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As we protest the immigration ban, we must protest liberals’ Islamophobia too

Last week we saw a truly incredible outpouring of protest against Trump’s unconstitutional immigration bans.

We saw Muslim Americas stand up for their communities and we saw thousands of non-Muslim people stand in solidarity with their neighbors, strangers, and friends. These protests offer hope for the long fight ahead. They also offer an opportunity for non-Muslim Americans to challenge the roots of Islamophobia in our politics and culture—not only within the rightwing, but within “progressive” politicians and ourselves. We know that Trump’s anti-Muslim policies aren’t a radical break from, but rather an extension of, Democrats’ escalation of the War on Terror under Obama. Even the irrational singling out of these seven countries isn’t unprecedented: Obama had already leveled visa restrictions against them. And much of the rhetoric of the War on Terror, as we know, depends on a demonization of Islam and Muslims. 

It’s clear, then, that anti-Muslim racism goes far beyond Trump and beyond obvious bigotry, to inform even so-called progressive assumptions of how the world works. Solidarity means showing up to protest. But it also means listening to Muslim writers and activists and questioning the assumptions about Muslims and Islam used to justify state violence. We can begin by talking about some of the ideological fixtures underpinning Islamophobia. 

Lemme turn it over to Linda Sarsour, who takes down some common forms of bigotry in the video below. Sarsour is the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She is getting a lot of attention now because she was co-chair of the Women’s March, but she has been awesome for a long time — she helped get some Muslim holidays recognized in New York public schools and has advocated against the profiling of Muslims in New York City. Here is Sarsour dispelling some common bullshit about Muslims and Islam:

The bullshit that Sarsour calls doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. All these ideas are based on distorted, but also common, notions about Islam, Muslims, and history. For example: The idea that Muslims are one homogenous group (they’re not); that Islam is the only defining political and social identity for all Muslims (it’s not); that Muslim women are in need of saving by Christian or white people (they’re not); and that Muslim people are uniquely prone to violence or extremism (they’re not).

Consider, for example, this article by Elizabeth Shakman in The Boston Review, which questions the phrase “Muslim countries.” Shakman asks: Why do even progressive Americans refer to countries with majority-Muslim populations as “Muslim countries,” as though religion is the only important social factor in each place? Think about it: Switzerland, a majority-Christian country, banned minarets; France, a majority-Christian country, banned full-face veils; the United States, a majority-Christian country, has legislators seeking to ban abortion based on their own Christian beliefs. Yet barring literal neo-nazis, most of us would be reluctant to refer to France, Switzerland, and the United States as “Christian countries,” or argue that all Christian Americans are solely defined by their religion. 

It’s a double-standard that is both inherently Islamophobic and widespread, and we can see it in seemingly progressive writings as well as overtly conservative ones. Take this popular article about Trump’s autocratic tendencies from The Atlantic. While the article’s stance is apparently progressive, and while its author would certainly oppose Trump’s current ban, the author also drops this statement like it’s a given: “Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology.”

What the statement implies, and what a lot of liberals believe (whether overtly or tacitly), is that “the Islamic world” as a discrete entity is driven by ideology (and presumably thus fundamentalism) in a way that “the Western world” is not. Of course, this statement is nonsensical— anti-abortionism, white supremacy, capitalism, American exceptionalism, liberalism, and the myriad ideas that characterize contemporary American politics are all ideologies. The idea that “the Western world” is primarily moderate or rational while “the Islamic world” is primarily fundamentalist or irrational is a tired and racist Orientalist trope.

So while we as non-Muslims continue to raise hell against the Trump regime and its grotesque Muslim ban, let’s question our own assumptions as rigorously as we challenge others. It’s only by doing this that we can understand the anti-Muslim logic perpetuated by American politicians well before Trump.

We can start by asking ourselves some basic questions:

Will we learn about the history and present of Islam as a religion, people who are Muslim, countries with large Muslim populations, and the diversity of cultures, art, politics, lifestyles, gender arrangements, cinemas, fashions, social movements, etc. associated with these places? 

Do we perpetuate the stereotype that Muslims more likely to be violent than non-Muslims?

Do we focus on Muslim people’s religious identity or practice in contexts where it’s not relevent? 

Do we patronize Muslim women, fetishize their choices in dress, or deny them agency?

Do we expect Muslims to disavow or apologize for acts of terrorism they have nothing to do with?

America is home to many patriarchs, white supremacists, and extremists who advocate the invasion of other countries, excuse the killing of children as “collateral damage,” design and support the highest incarceration rate in the world, murder people at prayer, advocate torture, imprison women for having abortions, and ban refugees using bigoted scare tactics in order to earn political points.

Luckily, we are not all defined by the violence perpetuated by our countrymen, and we can choose to disavow and challenge the violence committed in our name. This starts by holding accountable not only the bigots in power, but ourselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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