- Altaf HusainAltaf HusainSchool of Social Work, Howard University
Islamophobia is not a new term but it has become commonly used in the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This entry provides an overview of the demographics of the Muslim population in the United States. The historical context in which the use of the term first emerged is then identified, followed by a discussion of the two major approaches to defining Islamophobia. The term connotes either outright anti-Muslim bigotry due to religious intolerance or racism and xenophobia toward people from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia who are Muslim or who have a “Muslim-like” appearance. The history of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States is traced from before the founding of the nation through present times. Implications are presented for social work with Muslim clients, organizations, and communities who may be impacted by anti-Muslim bigotry.
- Human Behaviour and the Social Environment
- International and Global Issues in Social Work
- Race and Ethnicity
- Sociology of Religion
Social work practice with Muslims in the United States began to receive increased attention following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the backlash that ensued against Muslim Americans, especially those of Arab and South Asian descent (Husain & Ross-Sheriff, 2011). The term Islamophobia is commonly used to characterize the expression in speech and actions of irrational fear against individuals who are Muslims or adherents of the religion of Islam and of the groups, organizations, and communities to which they belong. Regardless of whether Islamophobia is defined as anti-Muslim bigotry or as racism toward people of Muslim cultures, the etymology of the term needs to be examined since the term phobia has a very specific reference in the helping professions in connoting irrational fear or anxiety toward an object or situation. No evidence supports use of the term Islamophobia in the context of a clinical diagnosis (Bleich, 2011). The term does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Drawn up largely in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even the DSM-V, the latest iteration of this manual, does not mention Islamophobia, and further research is necessary to explore whether a case could be made to classify it under the category of a specific phobia (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This entry first presents a brief overview of the demographic characteristics of the Muslim community in the United States. Next, the context in which Islamophobia has emerged and definitions of the term are presented. The history of oppression and religious bigotry against Muslims in the United States is reviewed, and the entry concludes in delineating the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim individuals, families, organizations, and communities.
The Muslim presence in the United States can be traced back to the arrival of slaves from West Africa well over seven centuries ago, although organized Muslim American communities are predominantly a 20th-century phenomenon (Diouf, 1998; Haddad, 1991). Estimates of the Muslim population in the United States vary considerably, with no exact figures because Census data do not identify individual religious affiliation. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans total 2.6 million and they account for 0.8% of the U.S. population as of 2010. National Muslim organizations contend that there are between 6 million and 10 million Muslims in the United States. The Muslim American population exhibits great diversity in taking into account race, ethnicity, languages spoken at home, socioeconomic status, educational level, and adherence to Islamic practices (Husain & Ross-Sheriff, 2011). With Muslims in the United States tracing their ancestry to well over 85 different countries, it is nearly impossible to identify a Muslim by language spoken as merely someone who speaks Arabic (most Muslims are actually non-Arabs), by the color of their skin, or via a particular ethnic composite. This aspect of the demographics is especially critical to the present discussion of Islamophobia. In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and throughout the decade that followed, fatal attacks have taken place on individuals of Arab and South Asian descent but who were not Muslim (Love, 2009).
Native-born converts from the African American, Caucasian, and Latino communities make up about one-third of the total population. Foreign-born Muslims and their second- and third-generation children, mostly from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa region, and central and eastern Europe, make up about two-thirds of the total population. As the Pew Research Center notes, regardless of the varying estimates of the population, it is clear that due to natural births, continued immigration to the United States, and conversions, the total number of Muslims is increasing and expected to double by 2030 (Grim & Karim, 2011).
Context and Definitions
Islamophobia has emerged in the American vocabulary more commonly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but it actually originated more than one hundred years ago in France and then in the United Kingdom (Bravo Lopez, 2011). Intriguingly, the northern and western parts of Europe. which are identified as the geographic context for the emergence of the terms Islamophobia, anti-Islamic bigotry, and anti-Muslim bigotry, are the same places where centuries of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigotry persisted. As traced by Bravo Lopez (2011), Islamophobia appears to have evolved from among intellectuals critiquing each other’s writings more so than its later use against Muslim populations. For example, Islamophobia was initially used by intellectuals to critique the work of writers who expressed some form of hatred toward Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, or the Qur’an. The focus appears to have remained on a theological confrontation and on Islam itself rather than on the adherents of Islam. Bravo Lopez (2011) asserts that for the late-19th-century writers who first used the term, “Islamophobia consists of a hostile attitude towards Islam and a desire to do away with it altogether. Islamophobia would, in short, mean considering Islam as an enemy that must be fought” (p. 561). Over time, Islamophobia became conflated with prejudices against Muslim cultural practices and even racism toward Muslims of non-European descent. The next two sections discuss the efforts in the social sciences during the 20th and 21st centuries to delineate the roots of the irrational fears and outright hatred against Islam and Muslims have resulted in varying emphases within the proposed definitions in the literature (Bravo Lopez, 2011; Love, 2009; Meer & Modood, 2009).
Islamophobia as Religious Intolerance or Anti-Islamic Bigotry
Among the definitions of Islamophobia that have emerged, the focus tends largely to be on fear-driven or emotional reactions against Islam and Muslims while the potential for those fears to motivate outright intolerance is not addressed. One often-cited definition emerged in 1997 when the Commission on Racial Equality in England released a report on Islamophobia. That definition predates the 2001 terrorist attacks. However, owing to the rise in attacks against Muslims in England during the late 20th century, the commission concluded that Islamophobia refers “to dread or hatred of Islam—and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” (Runnymede Trust, 1997, p. 1). While 21st-century writers make references to the Runnymede Trust definition of Islamophobia, the focus of that original definition on outright dread or hatred of Islam is omitted and only the fear of Muslims is retained in discussions of the term (Bleich, 2011; Kunst, Sam, & Ulleberg, 2013; Lee, Gibbons, Thompson, & Timani, 2009). Similarly, Gottschalk and Greenberg (2008) have suggested, on the one hand, that Islamophobia describes “social anxiety towards Islam and Muslim cultures” (p. 5) and, on the other hand, that it is rooted in an irrational fear of both the faith of Islam and Muslims, the adherents of that faith. Bleich (2011) opts to confine Islamophobia in the mostly cognitive and affective way, defining the term as “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims” (p. 1585).
However, as Stolz (2005) asserts, outright religious intolerance and anti-Islamic bigotry cannot be separated from expressions of fear of Islam or Muslims; rather, Islamophobia should be examined as a multifaceted construct, one that includes actions directed against Muslims. Stolz (2005) defines Islamophobia as “a rejection of Islam, Muslim groups and Muslim individuals on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes. It may have emotional, cognitive, evaluative as well as action-oriented elements” (p. 548). Although Stolz’s work is rooted in the European context, such an approach was most evident in the United States, within the context of the 2001 terrorist attacks, for two main reasons: (1) the propaganda put forth by those Muslims professing a hateful brand of Islam, one that asserted a baseless claim of a binary world in which Muslims were on one side and the rest of humanity, particularly the Western world, were on the other side as disbelievers; and (2) the mistaken though prevailing view among some elected officials and some self-styled experts on Islam who, instead of marginalizing the extremists, reformulated the propaganda to assert that Muslims hate our [American] way of life and are committed to destroying it. Just as the extreme rhetoric of the terrorists and their terrorist acts were antithetical to Islam, this Western worldview equally wrongly interprets Islamic teachings as innately promoting violence, as labeling Muslims as the enemies of everyone who is not a Muslim, and as erroneously casting Muslims as the supporters of a war against those who are not Muslim. Although it has emerged as pervasive in recent years, this worldview has existed since the 1980s and 1990s when the word terrorism became synonymous with Islam and that of terrorists with Muslims for two main reasons: the actual violence perpetrated by certain individuals in the name of Islam and the gross and inhumane violent acts in popular films attributed to Muslims outright or at least to individuals with a “Muslim-like” appearance (Love, 2009).
Islamophobia as Racism or Xenophobia
Evidence in the literature supports the view that Islamophobia is associated less with religious intolerance and more with racism or prejudicial views against Muslims. Soldatova (2007) uses the constructs of fear and prejudice as motivators of a form of religious xenophobia. According to Love (2009), Islamophobia is “used to refer to bigotry, discrimination, policies and practices directed towards Islam and a racialized group of people that includes Muslims” (p. 402). He notes that individuals, especially males of Arab or South Asian descent, mistakenly identified as Muslims based on skin color, accent, beard, or a head covering, such as a turban often worn by Sikhs, have borne the brunt of ill-treatment, sometimes fatally, merely for having a “Muslim-like appearance.” It is possible that a combination of a lack of knowledge and the impact of decades of unchecked efforts by Orientalists, government officials, and even some leaders in the faith community to make the word terrorist synonymous with Middle Easterners has resulted in a racialized stereotype of Muslims as the “other,” or worse, as the “enemy.” Meer and Modood (2009) delve deeply into the question of racism against Muslims and the “Muslim question,” recalling the longstanding European debates concerning the “Jewish question.” Hatred of the Jewish population of Europe resulted in persecution in varying forms and genocide before the normalization of the status of Jews in Europe in the middle of the 20th century. With regard to Muslims, it can be said that incidents of hate speech or hate-filled actions against those individuals who self-identify as Muslims cannot be firmly traced back to being solely a result of religious intolerance nor solely due to racism or cultural prejudices. It is worthwhile to note that even when Islamophobia is defined as racism against Muslims, according to Meer and Modood (2009), efforts are made to minimize such an approach. The authors note, first, that an individual could choose to opt out of being a Muslim whereas one’s race cannot be altered. Other reasons they identify: “it is a religion [so] it can be ridiculed in intellectual debate. The third is that ethnic minorities are more welcomed than religious ones. The fourth is that Muslims are seen as a threat and not as a disadvantaged minority” (Meer & Modood, 2009, p. 335).
Social workers will benefit in assessing the context in which Islamophobic behaviors arise so as to identify whether those behaviors are reflective of anti-Muslim bigotry or racism directed more broadly toward people of Muslim cultures. To understand the prevalence of Islamophobia, it is helpful next to provide an overview of the history of oppression of, and religious bigotry against, Muslims in the United States.
History of Anti-Muslim Bigotry in the United States
Islamophobia has existed in various forms throughout American history, starting with the slave trade in the 16th century—Muslims began arriving in North America as slaves as early as the 1500s—and continuing through the different phases of migration, which, beginning in the late 19th century, have brought Muslim immigrants and refugees to the United States. In contrast with contemporary portrayals of Islam as a “new arrival,” as a “foreign” religion, and of Muslims as the “other,” Diouf (1998) contends that slaves from West Africa were predominantly Muslim. Owing to the scarcity of primary data from this period in American history, just what proportion of the slave population was Muslim is a matter of debate. Gomez (1994) acknowledges the presence of Islam in West Africa, among other indigenous African belief systems, and he concludes that even if only a minority of the slaves among those brought from West Africa were Muslim, their population would have still numbered in the thousands. The Muslim presence in America endured among the slaves because they did not “succumb to acculturation but strove hard to maintain their traditions, social values, customs and particular identity” (Diouf, 1998, p. 3). On the other hand, African Islam did not survive in its orthodox form due to systematic proselytization efforts by Christian slave owners, who cast Islamic beliefs and traditions as barbaric and who punished those who attempted to maintain Islamic practices. Due to the high rates of literacy among Muslim slaves, various accounts of their lives did survive, ranging from descriptions of the horror of their captivity to the inhumane living and working conditions on the plantations.
Post–Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement
During the late 1800s, in addition to freed slaves remaining in the United States and adhering to whatever remained of their Muslim faith, other Muslim immigrants from the Levant (present-day Syria and the neighboring region) and South Asia arrived in the country. The lives of these early immigrants have been chronicled more from a vantage point of their acculturation processes than of their experience practicing their faith, so minimal documentation exists of either religious intolerance or racism connecting back to Islam (Haddad, 1991; Takaki, 1998). Ironically, Muslims among the South Asians were actually mistaken as adherents of the Hindu faith.
Following World War II, the United States revamped its immigration policies, removing early-20th-century restrictions on immigration from Asia and Africa. From 1965 onward these new immigrants began to arrive in the United States; yet, attention was focused less on their religious backgrounds and more on their race. Americans had only recently marked the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights movement in the form of landmark legislation addressing the unconstitutionality of racial segregation, affording voting rights to African Americans and making race-based discrimination illegal. The new immigrants included Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa as well as South Asia. Their arrival was facilitated, in part, to the removal of the national origins quota system, essentially ending grounds for racial exclusion that had existed since 1924. Johnson (2004) states that “since the U.S. Congress eliminated racial exclusions from the U.S. immigration laws in the heyday of the 1960s civil rights movement, the laws have included no race-based prerequisites for admission” (p. 2) into the country. Muslims, many of whom are immigrants of color, have benefited greatly from those legislative reforms.
The 1965 Immigration Reforms through the End of the 20th Century
Unlike pre-1965 immigrants, these post–Civil Rights movement arrivals were highly educated and established as professionals in their countries of origins. Their reception was far less contentious than that of the early-20th-century immigrants since they filled key positions in the public and private sectors as university professors, engineers, accountants, and physicians. Most Americans encountered these new immigrants not only as experts and specialists in their fields, but also as neighbors in the suburbs. In accounts of the lives of these new immigrants, little mention is made of religious intolerance or outright Islamophobia, partly because their total population was still quite small but mostly because communism was viewed as the prevailing national threat. Esposito (2002) contends that the conclusion of the Cold War and the defeat of communism ultimately shifted the attention of American foreign policy interests and, by the 1980s, it was clear that Islam and Muslims were increasingly portrayed as threats.
Love (2009) asserts that by the mid-1990s the pervasive racialized stereotypes of Middle Easterners as terrorists blinded the judgment and analysis of “professional analysts, investigators and journalists” (p. 411). He provides as evidence the immediate, though wholly inaccurate, conclusions by FBI and CIA investigators and other experts that “Arabs” of Muslim origin were responsible for the 1995 terror attack that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 1998 accidental explosion that destroyed TWA flight 800. Although no evidence in either tragedy was found to identify Muslims as the perpetrators, individual Muslims and Muslim organizations and communities in the United States experienced threats to their psychosocial well-being and, in some cases, outright physical harm and damage to property. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) documented instances of anti-Muslim stereotyping, harassment, and hate crimes following the Oklahoma City terrorist attack in a report titled “A Rush to Judgment.” By the end of the 20th century, an alternative definition of Islamophobia was being proposed. Halliday (1999) asserts that anti-Muslimism has emerged as an attitude and not Islamophobia because it is not the doctrine of Islam that is being challenged; rather, mainly Muslim immigrants are being discriminated against. The distinction made was that the backlash, if any, was against “political Islam” and not the religion of Islam itself. As noted above, the definition provided by Stolz (2005) is more comprehensive in that he prefers not to make a distinction between one dimension of Islam or another or even between Muslims as a group or Muslim individuals. He emphasizes that Islamophobia is “a rejection of Islam, Muslim groups and Muslim individuals on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes” (p. 548).
The 21st Century: The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks and Onward
As noted at the outset, the use of the word Islamophobia has become common following that tragic day in September 2001 when terrorists struck in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The conflation of Islam and terrorism became evident in policy and public life in two ways: (1) the USA PATRIOT Act, which gave unparalleled authority for surveillance and capturing of terrorists or supporters of terrorism, was enacted within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, and (2) severe hate crimes occurred against Middle Easterners and South Asians, often without distinction as to whether individuals were Muslim or not. And yet, by all accounts, Muslim Americans were largely spared the fate suffered by Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Held in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans suffered devastating losses to their dignity and property. Why did this difference exist? Muslim Americans suffered less than Japanese Americans due to a dominant multicultural societal framework established by the late 20th century as well as to a “revulsion to highly publicized violent hate crimes” (Love, 2009, p. 412).
Manifesting in the form of religious intolerance as well as outright anti-Muslim stereotyping and harassment, Islamophobia persists well over a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Variations of anti-Muslim bigotry have been evident. They include efforts to burn the Qur’an, the religious text of the Muslims to carry out blatant attacks on the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad, who Muslims believe was the last prophet from God, and to launch state-based campaigns against the acceptance in American courts of Sharia law, despite no credible evidence to indicate that Muslims have sought to introduce Islamic law into state constitutions (Ali, 2012). The persistence of Islamophobia and the individuals and organizations that promote anti-Muslim bigotry have been documented in reports both by the Center on American Progress (CAP), such as “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and by CAIR and the Center for Race and Gender of the University of California, Berkeley, such as, “Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States, January 2009–December 2010: Same Hate, New Target.”
Implications for Social Work and Future Trends
Given the increased use of the term Islamophobia both in academic and non-academic settings, it is important to understand the implications of such use for social work. First, a social work research agenda is needed to facilitate understanding of what Islamophobia is, how it manifests, and how to measure both its perceived and real occurrences. An interdisciplinary approach might well be necessary, especially since researchers from fields such as intercultural relations (Kunst, Sam, & Ulleberg, 2013), psychology of religion (Lee et al., 2009), and sociology (Stolz, 2005), have made contributions toward defining and measuring Islamophobia. The Islamophobia Scale, to measure both cognitive and affective behavioral facets of fear-related attitudes toward Islam and Muslims, has been developed and tested (Lee et al., 2009). This scale could be of great benefit to the social work profession in assessing the severity of Islamophobic attitudes and behaviors among clients presenting with either latent or manifest anxiety about Muslims or extreme anti-Muslim bigotry. Second, a combination of approaches to include practice-informed research and research-informed practice should be used to understand and assess the impact of Islamophobia. The practice setting could inform mixed-method studies either on how some practitioners struggle with their own Islamophobia or on best practices and practice principles for social work with clients who present with fear or hatred of Muslims. Similarly, social work practitioners ought to be concerned with the impact of Islamophobia either on Muslim victims or on individuals with a “Muslim-like” appearance (Love, 2009). Literature in related social science disciplines, such as psychology, has addressed Islamophobia more directly, and it has proven to be quite instructive for social work practitioners—researchers and educators alike. Inayat (2007) shares reflections on how the therapeutic dialogue is impacted and can be enhanced when clients are Muslims who have experienced Islamophobia but may be less inclined to seek formal counseling.
From a macro perspective, clear implications for social work can be identified in the areas of community organizing and policy practice. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, state policy shifted quite drastically and specifically targeted some Muslim individuals and mostly charitable organizations as alleged supporters of terrorism. This systematic targeting had a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of Muslims with regard to community organizing and religiously mandated charitable giving (Ruff, 2005). In addition, at the onset of his campaign for president of the United States, false reports emerged that claimed Barack Obama was a Muslim and that he was not born in the United States. The combination of these two untruths unleashed a barrage of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments across the nation, resulting in very local manifestations of Islamophobia ranging from damage of masjid property and outright arson in Joplin, Missouri, to city councils refusing to approve applications for permits to expand or build new Islamic centers. Community organizers and policy advocates alike found themselves the subject of scrutiny by local and federal authorities (Love, 2009).
Lastly, improvements must be made in the manner in which terms such as Islamophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry, and anti-Muslim hatred are catalogued within social work literature. Within the Social Work Abstracts database, a search in 2014 using the keyword “Islamophobia” returned zero results. However, the issue of Islamophobia and its impact on Muslims in the United States is receiving attention in social work education, policy, and practice literature. Exemplars of social work literature address culturally competent practice with Muslim Americans (Husain & Ross-Sheriff, 2011), depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among Muslim Americans (Abu-Ras & Abu-Bader, 2009), and modified cognitive therapy with Muslim clients (Hodge & Nadir, 2008).
As the reports by CAP and CAIR make clear, no evidence indicates that Islamophobic attitudes are declining. Well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Runnymede Trust (1997) report listed eight characteristics of Islamophobia with which social workers should be familiar, and these characteristics are even more evident in the second decade of the 21st century. Finally, related terms used to describe individuals with Islamophobic tendencies with which social workers should be familiar include Islamophobes and anti-Muslim bigots.
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