What does Islamophobia actually mean?
In recent years, Islamophobia has emerged as a term of common popular and political parlance. It saturates media headlines and newsprint,
is pervasive on the pages of scholarship, is frequently uttered from the mouths of politicians and pundits,
and is an emerging focus of legal conferences and symposia.
The mainstreaming of the term “Islamophobia” is a result of the rising fear and suspicion of Muslim Americans—the crux of the term’s common understanding today.
Attempts to coin and define the term “Islamophobia” are largely driven by expediency and the practical and analytical benefits associated with packaging a complex phenomenon into an operable term. Despite critiques of the term from both scholars and advocates,
the term “Islamophobia” has proven to be both resonant and resilient.
It is deployed more than any other term to explain the rising animus and bigotry targeting Muslim Americans.
As of June 2016, Islamophobia was mentioned in 293 law review articles, the vast majority of which were published during or after 2011.
This interest continues today, particularly amid the expansion of antiterror policing and the enhanced commitment to counter radicalization following terror attacks committed by Muslim subjects in Europe and the United States.
Underscored in the existing scholarship on Islamophobia is the grand question of whether Muslims could be integrated into American society.
As Islamophobia continues to escalate, due to the expansion of government surveillance
and the brazen political rhetoric that mars the 2016 presidential campaign,
it will certainly continue to evolve as a subject of great interest and scrutiny within legal scholarship. With each passing day, the urgency of combating a proliferating and menacing form of bigotry targeting Muslim Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim Americans, grows. This creates a need for both a precise legal definition of Islamophobia and a comprehensive framework that encompasses the fear and suspicion emanating from both public and private spheres. This Piece is the first to provide a comprehensive definition and framework of Islamophobia within the legal literature, filling the void at a point in time in which scholarly interest is rapidly expanding.
This Piece defines Islamophobia as the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien, and inassimilable. Combined with this is the belief that expressions of Muslim identity are correlative with a propensity for terrorism. It argues that Islamophobia is rooted in understandings of Islam as civilization’s antithesis and perpetuated by government structures and private citizens. Finally, this Piece asserts that Islamophobia is also a process—namely, the dialectic by which state policies targeting Muslims endorse prevailing stereotypes and, in turn, embolden private animus toward Muslim subjects.
Islamophobia therefore has three dimensions: structural policy, private animus, and the dialectical process by which the former legitimizes and mobilizes the latent and patent bigotry of individuals and private actors. The result is far more expansive and complex than mere “fear and dislike” of Islam and Muslims.
Part I investigates private Islamophobia, or the fear, suspicion, and violent targeting of Muslims (and perceived Muslims) by individuals and private actors. Part II examines structural Islamophobia and the lesser examined process by which state actors perpetuate fear and suspicion of Muslims through enactment and expansion of formal surveillance, profiling, and immigration policy. Part III reveals the dialectic process by which state policy shapes and endorses popular stereotypes of Islam and Muslim subjects and, during sociopolitical moments such as the protracted “War on Terror,” emboldens private violence toward bona fide and perceived Muslim subjects. Part IV centers on the strategic benefits legal scholars and advocates can attain by deploying this Piece’s definition.
I. Private Islamophobia
This Piece defines private Islamophobia as the fear, suspicion, and violent targeting of Muslims by individuals or private actors. This animus is generally carried forward by nonstate actors’ use of religious or racial slurs, mass protests or rallies, or violence against Muslim subjects.
While informed by government policy and programming, private Islamophobia centers on the anti-Muslim activities and behavior carried out by entities not affiliated with the state.
On November 13, 2015, “[t]hree teams of Islamic State attackers acting in unison carried out the terrorist assault in Paris,” killing 129 people and injuring 352 others.
Roughly three weeks later, two (nominally) Muslim culprits shot and killed fourteen innocent people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which President Barack Obama declared an act of terrorism.
These two attacks pronounced an already hostile climate toward Muslims in the United States, stoked by hatemongers and fueled by politicians scapegoating Muslims.
A marked rise in religiously and racially motivated hate crimes against Muslims followed these attacks.
“Hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques across the United States have tripled in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., with dozens occurring within just a month.”
Combined with political rhetoric, representations of Muslims and Islam on mainstream and social media also fuel popular stereotypes of the faith and its followers and, after crisis, embolden the private animus and violence unleashed by private actors. The attack on a gay club in Orlando on June 12, 2016, again sparked fear of escalating hate crimes against Muslim Americans, which in years past has resulted in the fatal killing of perceived Muslims and bona fide Muslims. Recent examples include the shooting of three Muslim American college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in February 2015;
the arson, vandalism, and destruction of seventy-eight mosques in 2015;
the wave of anti-Muslim protests that swept through the nation;
the rise in private Islamophobic slurs and language made even more mainstream by the Trump campaign;
and most recently, the targeted killing of a prominent Muslim imam
and his assistant in Queens, New York.
While increasingly condemned by mainstream media and repudiated by (some) politicians,
popular bigotry toward Muslims emanates from tropes deeply embedded within state institutions
and aligns with contemporary policing and profiling measures such as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (PATRIOT Act), countering violent extremism (CVE) policing, and proposed state policies such as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
However, in line with the examples of private Islamophobia cited above, prevailing definitions of the term Islamophobia continue to frame the phenomenon in predominantly private terms.
Perhaps the most widely cited definition of Islamophobia, provided in a prominent study by the Center for American Progress, manifests the overt emphasis on private Islamophobia. The Fear, Inc. study defines Islamophobia as, “[e]xaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims . . . perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civil life.”
The definition effectively notes the relationship between existing stereotypes and the animus it informs and facilitates. However, its broad articulation does not explicate the role of law, policy, and government actors in enabling “bias, discrimination . . . marginalization and exclusion.”
Moreover, the description of Islamophobia as “exaggerated fear” illustrates the focus on private Islamophobia, delineating it as deviant or aberrant activity, instead of rational or strategic behavior advancing state interests.
However, private Islamophobia does not exclusively consist of aberrational perspectives or deviant behavior. Islamophobia also encompasses ideas and activity consistent with the anti-Muslim messaging emanating from state policy—and most luridly and loudly today—the state’s national security policing arms.
II. Structural Islamophobia
This Piece defines structural Islamophobia as the fear and suspicion of Muslims on the part of institutions—most notably, government agencies—that is manifested through the enactment and advancement of policies. These policies are built upon the presumption that Muslim identity is associated with a national security threat, and while they are usually framed in a facially neutral fashion, such policies disproportionately target Muslim subjects and disparately jeopardize, chill, and curtail their civil liberties.
While framed as a novel form of bigotry, the concept of structural Islamophobia highlights that Islamophobia is a modern extension of “Orientalism,”
a master discourse that positions Islam—a faith, people, and imagined geographic sphere—as the civilizational foil of the West. Connecting Islamophobia to Orientalism, the precedent epistemology from which modern representations and misrepresentations of Muslims derive, is a vital first step to understanding structural Islamophobia. In other words, understanding the foundation and trajectory of (modern) Islamophobia cannot be had without an analysis and understanding of Orientalism.
Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Professor Leti Volpp observed how terror attacks involving a Muslim culprit spur immediate “redeployment of Orientalist tropes.”
These tropes are embedded within popular culture, but more saliently, they are embedded within the institutional memory of government agencies, including the judiciary
and, today, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and antiterror law enforcement.
Characterizing Islam and Muslim identity as inassimilable, subversive, violent, and harboring an inherent propensity for terrorism,
these tropes move state agencies to enact policies—like those developed during the current protracted “War on Terror”—that seek to monitor, prosecute, and deny the entry of Muslim subjects. Such policies assign the presumption of guilt onto Muslims at large and diminish Muslims’ civil liberties.
While a number of modern government policies fit within the structural Islamophobia classification, the PATRIOT Act (and accompanying immigration legislation) and emergent counter-radicalization (or CVE) policing are the two most salient examples. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration established DHS around the principal mission of expanding its antiterror program, focusing specifically on “Islamic extremism” and culminating in the enactment of the PATRIOT Act two months after the 9/11 attacks.
The PATRIOT Act legally enabled an unprecedented degree of government encroachment “on Americans’ civil rights by . . . expanding the electronic surveillance powers of government,”
which disproportionately targeted Muslim subjects.
1. 9/11 and the Expansion of Structural Islamophobia. — State suspicion and systematic surveillance of Muslim Americans commenced well before 9/11.
However, because the terrorists were Muslims, the state centered its expanded counterterror programming in the direction of Muslim foreign nationals and citizens. With the creation of DHS on November 25, 2002,
electronic surveillance became the strategic cornerstone of the domestic counterterror program following the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history.
The PATRIOT Act enabled close monitoring of noncitizens and citizens suspected of terrorism or of having links to transnational entities classified as terrorist organizations, which severely chilled the religious and political activity of Arab and Muslim Americans; these demographics routinely are linked to national security threats. “Perhaps the most damaging effect the [PATRIOT] Act has on civil liberties, particularly for Arab and Muslim Americans, is the reduction in the standard that law enforcement must meet to in order to survey, search and seize persons and their property.”
After 9/11, the established nexus between Muslim identity and terrorism was tightened, enabling the state to bypass constitutional safeguards when the subject was Muslim.
In addition to expanded surveillance capacities, the Bush Administration structurally overhauled the state’s immigration and national security functions around the heightened fear of Muslim threat. The newly minted DHS swallowed up previously standalone immigration, customs, and emergency-management functions of the state.
In addition to two wars fought abroad,
and broadly expanded domestic surveillance and policing at home, the post-9/11 moment witnessed the enactment of a second policy that bore many parallels to the Muslim ban put in place during the Naturalization Era. In June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft instituted the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a sweeping immigration tracking program that almost exclusively targeted Muslim immigrants, nonimmigrants, and permanent residents. The “Special Registration” provision of NSEERS
required all male teen and adult nationals of 25 different countries to allow themselves to be fingerprinted and registered by the federal government or be subject to immediate deportation to their home countries. With the sole exception of North Korea, every single one of the other 25 countries on the Special Registration bulletin was either a Muslim or Arab nation.
While dissolved in 2011, NSEERS explicitly reintegrated the Orientalist baseline that Muslims were presumptive national security threats. Geographic origins, in addition to race and religion, signaled likelihood of a national security threat. Indeed, the legislation functioned as somewhat of a “Muslim ban” before Trump infamously proposed to prevent all Muslims from entering the United States on December 7, 2015.
The “Special Registration” provision of NSEERS, like its more studied and scrutinized piece of post-9/11 legislation, the PATRIOT Act, is a key example of structural Islamophobia.
2. Structural Islamophobia and Counter-Radicalization. — Today, rising fear of Muslim “radicalization” drives the current expansion of counter-radicalization, or CVE policing.
CVE policing is “the emergent model of anti-terrorism and national-security policing sweeping through American cities, and most notably, communities with concentrated Muslim American populations.”
CVE policing disparately focuses on Muslims, extending the surveillance arm of the state into the communities in which Muslims are concentrated and the spaces where Muslims congregate (most notably, mosques).
Again, this government practice is built upon the foundational trope that conflates Muslim identity with the antithesis of civilization and thus treats Muslim identity as a presumptive national security threat.
CVE policing is “cloaked in expertise about the process by which Muslims become terrorists.”
Like the PATRIOT Act, and preceding legislation and policy,
CVE theory focuses exclusively on Muslim subjects and geographies as presumptive sources of terrorism. Carried forward through collaboration between DHS, local law enforcement departments, and community informants,
CVE policing stands as the newest and perhaps most nefarious form of structural Islamophobia—redeploying the embedded tropes that Islam is inherently extreme and those who observe it, and do so conspicuously, are to be closely monitored as presumptive radicals.
Consequently, CVE policing chills the ability of Muslim Americans to freely exercise their faith and severely diminishes their free exercise of religion, speech, and privacy rights.
Formal CVE policing programs were piloted in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis in 2014.
However, the New York Police Department began using CVE policing tactics as early as 2002, spying on and seeding informants in Muslim communities, most notably mosques and community centers, in the tri-state area.
Like AEDPA, the PATRIOT Act, and NSEERS, formalized CVE policing is built upon the very notion that Muslim identity, and the expression of it, is a marker of radicalization or prospective radicalization. The state’s pursuit of radicals and its elusive goal of identifying Muslims at risk of radicalization is expanding, particularly after the recent attacks in Belgium, Paris, and Orlando. Illustrating this phenomenon, the structural presumption that Muslim identity is closely tied to terrorism is also expanding.
III. Islamophobia as a Dialectic Between State and Society
Radicalization discourse feeds into preexisting Islamophobia in the United States, lending legitimacy to anti-Muslim sentiment.
A. Dialectical Islamophobia
Islamophobia is also a systemic, fluid, and deeply politicized dialectic between the state and its polity: a dialectic whereby the former shapes, reshapes, and confirms popular views or attitudes about Islam and Muslim subjects inside and outside of America’s borders. Therefore, the third dimension of Islamophobia focuses on “dialectical Islamophobia,” which is the process by which state policies legitimize prevailing misconceptions, misrepresentations, and tropes widely held by private citizens.
Again, Islamophobia is the presumption of guilt assigned onto Muslims by state and private actors. But it must also be understood as a process—namely, the process by which state policies such as the PATRIOT Act and CVE policing both endorse ingrained and popular tropes of Muslims as alien, inassimilable, and prone to extremism
and embolden the private animus and violent targeting of Muslim subjects. This process occurs most intensely during the aftermath of terror attacks, such as the 9/11 terror attacks or the April 2013 “Boston Bombings”
—points in time when structural Islamophobic policies were typically enacted, advanced, or broadened.
The state’s rubber-stamping of widely held stereotypes of Islam and Muslims in society, through passage of surveillance programming, religious and racial profiling procedures, and tightened immigration policies, is the cornerstone of dialectical Islamophobia. This exchange—by which the broader polity absorbs the presumptive suspicion the state assigns to Muslims by way of (structural Islamophobic) policies such as the PATRIOT Act and CVE policing and subsequently shapes its view of Muslim subjects in line with these policies’ underlying characterization—is an ongoing dialectic that links state policy to hate and violence unleashed by the polity.
B. State Endorsement and Emboldening Private Islamophobia
The overwhelming attention on Islamophobia has gravitated toward sensational stories or instances of private Islamophobia. For example, stories about “intensifying calls for the exclusion of Syrian refugees and the isolation of American Muslims,”
anti-Muslim rallies spearheaded by fringe militants,
and the January 2015 murders of three Muslim American college students
dominate newsprint and scholarship. This fixation on sensational stories of private Islamophobia not only glosses over the programmatic fear and suspicion of Muslims administered by government structures but, just as critically, the process by which structural Islamophobia mobilizes private animus.
Prevailing definitions of Islamophobia overlook this interplay between state policy and discursive views of Muslims (and Islam). Like other forms of bigotry, the shape of Islamophobia is contingent upon mass-media representations,
political rhetoric and messaging,
and most crucially, government programming and policy. The fluid expansion of structural Islamophobia programming, which is reaching a second apex fifteen years after 9/11 with CVE policing, communicates to the broader polity that Islam is to be viewed with suspicion. It marks Muslims and Muslim Americans as, at best, possible threats, and at worst, terrorists in our midst.
In A Rage Shared by Law, written in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Professor Muneer Ahmad observes:
Like the post-September 11 perpetrators, the state claims an intimate relationship with the nation . . . . Moreover, the state has purported to act in the names of the victims of the terrorist attacks, invoking their memory as justification for a broad range of anti-terrorist policies . . . . [T]hrough its policies of racial profiling and racially targeted immigration enforcement, the state has . . . adjudged all “Muslim-looking” people to be terrorists, and carried out acts of retribution against them.
This very dialectic continues following the Paris, San Bernardino, Belgium,
and Orlando attacks, wherein the nation’s intensifying private Islamophobia drives the CVE policing programs expanded by the state.
The laws passed after 9/11, followed by the policing and profiling measures that have been carefully protracted through today, speak volumes to the American polity. They redeploy deeply ingrained Orientalist stereotypes that mark Islam as a civilizational antithesis and Muslims as inherently violent and unassimilable.
Instead of challenging these stereotypes, racial and religious surveillance programs affirm and endorse them, communicating to private Islamophobes that their fear, suspicion, and anger is warranted. During moments when structural Islamophobia is broadened to address perceived Islamic extremism, such as the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and homegrown radicalization, structural Islamophobic policies embolden the private passions of Islamophobes to undertake violence against Muslim subjects, or institutions, in the name of revenge, citizenship, and patriotism.
Indeed, structural Islamophobic programs and policies could also be viewed as (latent) calls to action, alerting private citizens to be on guard for ripe and unripe Muslim radicals and pushing them to take action. Accordingly, dialectical Islamophobia is a third illustration of how Islamophobia permeates our polity. It shows how state policies interact with private animus—rooted in centuries-old tropes and reified by the “War on Terror”—to foment antipathy toward and violence against Muslims.
IV. Deploying the Definition
The present marks the greatest degree of discord with regard to state and popular understandings of Muslim American identity. Discursively, Islam is overwhelmingly imagined along Orientalist lines and viewed in racial terms as frequently as it is religious terms. However, the state’s understanding of Islam (and Muslims) has developed in recent years, partially as a consequence of national security policies aimed at preventing radicalization.
While popular and structural perceptions of Muslims are still founded upon kindred tropes (violent and warmongering,
foreign, unruly, and members of an “enemy race”
), this gradually widening disjuncture in perception demands a definition of Islamophobia that enables understanding and, subsequently, vigilance against its multiple forms.
Since private Islamophobes generally imagine Muslims in overly inclusive racial or civilizational terms, strategies to combat this brand of animus should target communities that include not only Muslims but groups commonly mistaken to be Muslims. For instance, Sikh American men are typically perceived to be Muslims by private Islamophobes and, consequently, are among the most vulnerable and targeted victims of private Islamophobia.
Indeed, the Sikh turban itself has become a primary target of Islamophobes, who “mistakenly assume[ ] their turbans suggested strong Islamic faith.”
Turbaned, bearded, and brown-skinned, Sikh men fit the stereotypical caricature of the “Muslim terrorist” more closely than the majority of Muslim men, which has led to profiling, hate crimes, and targeted killings of this group.
In addition, the phenotypic appearances of non-Muslim South Asian, Latinx, Black,
and biracial men and women are often conflated with Muslim identity. As a result, private Islamophobia threatens non-Muslims in addition to practicing Muslims, mandating a definition and framework that enables protection, advocacy, and coalition building across religious lines.
On the other hand, emergent structural Islamophobic programs are centrally committed to policing Muslims along religious lines. As examined in Part II, CVE policing frames radicalization in largely religious or political terms. Conservative or extremist religious views, attendant critical politics, sectarian affiliation, and conspicuous expression of faith, among other factors,
inform the state’s view of who or what constitutes a threat. Because of this focus on religious practices, the pool of potential targets of structural Islamophobia is likely to be far smaller than that of private Islamophobia. Moreover, as the state entrenches and expands its commitment to CVE policing, structural Islamophobia is likely to be further narrowed to specific Muslim American groups and geographies that are perceived to be more associated with radicalization.
Consequently, scholarly and practical interventions concerned with structural Islamophobia should hone in on the religious and political contours by which the state perceives Muslim terrorists and radical threats.
Deploying the structural definition of Islamophobia, outlined in Part I, not only distinguishes state from private actors in their perception and policing of Muslim subjects but also enables disciplined and more precise analysis of this type of Islamophobia.
Finally, my definition seeks to collapse an analytical wall between private and structural Islamophobia that perpetuates the latter as a legitimate form of Islamophobia. The popular discourse and political moment has cemented a broad understanding of Islamophobia as exclusively deviant and aberrant private violence. As a result, state policy and policing that target Muslims are viewed as separate and distinct from the hatemongering sweeping through the United States. This limited framing diminishes the efficacy of grassroots, political, and legal challenges to Islamophobia, which must contemplate the state’s manifold roles in advancing Islamophobic policies and emboldening private violence.
A complex and multidimensional form of bigotry requires an equally complex and multidimensional conceptualization, which is what this Piece has sought to provide. A definition that encompasses the private infliction of Islamophobia, the state’s role, and the fluid dialectic between the two, offers advocates and scholars a framework by which to better understand the various dimensions of Islamophobia and subsequently, tailor interventions against it.
This Piece seeks to equip legal scholars with a precise and comprehensive definition of Islamophobia to carry forward legal research centering on this rising form of animus. In addition, by highlighting how the three dimensions of Islamophobia function independently and jointly, this Piece aspires to facilitate practical interventions against state policies that infringe on the civil liberties of Muslims, as well as hate crimes and private violence inflicted on Muslims and “Muslim-looking” subjects.
While debates questioning the efficacy of Islamophobia and its associated definitions persist, “‘Islamophobia’ has already gained wide traction in public discourse, and is the most concise and recognizable term currently used to describe prejudice and discrimination” toward Muslims.
Indeed, increasing use of the term within popular and scholarly spaces illustrates a resonance that supersedes alleged or debated limitations—most prominently the framing of anti-Muslim animus as a “phobia,” which may lead to viewing this animus as irrational and aberrant, instead of structural and strategic.
However, such criticisms are hardly distinct to Islamophobia. They were once attributed to “anti-Semitism,” “homophobia,” and other “widely accepted descriptors” that seek to strategically encapsulate complex, fluid, and multidimensional systems of bigotry.
The search for a perfect term must be replaced by a quest to tailor a more potent tool—specifically, a precise and comprehensive definition of Islamophobia that reveals its structural dimensions, examines how it is carried out by private actors, and analyzes the dynamic interplay between institutions and individuals. The need for this tool is more urgent than ever at a time when Islamophobia and its many menacing tentacles dominate our discourse—at a time when presidential candidates peddle Muslim bans and Muslim neighborhood police forces,
hate crimes are on the rise, and counter-radicalization surveillance in Muslim American communities continues to expand. Islamophobia may be an imperfect term, but it continues to show itself as a potent instrument to broaden understanding, advocacy, and intellectual interventions that combat the state and societal animus targeting Muslims and perceived Muslims.