Quran burnings and congressional hearings; are Muslims in the United States feeling increasingly marginalised?
We contacted Ibrahim Hooper of the US-based Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) for his views on the subject.
Q1. Islamophobia in the US seems to be higher now than at any time since 9/11, and seems to be moving from the fringe to the mainstream.
Ibrahim Hooper: After 9/11 there was still a reservoir of goodwill for the Muslim American community, but now that seems to have been eroded and it is true that Islamophobia is higher now than at any point (post 9/11).
You now have mainstream political leaders openly hostile to the faith of Islam and it really doesn’t get any pushback from other leaders in society, so it’s a really disturbing phenomenon that what would have rightly been considered fringe, extremist views in the past are now considered mainstream, and we hear these views primarily from right-wing politicians and commentators.
Q2. How much of this is a change in the mood of the US public itself? Is it a reflection of public opinion or is it simply rabble-rousing politics?
Hooper: Our research shows that roughly one-third of Americans have an actively hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims, but that minority is becoming increasingly vocal and increasingly insistent on taking action to marginalise American Muslims and demonise Islam. And we are seeing it with the rise of groups such as Stop the Islamisation of America or Act for America, which are out and out hate groups that are building an infrastructure nationwide to attack Islam and Muslims on a rhetorical level.
Q3. Some of that now seems to have come into the mainstream political arena as well. Such as the bill in the Tennessee making ‘material support’ for Islamic law punishable by 15 years in jail. Will we see more in the same vein?
Hooper: In fact, similar bills have already been introduced in close to 20 states. And while the references to Islam in the Tennessee bill have been dropped, it’s not going to stop the nationwide trend towards the demonisation of Islam in state legislatures nationwide. Pam Geller, a known Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist who is the leader of an anti-Muslim hate group testified in the Alaska legislature in support of an anti-Islam bill. Her group has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and yet she was invited to testify.
Q4. Congressman Peter King has begun congressional hearings on the radicalisation on American Muslims. Where will they lead?
Hooper: It’s exactly the same phenomenon as in the 1950’s when US Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated Americans for supposed communist beliefs. You create a false threat and then you link people to that false threat to marginalise them, so yes it’s very much like the Red Scare of the fifties. What it does is create a sense of siege in the Muslim community where we feel we are constantly under rhetorical attack and even physical attack. Recently a Muslim taxi driver in California was attacked simply because of his faith, we’ve had mosques attacked across the country as well, and so at some point the rhetorical violence can and does translate into physical violence. What is needed is a pushback from mainstream political and religious leaders. Without that, I’m not sure where we are headed.
Q5. After Obama’s election there was guarded optimism among American Muslims that this regime would be different, but has the very fact of Obama getting elected in fact created a backlash against Muslims?
Hooper: I think that’s entirely true. And that’s because the extreme right-wing attack on Obama centres to a large degree on the false claim that he is Muslim, so if they can at the same time demonise Islam and all Muslims then that’s also a way to attack Obama. It’s like killing two birds with one stone for them.
Q6. How would you rank the mainstream media’s role in all this? What’s the tone like?
Hooper: The mainstream media actually does a pretty good job of reporting all this in a fairly objective way, with the exception of outlets like Fox News and some others. Unfortunately the anti-Muslim rhetoric is cast in such a loud and aggressive manner that it sometimes overwhelms the objective reporting.
Q7. Speaking of anti-Muslim rhetoric, do you think Pastor Terry burning of the Quran got the same kind of press that we would have seen if, say, someone had burnt the Torah?
Hooper: I think it almost got too much press, in fact now that he is carrying on with his activities we are asking the media to downplay it, so he doesn’t get the kind of publicity he so desperately seeks.
Q8. In Europe at least, Muslims have been accused of ‘failing to assimilate.’ Is this a concern in the US as well?
Hooper: That depends on your definition of assimilation. If assimilation means giving up your faith etc, then no one should have to do that, but if it means being a productive citizen while maintaining one’s beliefs and traditions, then there is nothing wrong with that.
Q9. Muslims in America don’t seem to have joined the political mainstream as much as other groups.
Hooper: Well I don’t agree with that, we have two members of congress that are Muslim, and that hasn’t been the case in the entire history of the United States. We also have mayors, judges and city council members. We would like to see more of course, but it’s encouraging. With the political climate the way it is, I think there is no option for US Muslims to redouble their efforts.
Q10. Look at all the terror attacks and planned terror attacks in the US by Muslims, such as Faisal Shahzad, aren’t Americans justified in feeling threatened and suspicious?
Hooper: You also have to put that in context, you also had a bomb attack on a mosque in Florida last year that was not publicised by even one major media outlet on the national level. We had a bomb planted on the parade route of the MLK parade just this year that got very little media attention. We had the arrest of militia members in Alaska for plotting to kill state troopers and a judge in that state, no one even knows about it. Had those actions been assigned to someone with a Muslim-sounding name, these events would have made international headlines for weeks. So it’s kind of what you pay attention to and what you count as an act of terrorism. For instance, when a man flew a plane into an IRS building in Texas after issuing a political manifesto, no one called that an act of terrorism. When a man shot a guard at the pentagon with a political motive no one said that was an act of terrorism, so you have to expand your definition so that similar acts are treated and labeled the same.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 10th, 2011.
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