Government And Islamophobia
By M. A. Muqtedar
22 December, 2006
December 4, 2006, the national leadership of American Muslims met with
key senior U.S. government officials to discuss the state of Islamophobia
in America and US Muslim relations. The conference was organized by
the Bridging the Divide Initiative of Saban Center at the Brookings
Institution. It was co-sponsored by the Institute for Social Policy
and Understanding and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.
As the conference chair of
the program, the most extraordinary challenge that I faced was to bring
together two parties that did not see eye to eye on this issue. While
American Muslim leaders and participants were arguing that Islamophobia
was not only a reality but rapidly increasing phenomenon in America,
the government’s position was that while there have been increased
incidences of anti-Muslim episodes in the U.S., the word Islamophobia
deepens the divide between the US and the Muslim world. Other representatives
of the government also suggested that the fear that Muslims were referring
to was not the fear of Islam but the fear of Muslim terrorism as manifest
on September 11, 2001.
Stephen Grand, the Director
of the US-Islamic World program welcomed the forty plus participants
from US government and the Muslim community and launched the conference.
The government was represented by several participants from the Department
of State, the Department of Homeland Security and associated agencies.
The morning keynote address was delivered by Alina Romanowski, the Deputy
Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Affairs.
She was introduced by Ambassador Martin Indyk the Director of Saban
Center. He argued the importance of such dialogues at a time when the
gap between America and the Muslim World appeared to be widening.
Alina Romanowski reiterated
the vision and objectives that Ambassador Karen Hughes seeks to advance
at the State Department on public diplomacy. She talked about the three
key public diplomacy objectives-- offering a positive vision of hope
and opportunity around the world that is rooted in America's belief
in freedom, justice, opportunity and respect for all; isolating and
marginalizing the violent extremists and confronting their ideology
of hate and tyranny; and fostering a sense of the common values and
common interests between Americans and peoples of different countries,
cultures and faiths around the world. The question and answer session
was remarkably open and candid. Ms Romanowski agreed to relay the issues
raised by the group during her session to others in the Department .
Listening and creating opportunities for people-to-people exchanges
and dialogue, she said, was a key component of the work of the Education
and Cultural Affairs Bureau at the Department of State.
Nihad Awad, the Executive
Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, argued that Islamophobia
was a new word but not a new phenomenon. He presented data to indicate
that hate crimes against Muslims had risen by 29% in the last one year
and in the ten years since 1995 that his organization [CAIR] had collected
data on Islamophobic episodes, it has shown nothing but steady increase.
He concluded that being critical of Islam and Muslims is not Islamophobia,
but to ridicule the faith and the faithful, certainly is.
Louay Safi, the Executive
Director of the ISNA leadership Development Center, insisted that Islamophobia
deepens the divide between the US and the Islamic World. He argued that
increasingly Islam is being presented as a violent and intolerant religion
and this message is spreading from the margins to the mainstream. A
report entitled “Blaming Islam” authored by Dr. Safi and
published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding was released
at the event.
Imam Mahdi Bray, the executive
Director of MAS Freedom Foundation expressed concern that in spite of
the fact that most Muslims cherish American values, they are portrayed
as seditious. He lamented the ignorance of Islam that underpins Islamophobia
and suggested that occasionally some measures of the government, when
in its overzealous endeavor to prosecute the war on terror it overplays
its hand and undercuts Muslim civil rights, may also be contributing
to the growing instances of Islamophobia.
The afternoon Keynote address
was delivered by Dan Sutherland, the Officer for Civil Rights at the
Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Sutherland started by observing
that there is “a lot of heat but very little light” on the
subject of Islamophobia. He addressed the issue of Islamophobia and
the rising hate crimes and anti-Muslim discourse in America head-on.
He argued, based on fifty years of statistical data, that America has
progressively become less and less racist.
Sutherland then spoke at
length about the stunning achievements of American Muslims in every
sphere of American life asserting that the degree to which American
Muslims are integrated and successful belies any claims of systematic
Islamophobia in America. He did however concede that there have been
several incidences of Islamophobic episodes, but he also claimed that
there were many which were resolved in the favor of Muslims and discussed
a few cases where the government has interfered effectively on the behalf
The government’s case
was very clear; yes there are disturbingly large numbers of incidences
that suggest that prejudice is at work, however the overall picture
indicates that things are not as bad as some Muslim leaders were claiming
them to be.
The final panel of the day
included, Ahmed Younis, the National Director of the Muslim Public Affairs
Council, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists
and Muqtedar Khan of Brookings Institution. This panel sought to balance
the debate by arguing that while there are disturbing indications of
the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice in America, there are several surveys
which speak to this reality, American Muslims must be careful how they
talk about Islamophobia.
The panelists also argued
that American Muslims must work with the government to not only challenge
the anti-Islamic discourse that is spreading in the US but also work
to correct some of the misunderstandings that the government itself
maybe harboring about Islam and American Muslims. An additional theme
that was explored was the need to challenge anti-Americanism that was
spreading within the Muslim community. Recognizing that anti-Americanism
and Islamophobia feed each other, the panelists called for simultaneously
addressing both prejudices.
While this was the first
US Government and American Muslim conference on Islamophobia, there
is need for several more such interactions in order to help define the
term and come to a common understanding about the extent of anti-Muslim
prejudice in America and how the government and the community can jointly
M. A. Muqtedar Khan
is Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware and a Nonresident
Senior Fellow with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He
is also a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
and the Alwaleed center at Georgetown University. His website is www.ijtihad.org.
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