Sadiq Khan and Islamophobia

May 14,2016

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Last week, when Londoners went to the polls to elect their mayor, the Conservative Party’s Zac Goldsmith suffered a humiliating landslide defeat. The Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan will be the new face of multicultural London.

What’s most interesting about the handling of Goldsmith’s campaign is the perception, among his advisers, that the instrumental use of Islamophobia would be politically helpful. It wasn’t such a reach, perhaps. On the continent at least, the tactic seemed to work in boosting the fortunes of what should otherwise be fringe parties like the National Front in France, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, and the Sweden Democrats. And the blatantly anti-Muslim UK Independence Party (Ukip) has been steadily gaining support, nearly doubling its representation in the same local elections.

London, of course, is a city, and a very diverse one at that. What might work in Britain as a whole clearly failed with the more cosmopolitan voters in its capital. Polling at 20 percent across most of the country in the 2014 elections, Ukip managed only seven percent in London. One Ukip candidate attributed the difference to the ‘more media-savvy and educated’ population of the capital city.

It would be reassuring to believe that Sadiq Khan’s victory will banish Islamophobia from the electoral toolbox, particularly here in the United States. But America is not London. And our billionaire conservative is no tree-hugging friend of indigenous peoples. He doesn’t care about offending liberal sensibilities.

Moreover, anti-Islamic sentiment has been steadily rising in the United States, thanks to a relatively small group of well-funded organisations and individuals. Even if Donald Trump loses in November, as he most assuredly will, Islamophobia will not slink into the shadows along with its mouthpiece, the disgraced reality star.

Since 2001, the United States has resettled about 800,000 refugees inside its borders. Of that number, five have been arrested on terrorism charges. Two were arrested this January, another in 2013, and the other two in 2011. Five out of 800,000 equals .000625 percent. That’s practically the definition of statistically insignificant.

Yet, as the Brooking Institution’s Robert McKenzie pointed out at a recent panel in Washington, DC sponsored by Brookings and Duke University, 31 out of 50 governors have announced that they want to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states. All but one of these governors is a Republican. It’s an important reminder that the scaremongering of Trump, Carson, and the other erstwhile presidential candidates poisons the party as a whole.

The problem extends beyond individual Islamophobes. Equally troubling is the overall climate of bigotry and fear. Christopher Bail, a Duke University researcher who also participated in the panel, has been documenting the spread of Islamophobia. He presented a series of graphs that revealed that: Over the past decade, 32 states proposed Shariah law bans, controversies about the construction of mosques have increased by more than 800 percent, and the number of Americans with negative opinions of Islam has more than doubled.

To understand how astonishing these results are, imagine if I wrote that 32 states had proposed anti-UFO laws, that controversies over the construction of playgrounds had increased by 800 percent, and that the number of Americans with negative opinions of Judaism had more than doubled. You’d think that the country had been taken over by delusional, child-hating Nazis.

After all, there is zero evidence of a campaign to impose Shariah law anywhere in the United States – the only case ever cited is one in which a domestic court judge based his judgment on Shariah law, which the appellate court sensibly overturned – just as there’s no evidence of an alien plot to take over the world. Mosque attendance has been definitively demonstrated to reduce extremism, not encourage it. And although anti-Semitism is universally reviled, anti-Islamic sentiment flourishes because many Americans associate the religion with the tiny number of extremists who call themselves Muslims rather than with the 99.9 percent who are not followers of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

In her victory speech after the Pennsylvania primary last month, Hillary Clinton gave a shout out to all the various constituencies that make up her voting bloc: women, workers, LGBT, people with disabilities. She also warned of what would happen should candidates ‘from the other side’ prevail:

They would make it harder to vote, not easier. They would deny women the right to make our own reproductive health care decisions. They would round up millions of hardworking immigrants and deport them. They would demonise and discriminate against hardworking, terror-hating Muslim Americans who we need in the fight against radicalisation. And both of the top candidates in the Republican Party deny climate change even exists.

At first glance, Hillary is hitting all the right notes. But as Omid Safi, the head of the Duke Islamic Centre, pointed out at the above-mentioned panel, only Muslim Americans merited an ominous qualifier: ‘terror-hating’.

Hillary is implying that, without such a qualifier, Muslim Americans are somehow guilty by association. They are connected in the public mind with the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people at the end of last year – unless they explicitly say otherwise – in a way that white Christians are not expected to disavow their connection to Dylann Roof, who likewise killed nine people last year.

For most Americans, Muslims are the ‘other’, a group of people who have to constantly prove the negative: that they’re not terror-loving. Good luck proving the negative. In such an environment, Muslims will never be above suspicion. Muslim organisations have repeatedly decried every terrorist act linked to Muslims, but the mainstream media has just as repeatedly ignored them. And so continues the myth that Muslims secretly approve of what al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are doing.

To defeat Islamophobia, or at least to stigmatise it to the same degree as racism and anti-Semitism, political victories over candidates who use both dog whistles and megaphones to trumpet anti-Islamic sentiment are, of course, essential. But the challenge is greater.

It’s time to stop securitising Muslims – thinking of them only in terms of terrorism, national security, and ‘threat’. American Muslims have the same preoccupations as the rest of America: the economy. They identify strongly as patriotic, and the more religiously observant they are, the more being American is important to their identity. They are far more satisfied than any other religious group with the direction the country is currently heading. And they are far more diverse a group than any other religious community. With large numbers of African American, Latino, and Asian adherents, the American Muslim community looks more like America than Protestants, Jews, or even Catholics.

The victory of Sadiq Khan has ‘normalised’ Muslims in UK politics in much the same way that JFK normalized Catholics in American politics. American Muslims are still waiting for their JFK moment. True, for the last seven years, large numbers of Americans have thought that their president is a Muslim, which in Islamophobic America has been just another way of saying that these conspiracy theorists don’t like Obama. So, obviously, that doesn’t count. There will be cheers. There will be boos. But we’ll know that the era of Islamophobia has passed when the most common reaction is a shrug and a yawn.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Sadiq Khan and the end of Islamophobia’.



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