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,” American Muslims 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 Muslims also bear the brunt of being linked to international acts of extremism that are purportedly committed by Muslims. They are the only community that are charged with explaining, interpreting and condemning the acts of other Muslims, irrespective of the underlying complexities of the issues that cause such action. The constant connection of American Muslim with broader geopolitical events contributes to the anti-Muslim sentiment directed at the American Muslim community.
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.
Given its relatively small size and its diffuse presence throughout the country, the American Muslim community may be energized, motivated and active but it still occupies a marginal presence in the country’s civic and political space. American Muslims 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. At the same time, Muslims are continuously confronted with offering explanations of a variety of complex topics and issues, in response particularly to media coverage of those subjects. This has compelled Muslims to become “experts” in theology, philosophy, law, economics, politics and culture, an unfair and unreasonable expectation for any community.
Erosion of Civil Liberties Legitimizes Discrimination Anti-Muslim rhetoric is not confined to the private sector. In fact, the toxic statements made by politicians, opinion makers and other public voices contributes to the acceptability of Islamophobia by Americans who feel that the discrimination of American Muslims is not only legitimate, but even a patriotic duty. Since 2008, a steady stream of candidates has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a significant component of their electoral dialogue. They have exploited the public’s pre-existing fear and/or misinformation of the Muslim community or manipulated bigotry that paints the entire American Muslim community as a monolithic threat, despite no statistical evidence to support any such attitudes. The consequences have been to see a continuing decline in positive public sentiment about Muslims, a group now seen as the least liked religious group in the country, at par with atheists. In addition, public support for travel bans, curbs on Muslim immigration and even added, targeted surveillance of Muslims is troublingly strong and vocal.
Some Americans invoke the political marginalization of American Muslims as a validation for the exercise of their own prejudices and discrimination. Muslims are routinely subject to taunts, bullying, harassment at the workplace and a host of other bigoted activity.
Legislation Targeting Muslims and Others 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% more 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.
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 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: Given the challenges facing the American Muslim community in the age of Islamophobia, and recognizing the community’s relative size and civic and political capital, it is essential for American Muslims to efficiently use their resources to combat both bigotry it faces as well as to strive for diversity and the protection of other similarly affected groups. In pursuit of these objectives, this brief recommends that the American Muslim community:
01. Develop a stronger culture and mechanisms of self-critique and self-awareness as to the community’s short term and strategic objectives and priorities.
02. Foster and establish programming to gain greater education of US civic and political history and culture.
03. Recognize that Islamophobia is one element of a broader, coordinated and integrated phenomenon of bigotry that targets and seeks to limit or reverse the rights of several demographic groups based on race, ethnicity, national origin, immigrant status, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
04. 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.
05. 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.
06. Develop strategies that facilitate the delinking between the American Muslim community and acts of extremism that are linked to the broader Muslim community internationally.