On November 19th, 2015 UPF hosted an event called “Islamophobia in an Election Year” at Georgetown University, UPF premiered its film American Muslims: Facts vs. Fiction and brought together a panel of experts to discuss some of the biggest issues concerning bigotry and terrorism. The event was organized by UPF Director of Programs Daniel Tutt and moderated by Executive Producer Alex Kronemer. Here are some highlights from the question & answer segment, views are those of the speakers.
Alex Kronemer – Executive Producer and CEO, Unity Productions Foundation: Why is it our responsibility, to apologize for people who do not represent us and we have nothing to do about? Do we expect other groups to apologize in a similar way when horrific events occur?
Linda Sarsour, Executive Director, Arab American Association of New York: I condemn violence. I’m a human being. I don’t condemn violence because I’m Muslim. I’m not going to stand up and say, as a Muslim I condemn violence of ISIS because what that does is, is it reinforces the fallacy that I have something in common with ISIS like some basic ideology, when I don’t. So for me, I have no problem going to a press conference, or a rally, or a vigil with other New Yorkers, other fellow Americans, holding a candle, mourning innocent lives that have been lost. I have no problem doing that. But I don’t do that as a Muslim, I do that because I’m human. Because the act, these horrific acts, defy humanity. And on the basic level, that’s what I am, I am a human, and I mourn innocent life. You do not expect that from any other faith group, we have Christian militias massacring people in Uganda, in the Congo, in the Central African Republic, we have Buddhist extremist massacring Rohingha Muslims in Burma. I mean we do not ask any other group of people to apologize or to denounce terrorism as an entire group of people. So if you don’t ask any other group to do that, then don’t ask me to do that.
Alex: Right now we have ISIS and an Election year happening at the same time. Share your reflections about that phenomenon what we might do about it.
Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research, ISPU: I was interested in the question of ‘what events actually correspond to spikes in Islamophobia?’ I looked at polling data from 2000 to 2013. I noticed something interesting that really surprised me. Domestic terrorist attacks, even ones as horrific as 9/11 as well as the Boston bombing, did NOT have a corresponding increase to anti-Muslim sentiment, which was really shocking to me. In both cases, either there was a slight improvement, like after 9/11, there was a slight improvement of views of Muslims, and I really credit George W. Bush to be fair, because of his responsible stance, right after the events, where he said, this is not about Muslims, this is not the actions of the faith. Yet, when you look at where the spikes of Islamophobia were, especially amongst registered Republicans, it was in the run-up to the Iraq war and in the two elections, in 2008 and 2012. So election cycles produced a spike of almost 14 points among Republicans, whereas the Boston bombing didn’t change views at all. If you just let that sink in, what it means is that a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment is not simply organic and regrettable result of bad Muslims doing horrible things. It’s actually manufactured for political reasons. This is just what the facts at least point to, to my surprise. Now ISIS changes that. The data changes after ISIS becomes a staple of our nightly news. My theory around that, is that ISIS is as much a ‘media’ organization as it is a military organization. It doesn’t just do terrible things, say like the Boston bombing. It is feeding us almost pornographic violence on a nightly basis. It’s almost doing the propaganda or the hateful rhetoric for Islamophobes. ISIS is their favorite tool because they are so horrific, they are so public with their violence, that it’s not just their actions, it’s the way they communicate their actions. So you have an uptick in Islamophobic perceptions because of this media phenomena called ISIS. Now we have both ISIS and an election year. And it’s a very scary time where more than ever, we need to step back and have rational conversations injected with facts not fear.
Alex: In 10-15 years, we as a country, are going to be struggling with these diversity issues, that the Muslim community is already struggling with and coming to certain solutions and successes in. Please elaborate.
Saafir Rabb, CEO at Interculture: I’m a Baltimorian, born and raised from Park Heights, and my parents were in the Nation of Islam. My father joined that movement in 1968. It is really credited for attracting people from Park Heights, like my family, which is a very poor part of Baltimore city, and giving them the first introduction to al-Islam through the form of social justice, through the form of awareness, and through the idea of ‘hold your ground’ but be non-violent, don’t use weapons. There is a way to deal with oppression without being violent in the ways that these wacko’s are doing abroad. I don’t identify with them, I don’t think we aught to identify with them, but I do think it’s an obligation if someone is doing something in your name, speak up and correct them. You can’t let them speak up and misrepresent you. I think the diversity of al-Islam really inoculates this point. And not only the diversity of al-Islam but the diversity of America, on which this nation was founded, folks that took issue with their oppressive and tyrannical governments, went and established something somewhere else… But that is ultimately the origins of what we know as the United States of America. It was full of diversity, remains full of diversity and so is the Muslim community that was established.
Alex: How does the election cycle drive the Islamophobic phenomenon in the United States?
John Esposito, University Professor, Georgetown: That becomes the lens which many through see it. And it’s amplified by the fact that a study done by Media 10, of events between 2000 and 2011, ‘how does the media look at Islam and Muslims in the Muslim world?’ That study looked at 975,000 pieces of media in Europe and America. They found that in 2001, 2% covered extremism and 0.5% covered the broader context of mainstream Islam and Muslims. In 2011 the 2% jumped to 25% and the broader context remained at 0.5%! That is an incredible situation! If you take things said about Islam and Muslims in our media and substitute it with the word Christian or Jew, much of that discourse would not be on TV or would not be in print media. In terms of where we’re going here, I think we’ve got a real problem. If you look at the latest polls with regards to the amount of Republicans who think that Obama is a Muslim, as Colin Powell said, why is this an issue? I think we still underestimate, there are a significant number of Americans, thank God, that do believe in what America’s about. Which is pluralism, freedom, freedom of religion, and human rights. But we have an incredible number of Americans who…still say they don’t know much about Islam, some of them say that they should, but their learning curve doesn’t increase…So I think it is a bit bleak… Any good speaker ends the talk with ‘there’s light at the end of the tunnel,’ I don’t think there is. I think that the challenge today is we have to turn that light on. That’s our real challenge. We just think that somehow it’s going to happen. It’s not going to happen. And it’s important that Muslims step up but it’s important that other Americans do because for those of us who are Americans…in terms of speaking out, I speak out as an Italian American who knows what the hell it’s like to be discriminated against, and knows what it’s like to have your mother and father discriminated against. And for all of us if we believe in our principles, those of us who are not Muslim, have to speak up to win the day.