that strips African-American men of their basic rights. By chronicling laws and policies put in place that have resulted in the hyper-incarceration of African American men, she finds the system of Jim Crow is still alive and well. Racial projects shift and change over time.

In a similar way, anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia has shifted over time, particularly since 9/11. Anti-Muslim sentiments spiked immediately after 9/11 and then declined. But in the decade since 9/11 public opinion toward Muslims has increasingly gotten worse, especially with the continuous coverage in the media of Muslims as terrorists.

Muslim experiences with racism must be understood within the context of 9/11 and the War on Terror. In a post-9/11, discrimination against Muslims has risen in the United States. A Muslim religious identity has become racialized as a threat to national security and as a consequence they are subjected to increased surveillance and are denied the privileges with citizenship. For example, policies like the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) required non-citizen men aged 16 and over to register with the state. Out of the 25 countries on this list, 24 are Muslim majority. Although this policy has been deactivated, its impact on Muslim immigrants lingers.

Anti- Muslim sentiments do not just impact immigrants. Muslim Americans are also treated as suspect. They have been repeatedly stripped of their civil rights privileges associated with citizenship such as being viewed and treated like loyal members of society. Instead they are treated as a threat to national security and endure hyper surveillance in places like U.S. airports.

Nancy Foner has written that in the United States religion provides a pathway to integration for new immigrants while in Europe it can be a barrier. She and her co-author argue for Hindus in the United States, religious spaces have provided new immigrants with access to certain resources, such as language instruction and assistance with jobs creating a path to Americanization. In countries like France, Islam is treated as a barrier to integration. But while Muslims in France face harsher forms of discrimination through policies that prohibit their religious practices in public spaces, this does not mean that Muslims in the United States are exempt from racial experiences. In this new era of the War on Terror where the United States is increasingly becoming a surveillance society, Islamic religious institutions have become a site of surveillance rather than a path to integration into the American landscape. Life for Muslims in the United States has changed drastically due to a changing political structure that is hyper concerned with security both internationally and domestically. As a result, the state has contributed to the social construction of a Muslim enemy resulting in Muslim bodies being racialized as a threat to national security and are treated as such.

Vilna Bashi Treitler makes a persuasive argument in “Social Agency and White Supremacy in Immigration Studies,” that immigration scholars fail to ignore the structural constraints immigrants face in society and offers racialization as a better model than assimilation to understand the immigrant experience. Treitler’s article highlights how integration is not always possible due to structures that are racialized and reject certain groups from gaining access to resources. This study provides a much-needed response to immigration scholars who fail to understand the restrictions and barriers faced by immigrants due to structures that are racialized.

So, even though one immigrant group may enjoy access to financial resources, this does not mean they avoid racism all together. Furthermore, racism needs to be understood contextually. Japanese experiences with racism differed during internment due to World War II than they do today. In a similar fashion, Muslims are increasingly experiencing more prejudice and discrimination due to their religious identity than they have in the past. Finally, not all racisms are equal. Experiences with racism and its impact are varied. In other words, racism is fluid.

Nancy Foner’s keynote address created a space for more discussion around religion, immigration and race. While I do not argue Muslim has become a new race, their religious identities have acquired racial meanings associating their bodies with terror and violence resulting in their increased experiences with racism. There is much room for debate and discussion around these ideas and hopefully scholars of race will start to engage with the complexities of race as it relates to religion, immigration and gender rather than compartmentalizing each one.

 

~ Guest blogger Saher Selod is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Simmons College

Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie: A Critical View

To be frank, the magazine Charlie Hebdo deserves criticism, not praise—despite the horrific events that have unfolded. While I am certainly not condoning the murder of its staff members, I do find them guilty of Islam-bashing and inconsiderately expressing religious intolerance, cultural ethnocentrism, and extremely poor human judgment, issues that should be important to antiracists and those who “review” racism. Additionally, being aware of the angst caused by their racist and tasteless cartoons, I find those associated with the magazines’ campaign against Islam to be instigators and un-thoughtful–not creatively satirical–people directly involved in promoting ethno-racial and religious tensions. See NPR’s 2012 story on the social problems caused by publishing the incendiary cartoons. Again, these individuals ought to be condemned as race baiters, not martyred.

The ridiculous display of support for ‘Charlie,’ particularly in the news media, is disconcerting and demonstrates that many people are equally as uninformed and culturally insensitive as those who promoted the anti-Islamist cartoons. Since the attack, most news outlets have ignored the racism and Islam-tarnishing of Charlie Hebdo and are in a rush to glorify the magazine and deify their racist cartoonists. Ignoring the potential of further inflaming ethno-racial tensions and promoting further anti-Muslim bigotry, a number of media giants, such as the Washington Post, have even decided to reprint the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad in defiance of what they feel is a threat to free speech.

To state that what occurred is “an attack on free speech” is misguided and plainly ignorant. This is a destructive myth espoused by most Western media outlets in their discussion of this event. See, for example, John Avlon’s The Daily Beast article, “Why We Stand with Charlie Hebdo-And You Should Too,” which naively presents the free speech argument. What Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamist cartoons represent is hate images and speech, a defamation of a major world religion and culture, and an obvious attack on Muslims. To cloud this reality is intellectual dishonesty in the wake of reactionary politics.

Stoking the flames of racial hatred through dehumanizing others and their beliefs is nothing new; yet, today it is claimed that those who de-humanize certain groups are expressing their free speech or righteousness in their actions. One might ask why KKK pamphlets that demean black Americans, white nationalists’ periodicals that vilify Jews, and past campaigns of dehumanization by national groups, like the US’s racist cartoons of Japanese, are viewed as intolerable and unacceptable, yet the demonization of Muslims and Arabs is granted a pass.

Islam bashing, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiments are on the rise in Europe, and particularly in France, in large part do to the de-humanizing tactics of people like those associated with Charlie Hebdo. The dehumanization and discriminatory practices of Charlie cartoons provide ammunition for the anti-Muslim intolerance endorsed by rising far right groups in Europe, like the British Freedom Party, National Front, English Defense League, Alternative for Germany, Freedom Party in Netherlands, and PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West), to name a few. Problematically, with the aid of people who incite discrimination against Muslims, like the cartoonists and editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia is now moving from the fringes to the mainstream of European societies. (See Joshua Keating’s Slate article, “Xenophobia is Going Mainstream in Germany.”)

As Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari notes, “the shockwave of the far right National Front polling nearly one-fifth of French voters is still reverberating. Both the socialist candidate and the incumbent president are wooing the support of Marine le Pen” (see Dr. Bari’s Aljazeera article, “Islamophobia: Europe’s’ New Political Disease.”).Indeed, after the attack, as expected, the National Front is attracting more members and support.

Of course, racist and anti-Muslim dehumanizing cartoons are but a symptom of a larger problem that is not addressed, is misdiagnosed or is inverted: European colonialism and the European-sponsored terrorism or Euroterrorism used to support this centuries-old practice. The Iraq war, Afghanistan war, and other Western-sponsored military campaigns against Muslim countries are colonialist wars in which Western powers are attempting to steal natural resources from Muslim countries and rearrange their political structure so that Western business interests might more easily exploit these countries’ people and land. The deaths of innocent Muslims at the hands of Westerners in their colonialist pursuit of profit and power is pure unadulterated terrorism of the worst kind.

Western colonialism that exploded in the late nineteenth century and has been maintained up to this day relied upon and relies upon unimpeded Westerner violence or terrorism, as a number of analysts have documented. In African Perspectives of Colonialism (1987:26-27), A. Adu Boahen explains that Europe’s late nineteenth century technological advances led by the “maxim-gun” promoted Europeans’ “sudden and forceful occupation” of African lands and set in place the “imposition of the colonial system.” Edward Said’s analysis of colonialism, Europeans’ conquest of non-Western lands, in Orientalism (1979) demonstrates that violence and terrorism associated with European colonialism, particularly the British and French versions, are physical as well as cultural and psychological, in certain cases resembling the discriminatory practices and negative imagery of “the Other” discovered in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. In The Wretched of the Earth (1963:36), Franz Fanon observes that colonialism is “marked by violence” and is characterized by “the exploitation of the native by the settler…carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons.” Undoubtedly, modern day terrorism originated and persists in the practices of Western colonialism and this fact deserves deliberation in any attempt at understanding the various non-Western terrorist acts in reaction to European terrorism.

France’s colonialist exploitation and terrorism of Muslim African nations is one of the primary reasons for the growth of “radical” Islamist groups. Rather than simply dismissing these militarized Islamist groups as anti-Western, Westerners ought to be a little smarter and ask why wouldn’t Muslims attempt to protect their people, land and culture and, in turn, oppose those who terrorize them. Who are the real terrorists? If we consider the numbers of Muslims killed or brutalized at the hands of Westerners in relation to the number of Westerners killed or brutalized by Muslims, the answer is quite clear: terrorists of the West. Ironically, a Western terrorist, Anders Breivik, slaughtered large numbers of Westerners in his anti-Islamist hatred. His mass killing spree slayed far more Westerners on European soil than any attacks by “radicalized” Muslims. Significantly, Breivik’s terrorism was conflated with Islamist terrorism (see the Guardian).

As long as radicalized Westerners accept the killing of innocent Muslims in drone and missile attacks, discount the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the CIA “black sites,” and other torture facilities, and fail to see how Western colonialism violently maintains operation across the globe, particularly in Muslim countries, the “battle against terrorism” will continue. Along with Europe, the United States has its own zealots and war hawks who promote terrorism directed at Muslim countries. On virtually any day, one can turn to major US news media outlets and witness a host of extremist US politicians, like Peter King, John McCain, Diane Feinstein, Alan West, Michele Bachmann and Chuck Schumer, calling for war or negative actions against one Muslim or Arab country or another. The rhetoric is careless and, at its roots, are the sparks of Western-styled terrorism.

To support US terrorism, French terrorism and other forms of Western terrorism is unconscionable. Similarly, supporting Charlie Hebdo’s discriminatory practices that naturalize and sanctify Euroterrorism against Muslims is abhorrent. Terrorism begets terrorism in a vicious cycle. Neither form can be justified, but the former is where we should direct our focus. For these reasons, Jen ne suis pas Charlie. For those who identify with Charlie, you might re-consider your senseless ties to the racism that Charlie breeds and the racial conflicts that will result from ignorant acceptance of that religious and ethno-racial intolerance and racist ridicule of Others.

Resurrection of Deep Racial Icons: The “Dangerous Other” – Part I



Race and racism are more contested in contemporary society than ever in the five hundred years of racist constructions leading to and coming from the modern world system. While some see an election of the United States’ first African American president as the last nail in the coffin of its racist policies, others see it only as the covering over of racist systems that are no longer profitable or desirable in a globalized world driven by neoliberal values that deny racism and distort its centralized past. Observing this in relation to Joe Feagin’s racial “framing” (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing), and seeing the weight they might have in finding our way forward during times of hegemonic decline, we need to identify the racial icons that arose in rationalizing systems of racism, and observe their contemporary usage in our society.

Two recent events demonstrate the ongoing power of these racial icons ranging from the individual to the institutional levels. These are the highly racialized claims of “self-defense” or “stand your ground” by George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the systemic claims of defending “ethnic rights” of Europeans against “multiculturalism” as incursions against civilization by Anders Breivik in the mass murders of Norwegians at a “liberal” summer youth camp.

Although in both cases the killer clearly perpetrated the actions leading to the targeted death of those they killed, one as an individual and the other as a representative group, both claim they were (or are) actually defending themselves or their societies. In both cases, on the individual and institutional levels, their “defense” requires seeing those they killed as a threat, even before there is any interaction on any level between the perpetrator and the victims.In Zimmerman’s case as a self-appointed neighborhood “watch” man, he saw Martin as “on drugs” and as “up to no good” precisely because Trayvon was young and Black and wearing a hoodie, with no other evidence of any wrong-doing (which Zimmerman had no legal right to address anyway).

In Breivik’s case as a self-appointed social regulator against “Islamic colonization”, he saw the youth camp as a group representative of “multi-culturalism” values that would threaten Norwegian society, with no evidence that there was any threat or that these individuals were connected to that hypothetical situation (which Breivik had no right to counter anyway).

Both of these cases, while apparently different in scope and victimization, require a “dangerous other” to make the “defense” claim. Although many see that the number (77) and age (mostly youth) of victims with the Norwegian case see it as a despicable case of an “individual psychopath” but definitively wrong, they also deny the claimed linkage to ethno-racial domination with remarkable similarity to recent laws passed by the state of Arizona. Apologists and deniers will not make the claimed inference that there are ideologies in Norwegian and American societies that support and engender such claims of threats. And, of course, these are firmly landed in histories of legalized racial and ethnic domination.

Terrorism in Norway: Racism Implicated in Gunman, News Reports (updated)

The terrible news, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, is that there were two terrorist attacks in Norway – one at the capital of Oslo and another, more deadly attack, just outside the city at a camp for children.  Reports are that the death toll is around 90 people killed, many of them children, and scores were seriously wounded.  All those numbers may yet rise.  The shooter is alive and in custody.  He has been identified as a 32-year-old Norwegian farmer, Anders Behring Breivik (picture below via MSNBC from his Facebook page).  Racism seems to be implicated in this story in two, very telling, ways: Breivik’s views and the initial news reports about the terror strikes.

Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Muslim Views. According to Norwegian journalist Liss Goril Anda, writing for the BBC, Breivik had posted “racist, extremist right-wing comments along with fellow anti-Muslims” on right-wing websties. On his Facebook profile, he identified his political views as “Christian, conservative.”  However, Breivik didn’t belong to any known factions in Norway’s small and splintered extreme right movement.  Goril Anda writes that the Breivik’s online postings represent, “with varying degrees of extremism, a section of the Norwegian population which feels that the country’s immigration policies are too lax.” Goril Anda goes on to speculate, “Norway might now be forced to deal head-on with this undercurrent of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.”  The Mail refers to him as “an extremist who hated Muslims.”

According to another report, Breivik was recently posting online that politics today was not about socialism vs. capitalism but nationalism vs. internationalism. He argued on a Swedish news website that the media were not critical enough about Islam and claimed that Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands was the only “true” party of conservatives.  (Wilders said in a statement, “I despise everything he stands for and everything he did.”)

Breivik recommended other sites associated with the so-called counter-jihad movement, notably Jihad Watch, Gates of Vienna and the Brussels Journal. In December 2009 he wrote that he was working full time to promote the ideas of Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or.

He also wrote of his contacts with the English Defence League (EDL) and Stop Islamisation of Europe and claimed to have given them advice on strategy. He attached importance to building “a Norwegian version” of the EDL to fight against anti-fascists and anti-racists.

Updated Sunday, 8:26amET: And, of course, the racism in his selection of victims:  “Many of the victims in Friday’s shooting were the children of immigrants from Africa and Asia…” according to New York Times (via @Alondra).

Shameful Journalism. Shiva Balaghi writing at Jadaliyya has an excellent piece detailing all the major news outlets that first reported this story as a case of “Muslim terrorists” and/or “jihadi groups,” supposedly “angered at the war in Afghanistan,” including: the New York Times, The Financial Times, and PBS.  Perhaps most revealing is her account of Judy Woodruff on PBS’ Newshour, Balaghi writes:

Judy Woodruff’s interview with a Norwegian journalist that aired on PBS’s Newshour followed a similar scenario. We did learn that “a thirty-two-year old white Norwegian guy [sic]” had been arrested for presumably having carried out the bombings and the shootings. But no information was provided on the attacker’s motivations or political affiliation; Woodruff simply did not ask those questions. Who forms the neo-Nazi movement in Norway? [emphasis added]

Benjamin Doherty writing at The Electric Intifada has this more detailed account of how a supposed “expert” on terrorism set media speculation on Muslims following the attacks:

“Experts” who supposedly study this topic — almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds — direct suspicion toward Muslims by pointing to claims of responsibility on “jihadi” web sites that only they have access to. Notorious attacks invariably inspire false claims of responsibility, or false reports of claims of responsibility, but this apparently doesn’t discourage the media and experts from giving them undue attention.
From the “experts” to The New York Times to the world…

The New York Times originally reported:

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.

In later editions, the story was revised to read:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

The source was Will McCants, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and Doherty does an effective job in tracking down McCants’ sketchy sources on this story.   Even after McCants posted that his information was flawed (and the claim for responsibility had been retracted), major news outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him.

The news spread quickly and amplified the association in many people’s mind between “terrorism” and “Muslim.” The problem, of course, is that it wasn’t true, even as these mainstream news outlets kept reporting that it was.

White-Blindness & Terrorism. Taken together, these paint a broader picture of the ways we do not see race when it is white, and the ways we do not acknowledge racism in our thinking about terrorism and the ill-conceived “war on terror.”  In a way, we have white-blindess, like snow blindness, when it comes to terrorism.  A white, Christian, conservative, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant terrorist takes up arms and the mainstream media is caught short trying to report on the story because of their own white-blindness, their inability to see, indeed even imagine, whiteness as a race. It’s likely now that these same news outlets will start referring to him as a “lone wolf,” increasingly a phrase that is used only to describe white terrorists.  The “lone wolf” designation further distances Breivik’s politics from his actions.  The rhetoric of “terrorism” and “the war on terrorism” is language that is steeped in connotations of a dangerous, Dark Other, despite the evidence to the contrary.  Like the attack by Timothy McVeigh on Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Norway attacks demonstrate that white men can be terrorists.  It’s only white-blindness that keeps us from seeing that.

Islamophobia: Flying Racism



The Charlotte Observer newspaper recorded a Delta (ASAConnection) incident of probable discrimination against two Muslim clerics who, ironically enough, were travelling to Charlotte for a meeting that will deal with Islamophobia.

Reportedly the fearful chief pilot and a passenger pressed for the plane to go back to the gate after it was taxing. The pilot reportedly refused to fly with them even though they had been fully checked by the TSA screeners:

Imams Masudur Rahman, an adjunct professor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, and Mohamed Zaghloul said they and their bags were checked twice by security agents at the Memphis airport before boarding the 8:40 a.m. Delta Connection Flight 5452 to Charlotte.

The conference on Islamophobia is timely given the outbursts of anti-Islamic rhetoric since the U.S. killing of Bin Laden last Sunday:

Organizers said more than 150 religious leaders from across the country will meet through Sunday to discuss prejudice and fear of Islam or Muslims.

Jibril Hough of the Islamic Center of Charlotte put it succinctly: “These guys definitely have something to talk about.” And the Memphis professor also noted that this discrimination:

reminded him of Rosa Parks and her famous 1955 stand against riding in the back of an Alabama bus because she was black. “That racism, I felt today in the plane … should not happen to anyone.”

The media are reporting that they were detained because of their “Muslim dress,” and I would guess too because of their beards. That is, certain physical characteristics. Clearly, most native-born European Americans do not see them as “white,” as one survey we did made quite clear. (Only 7 percent of self-defined white college students saw Middle Eastern Americans as clearly “white.” See Chapter 12 here)

As I have described elsewhere, Middle Eastern Americans have been part of the U.S. mix since about 1900. And European American legal-political authorities have grappled with defining them racially. Between 1909 and 1944, at least eight court decisions by European American judges legally assessed whether certain Arab Americans were “white.” Four ruled that they were, and four ruled that by “common knowledge” or “legal precedent” they should not be considered white. Note too that the many white supremacist writers of the early twentieth century saw them as “parasites” and “Mongolian plasma” that would “contaminate the pure American stock.” Middle Eastern immigrants (both Christians and Muslims) were then cataloged with southern and eastern Europeans as “inferior races” by European American intellectuals. They suffered extreme stereotypes that many European Americans drew from the already entrenched white racist frame, including old derogatory terms such as “blackie,” “camel jockey,” and “sheeny.” Some of this racialized stereotyping and framing clearly persists on a large scale today, renewed by events of the last few decades.

In addition to physical features such as skin color and facial features, many European Americans, in the early period and today, have used distinguishing markers that are cultural in character, such as clothing (hijab, turban), language accents, and religious customs. In the too common racial-ethnic framing of Muslim and Christian Middle Eastern Americans today, certain cultural markers are added to skin color marking to target them for racialized stereotyping and discrimination.

Peter King Hearings “Despicable”

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls the hearings in Congress by New York Republican Peter King “despicable.” A number of critics have referred to the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. King has refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. In this video clip (16:38) from Democracy Now, Potok points out that the real threat of “radicalization” in the U.S. comes from domestic, far-right, white supremacists:

The hearings are already hugely successful in terms of promoting King’s public profile and in stoking the low moral ground of Islamophobia. Despicable indeed.

NYC Cabbie Attacked: Hate Speech into Action

Ahmed Sharif, a New York City cab driver stabbed by a passenger, says he was definitely attacked because of his religion.  Sharif was stabbed repeatedly while driving his taxi on the East Side Tuesday.  The suspect, a white man named Michael Enright, attacked him after first asking whether he was Muslim.   Many are saying that this attack is part of a growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.

(Image from CSM)

The apparent hate crime attack on Mr. Sharif and the alarming wave of hate crimes against Latinos that Joe wrote about yesterday are connected in a number of ways.   One of the major links is the way that these acts of violence are part of a larger social context that includes rising tide of hate speech targeting Muslims and Latinos.

The research connecting hate speech to hate crimes is mixed.   When it comes to individuals explaining their motivation for hate crimes, there’s actually relatively little research that investigates motivations for hate crimes.  One study that does this finds a range of motivations:  thrill, defensive, mission, and retaliatory motivation (J. McDevitt, J. Levin, and S. Bennett, “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology,” Journal of Social Issues, 58 (2):303-318).   In the case of Enright’s attack on Sharif, this appears to be a “mission” hate crime, in which Enright was on a “mission” to attack anyone who was Muslim.   Other research, such as Alexander Tsesis’ book Destructive Messages (NYU Press, 2002), demonstrate how hate speech gives rise to dangerous social movements.

The question really is where did Enright, a film student who was working on a project to promote cross-cultural understanding, get the idea that he should attack someone who was Muslim?  No one knows for sure.   The fact is that after traveling to Afghanistan to work on a film project, Enright returned to New York where there is an ugly display of hate speech downtown about the so-called mosque controversy. Could this have played even a small role in Enright’s violent actions last Tuesday?  It seems more than plausible.

The fact is that the U.S., and even the country’s most diverse city, New York, are becoming more treacherous for people of color.   And yet, this violence gets repaid with loyalty.  Despite the brutal attack on him, the cab driver Mr. Sharif told supporters outside City Hall that he still loves New York.

“This is a city of all colors, races, all religion, everyone. We live here, side by side, peacefully.”

The ‘Mosque’ Controversy

What’s quickly become known as ‘the mosque at ground zero’ controversy should be a local story about land use and zoning, has blown up into a national disgrace that says a lot about the current state of religious intolerance, Islamophobia and racism in the U.S.     As Keith Olbermann cogently pointed out, there is no “mosque” (it’s an interfaith community center) and it’s not “at Ground Zero” (it’s several blocks away in a former Burlington Coat Factory).  I was here on 9/11 and watched those towers fall to the ground.   I’ve also watched as a particular group of survivors from that day, often referred to as “The Families,” have been valorized in the press and by themselves beyond all reason.  This group, “The Families” never includes any of the relatives of the workers from the restaurant at the top of the towers, many of them undocumented immigrant workers.

In many ways, the objection this project in lower Manhattan (aka, the ‘mosque’) is one that appeals to the lowest common denominators of racism, religious intolerance and Islamophobia.   But, there are other voices.

Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg (not always my favorite flavor) gave this speech which was brilliant, i thought, and hit just the right note:

“We’ve come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That’s what makes New York special and different and strong.

“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.

“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

“This morning, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend — not to extend — landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.

“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

“For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ (Bloomberg’s voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) ‘What beliefs do you hold?’

“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

“Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.

“Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.”

Much of the fury around this faux-issue has been generated by the vengeful rhetoric of George W. Bush immediately following 9/11 and his misguided “war on terror” and attack on Iraq. Bush’s rhetorical legacy continues in Sarah Palin’s bumbling vitriol.  If Bush had given this kind of speech immediately following 9/11, I believe we’d have a safer world and dramatically less of the Islamophobic racism fueling this controversy.    Very recently, President Obama has defended the notion of a mosque in downtown Manhattan, and then seemed to equivocate on it.   One of Obama’s strengths has been his pitch-perfect ability to reach that note of America’s highest ideals and, drawing on Lincoln’s rhetoric, to appeal to the better angels of our nature. If ever there were a time for Obama – and each one of us – to appeal to the better angels of our nature, it is now and around this controversy.

Islamophobia: Popular, Acceptable Form of Racism

Islamophobia, and the racial profiling of almost anyone not white, seems to be the popular and acceptable form of racism these days.  Following the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian and a Muslim, a majority of Americans favor racial and ethnic profiling be used in airline security.   Recent poll data from Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds:

“…59% of adults say factors such as race, ethnicity and overall appearance should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search at airports. Twenty-six percent (26%) say these factors should not be used to determine which passengers to search. Another 15% are not sure. Interestingly, however, even more Americans (71%) believe such profiling is necessary in today’s environment. Eighteen percent (18%) disagree and see profiling as an unnecessary violation of civil rights.  Men feel more strongly than women that profiling is necessary in the modern environment. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of men say profiling should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search, but just 51% of women agree. Sixty-two percent (62%) of whites and 52% of those of other races say profiling should be used at airports. African-Americans are more closely divided on the question.”

This is striking data suggesting that Americans are quite willing to jettison civil rights in the service of stereotypes and racial prejudice.   It’s also based on faulty reasoning.  Quite simply, racial profiling doesn’t work.  As Arsalan Iftikhar, writing for CNN, points out:

For years, the concept of “racial profiling” has reportedly undermined important terrorist investigations here in the United States. Most notably, these examples include the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which the two white male domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were able to flee while officers operated on the theory that the act had been committed by “Arab terrorists” for the first 48 hours of the investigation.

Similarly, during the October 2002 Washington-area sniper investigation, the African-American man and boy ultimately accused of the crime reportedly were able to pass through multiple road blocks with the alleged murder weapon in their possession, in part, because police ‘profilers’ theorized the crime had been committed by a white male acting alone.

According to a report last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination: “Both Democratic and Republican administrations [in the United States] have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.”

If the fact that racial profiling is tremendously ineffective doesn’t seem to deter the American impulse to want to “do something” following this lastest attempt at a terrorist act, perhaps considering the fact that this sort of knee-jerk, McCarthyism stands in stark constrast to democratic ideals of equality will temper this reaction.  I fear that such an appeal will fall on deaf ears and there’s growing evidence that this is so.

Consider, for example, a recent interview with Retired Lt. Gen. on Fox News (opens video), in which he flatly states that we should profile and strip search all 18-28-year-old muslim men.  In my view, this qualifies as Islamaphobia - prejudice and discrimination against Islam and against Muslims.  It seems clear that this is a popular, and increasingly acceptable, form of mainstream racism.

And, as another example, Ed Koch – former mayor of New York City – saying in another recent interview (opens video) that “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but “hundreds of millions are,” which is just patently false as the protest by peace-loving Muslims in Detroit, outside the courthouse where Abdulmuttalab was being arraigned, demonstrates.   But, as we see again and again on this blog, such racism is unlikely to be moved by logic and rational argument.

A writer using the name ‘unspeakable’ asks at Daily Kos: do Arabs and Muslims have a place in America? I want the answer to this rhetorical question to be a resounding, “yes, of course!”   Increasingly, I fear that my country is saying “no.”