Hate-Bias Response panel traces origins of Islamophobia in America

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By Laina Sara Miller
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

The Hate-Bias Response Program finished their semester of panels about racism on Thursday, Nov. 14, with “Deconstructing Islamophobia.”

Co-sponsored by the Muslim Alliance for Social Change, this panel did not only focus on the more obvious forms of hatred and racism directed at Muslims in post-9/11 America; panelists Suad Mohamud, Kristin Garrity Șekerci and Darakshan Raja also covered the deep roots of Islamophobic racism in American history, the industry of Islamophobia and the cross-generational trauma attached to being a Muslim in America.

The panelists themselves came from different backgrounds, united by their experiences as Muslims. 

Șekerci, a senior research fellow at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, is a white convert to Islam, with a master’s degree in ethics, peace and global affairs from American University. 

Mohamud, a junior computer science major at this university, is the service chair for the Somali Student Association. 

Raja, who is the co-director of the “Justice For Muslims Collective,” is a graduate of the Rockwood Leadership Program for South Asian, Muslim and Arab women leaders, and holds a master’s degree in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Dr. Nina Daoud of Washington, a 29-year-old alumna from this campus with a Ph.D. in higher education, student affairs and international education policy (HESI), said that she appreciated the diversity of origins represented by the panelists, including her personal friend, Raja.

The Hate-Bias Response Program, a program within this university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, is dedicated to decreasing all hate-bias incidents at this university. Throughout this semester, the HBRP has held regular campus conversations on hate-bias, as well as more specific panels about racism and bias in America. 

In this moment of increasing hate crimes throughout America, the HBRP has taken the time to educate students about the many faces of hate-bias, including gender and sexuality as well as anti-Semitism, white supremacy and Islamophobia.   

When the “Deconstructing Islamophobia” panelists began discussing the background of Islamophobia in America, Raja said that “to only position Islamophobia as something post-9/11 does a disservice,” referencing the ways that slave-owning America targeted Islam as a way to perpetuate slavery: many of the slaves first brought to the Americas from Africa were, in fact, Muslim.

According to the panelists, Islamophobia, like many other kinds of racism, was practically built into the foundations of our country.

Șekerci and Raja traced the origins of American Islamophobia back to medieval Europe, and the connections drawn between Islam, “the Moors/black people,” and so-called savagery by the white-Christian supremacists of medieval and early-modern Europe. 

They then traced it forward, into the American slave trade and the reformation of racist imagery to frame Islam as oppressive and the religion of the supposedly “lesser” ethnic groups.

Mohamud took the formation of modern stereotypes about Islam and race into the present, pointing at the continued theme of Muslims being seen as persecuted by their own religion, represented by the hijab in public and popular culture.

“There are a lot of movies that portray women in hijab… as, like, oppressed, and they are unable to communicate or just live freely,” Mohamud said. “They don’t really have the depth, as opposed to other characters who don’t identify with the faith and wear a hijab.”

Șekerci and Raja also turned to popular media tropes. 

Șekerci picked apart the trope of a “good Muslim” working for “the Americans” against the “bad Muslims,” pointing at blockbuster movies about the ‘war on terror’ and the tendency for most narratives to turn to the white-savior trope. 

Raja continued the focus on movies and popular culture, pointing out the tendency in American media to group all Muslims together into one homogenous, violent uncivilized group, and citing the depiction of the terrorists in Marvel’s “Iron Man.”

The panelists also discussed how Islamophobia and Islam-centered racism affected their identities before and after 9/11, including experiences ranging from childhood encounters to American policies.

After the pre-arranged questions were answered, the panelists opened the floor to the audience, a nearly-full room in the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center, capable of seating 156.

Audience members came from a range of origins as wide as that of the panelists.

Diksha Patel, a senior biology major, was told about this panel in one of her classes. About the panel itself, Patel said that she liked “the way that there were questions already prepared to ask them,” also noting her appreciation for the relevance of the questions toward current events.

On the other end of the spectrum is Richard Cao, a Mandarin Chinese teacher, who found the event on this university’s website. Cao said that events like this one, that discuss and interfere with stereotypes and racism, are very important. He said that communication “kills prejudice. When we hear each others’ voices, it kills prejudice.”

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