Fear of a “Changing America” By most statistical indicators, the United States will become a majority-minority country by the year 2043. The latest US Census data and studies by the Pew Center for the Study of Religious Life confirm that the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority population will become the minority population within a generation, replaced by one that is increasingly brown, Hispanic and Catholic. The rising visibility of certain demographic groups, characterized by race, ethnicity or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, labor status or religion, simultaneously affirms the demographic shift underway in the country and evokes backlash among a certain segment of the population eager to slow or even reverse the natural process of greater political and legal enfranchisement these groups are gaining. A survey of recent legislative efforts on a state-by-state basis confirms a long-suspected, and expected, campaign to “push back” on such groups and their political/legal space in society. However, a deeper analysis of these legislative efforts suggests that this campaign is not merely a series of unrelated initiatives that target single suspect groups; in fact, what emerges is a coordinated, integrated effort that involves a small group of legislators in each state sponsoring, co-sponsoring or spearheading these efforts against more than one suspect group. This trend appears to have currency in several states where multi-pronged campaigns are underway against several suspect groups and in each case, a small, focused clutch of legislators are behind multiple initiatives against these groups.
As America moves further toward its demographic destiny, there is a likelihood that a shrinking majority will feel threatened and refuse to accept the changes about to come. Fear is an exploitable, even profitable commodity and may be manipulated for political and financial gain from those unable to foresee a new future where they will not be part of the dominant power structure. The process has already begun, in some quarters, to define and assert America as an eternally and essentially “white” country, making the nation’s narrative a racially, culturally and ideologically based one that defies the nation’s long-held ethos of being a country of immigrants welcomes people from every race, religion, creed and culture.
While white nationalism may identify certain “enemies of the state,” Muslim Americans may be the most convenient target given their numbers and weak political status. The gravamen of most white nationalists may not be the Muslim community; rather, it may be some of the very groups who comprise part of the emerging and eventual majority- women, Hispanics and the LGBTQ communities. While battling these groups may be politically and financially impractical, Muslims may become the secondary targets to compensate for frustrations that would have been pointed at the other suspect groups.
American Muslim Civic and Political Influence The American Muslim community is approximately 3.3 million, or about 1% of the total population. Muslims in the United States tend to have comparable income spectra to the broader society and attain higher education levels than the national average. Since 9/11 American Muslims have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of political activity. In light of legislation that targets the community, such as the USA Patriot Act, and increased surveillance of Muslim spaces, American Muslims have intensified their efforts to register the community to vote and to become better informed about issues and politicians who impact the community and its needs.
While American Muslims are members of a faith community, the toxic rhetoric directed against the community bears great similarity to attitudes that demonized other groups historically like Jews and Catholics, and also takes on a racialized dimension by which Muslims are seen as a racial group and foreign threat.
Given its relatively small size and its diffuse presence throughout the country, the Muslim American community may be energized, motivated and active but it still occupies a marginal presence in the country’s civic and political space. Muslim Americans in the aggregate are far behind the other demographic groups that make a difference in the public landscape, e.g. Hispanics, LGBTQ and women, in the amount of social and political capital they wield. Despite its relative prosperity and access to resources, the amount of political and influence lags well behind other groups that are similarly situated.
When white nationalism may identify certain “enemies of the state,” Muslim Americans may be the most convenient target given their numbers and weak political status. Muslims may become the secondary targets to compensate for frustrations that would have been pointed at other demographic suspect groups. At the same time, many members of groups of diversity have knowledge about the Muslim community that is either incomplete or distorted by the misinformation that is commonplace when discussing Muslims in the public debate.
Legislation Targeting Muslims and Others There is no shortage of legislative efforts that seek to marginalize, disenfranchise and discriminate against various demographic groups. Despite the 2015 US Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, state legislatures have sought to limit the enfranchisement of the LGBTQ community. States like Indiana have tried to pass laws that legalize discrimination under the guise of “religious liberty.” Similarly, many states have enacted laws that impose heavy restrictions on voter access, a measure that disproportionately affects people of color. Anti-immigration laws are present across the country as are persistent efforts to limit a woman’s access to reproductive health care. At the same time, anti-Sharia legislation has been attempted in over 30 states across the country. While these bills tend to fail as a result of being unconstitutional, they continue to be a popular device for Islamophobic politicians to demonstrate to their constituents their purported vigilance in the face of an alleged threat. At the same time, politicians who sponsor anti-Sharia legislation are 80% likely to sponsor legislation that targets other demographic groups based upon their race, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation or union membership. Such laws affect voter access to the polls, women’s access to reproductive healthcare and LGBTQ marriage and adoption rights. This process demonstrates definitively that American Muslims are one of many groups targeted and marginalized, but it also affirms that the campaign against Muslims is part of a broader effort to limit the rights of several demographic groups.
American Muslim Collaboration with Other Groups Given the targeting of American Muslims and other demographic groups based on their respective identities and ideologies, there is both the need and opportunity for these various groups to collaborate in defending their rights and their space within the public sphere. This effort is underway and gaining both momentum and results. A coalition of diverse demographic groups has come together to combat not just Islamophobia but bigotry directed against other groups. The Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March and initiatives striving to keep immigration to the United States a prized feature of the country’s long-established tradition are some of the areas where activity is particularly visible.
The coalition of the diverse and its sense of a shared experience of being targeted has also played a critical role in mitigating the potential backlash faced by the American Muslim community following an act of extremism falsely attributed to it. After the horrific 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, the LGBTQ community was the first group to publicly speak out and declare that the American Muslim community did not bear the blame for the act of a single, deranged individual. Such sentiment was due, in part, to relationships that had developed between Muslim and LGBTQ organizations at the local and national levels. The recognition of the American Muslim community and the challenges it faces was on display at the 2017 Women’s March, where the symbol of resistance for all affected groups and communities has and continues to be an image of a Muslim woman in a hijab.
Recommendations: The American Muslim community is in many ways the “canary in the coalmine” for other diverse groups. Social and political attitudes, policies and legislation are often a precursor to or concomitant element in such actions taken against groups based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or religion. An attack against one group of diversity may be an attack on all. In light of these facts, this brief recommends that the allies of the American Muslim community:
1. Develop a strong knowledge base of Muslim culture and the Muslim community in America.
2. Recognize that Islamophobia is one element of a broader phenomenon of bigotry that targets several demographic groups based on race, ethnicity, national origin, immigrant status, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
3. Recognize the existence and emergence of a coordinated, integrated campaign at the legislative, political, social and ideological levels to challenge certain suspect groups, based on race, ethnicity and national origin, gender, sexual orientation, labor status and religious affiliation.
4. Locate Islamophobia, within this broader campaign that seeks to limit, restrict and even reverse political and legal rights of a series of suspect groups.
5. Collaborate and form coalitions with individuals and organizations from other affected demographic groups to raise awareness of efforts to adversely affect the American Muslim community and to develop strategies to combat bigotry that affects all communities from the coalition.
6. Offer policy recommendations, to advocacy groups, policy makers, legislators and public opinion makers, of strategies to monitor, mobilize and respond to such legislative efforts on a state-by-state or broader regional and/or coordinated national level.
7. Form coalitions to help protect and preserve the religious and civic liberties of American Muslims and all faith communities.