Soft Islamophobia

The Islamophobia of liberals may take a different form, but it ultimately follows similar reasoning to right-wing anti-Muslim sentiment and contributes to a system of violence.

With my co-panelists after moderating a discussion on headwrapping across different faith traditions. Taken at the 2017 Headwrap Expo in Dearborn, MI. (Image credit: Namira Islam)

Update (September 2018): This piece has been updated, peer-reviewed, and published in Religions Volume 9 Issue 9, which you can access for free at

I was the fifth Muslim panelist to speak at a convening where dozens of people had gathered from across the country to discuss ways in which we could combat anti-Muslim hate.

I was the first to reference scripture.

During the Q&A and after heading back to my seat, the non-Muslim clergy in the room were enthusiastic to cite their own holy texts and build upon the conversation that my bringing up Qur’an had started.

I found the entire experience both frustrating and humorous— despite organizers choosing to center Muslims, the agenda included no time for any of the daily prayers and there was no space designated for prayer for the Muslim attendees.

Islamophobia was the focus. Islam was an afterthought.

There are three distinct issues with how well-intentioned liberal allies are addressing Islamophobia. One is the lack of structural analysis around anti-Muslim hate. Second is this transformation of “Muslim” into a cultural category akin to any other ethnic group. The third issue is related to the second issue: the discomfort with and erasure of Islam as a faith that includes guidance on issues of exploitation and oppression.

All of these issues are damaging Muslim communities and slowing down the progressive fight against structural racism.

Let’s talk about the second issue first.

“Brown” and foreign as a cultural category

Islamophobes often ask how their rhetoric could be racist when “Muslim” isn’t a race. In the same breath, they stereotype all Arabs as Muslims and all Muslims as Arabs. Islamophobia is also tied to ideas of nativism and xenophobia where the “foreign” element is deemed a part of what’s so dangerous.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that non-Muslims are also harassed when they are “perceived to be Muslim.” This has included people who are Sikh, Christian and Arab, Christian and African, and other non-Muslim South Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans.

Here are just a handful of the occasions where anti-Muslim bigots have harassed non-Muslims who fell within their stereotype of brown-skinned, “foreign,” and “Muslim-ish” and therefore a terrorist:

  • In November 2015, Kayla Gerber, a 24-year-old non-Muslim actress, singer, dancer, and one-time finalist in Miss Canada National, was assaulted by a man who “pinned her against a wall” and screamed at her to “take off [her] f****n hijab and get the f**k out of his country.” Gerber is Jamaican-Canadian and “had wrapped her scarf around her head to keep her ears warm.” (Source 1, 2)
  • In December 2015, a bigot harassed Juan Calero, a 21-year-old non-Muslim Latino NYU student, calling Juan “a terrorist” and telling him “to leave the country.” NBC News reported that Calera said that he “is not Muslim, but is often mistaken as one because of his beard and curly hair” and that this was the 4th time he’d experienced anti-Arab and anti-Muslim harassment. (Source)
  • In 2016, Laolu Opebiyi, a British Nigerian Christian man, experienced “flying while Muslim” on an EasyJet flight, when he was “removed from a plane by armed police at Luton airport after a fellow passenger read a message on his mobile phone about ‘prayer’ and reported him as a security threat.” Opebiyi was texting on his phone in a “conference call prayer group, which was [titled] ‘ISI men’ — an acronym for ‘iron sharpens iron’, from the Bible quote ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’” (Source)
  • In 2017, a “routine trip to a strip mall in Canada almost turned deadly for a [non-Muslim] Latino family when Mark Phillips, baseball bat in hand, approached Sergio Estepa, Mari Zambrano, their 13-year-old son and a friend, informing them that they were under arrest for being ‘ISIS terrorists’.” (Source)

In many spaces all across the United States, well-intentioned liberals are positioning “Muslim” in a similar cultural category the same way Islamophobes do. Instead of rejecting broad categorizations of “all Muslims are ‘brown’ and foreign,” mainstream representation frequently focuses on Arab and South Asian Muslims while excluding or under-representing the experiences of Black Muslims (especially African-American Muslims), Latinx Muslims, East Asian Muslims, and white Muslims. “Assimilation into America” is often a talking point and framework for telling our stories.

Since the 2016 election, I’ve seen multiple organizers include South Asian or ‘Middle Eastern’ representation in the “Muslim spot” on panels that include communities who are under increased attack during thie Trump administration. These panels often also include a Black voice, a Latinx voice, and an East Asian voice. Thus, despite the fact that many West, Central, and South Asians are not Muslim — and many Blacks, Latinos, and East Asians are Muslim — these panels reinforce the neat silos that white supremacy has created about non-white identities. “Pick one.”

I’ve seen this in non-profit funding, national convening spaces, government agency task groups, and in media coverage. Well-intentioned liberals and allies use terms like “MASA” (Muslim, Arab, South Asian) and “AMEMSA” (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian) to describe communities that are impacted by Islamophobia despite the fact that “perceived to be Muslim” impacts Africans and Latinos and Native Americans (and those who are multi-racial) too. It’s despite the fact that the first Muslims on American shores were enslaved Africans and that some of the best known American Muslims were and are Black.

As my colleague Margari Hill notes:

The effect of using Muslim as a cultural identity includes reifying South Asian and Arab hegemony in Muslim discourses. One particular issue is using “Arab and South Asian” as a synonym for Muslim, or in a grouping that is intended to be open to all Muslims but only uses some names and ethnicities. […] [T]he cultural category has resulted in the exclusion of Black Muslims in the discussion of Muslim civil liberties or the effects of Islamophobia. Black American Muslims have been under surveillance and discrimination many decades before 9/11.

These silos are dangerous. They leave out impacted communities, further cement stereotypes about Muslim foreignness, and split anti-Islamophobia organizing away from Black, Latinx, and/or indigenous organizing, when we could and should be working together.

Muslims are the most diverse faith group in the United States, so the overlaps should come easy. Instead, we see division even within Muslim communities, where the impacts of policy and narratives that pit non-white groups against each other play out here too despite having faith tie us all together.

We need more than roses and meet-and-greets to fight Islamophobia

I mentioned that the first issue is the lack of structural analysis around anti-Muslim hate. The second is lack of understanding around systems of discrimination.

There’s a lot of excellent writing and analysis out there about what “Islamophobia” is and is not. In particular, see American Islamophobia, the new book out by Khaled Beydoun, and the #IslamophobiaIsRacism syllabus by Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, Arshad Ali, Evelyn Alsultany, and others, who argue that “anti-Muslim racism” is a more accurate term to use:

This syllabus reframes “Islamophobia” as “anti-Muslim racism” to more accurately reflect the intersection of race and religion as a reality of structural inequality and violence rooted in the longer history of US (and European) empire building. … It also connects the histories of various racial logics that reinforce one another, including anti-Muslim racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Arab racism, and anti-South Asian racism.

By focusing on understanding Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism, this syllabus challenges the idea that the problem is one of individual bias and that simply knowing more about Islam will necessarily lead to a decrease in anti-Muslim racism.

Others have suggested different terms as well, but whichever term is utilized, Islamophobia is not simply about interpersonal disagreements between Muslims and non-Muslims, or about a “fear” of Muslims that non-Muslims act on. Islamophobia refers to the long-standing system of discrimination that is enshrined in law and policy to specifically target those who practice the Islamic faith, i.e. individuals who are known as Muslims.

On the right, Islam is posited as fundamentally incompatible with Western values and a threat to the United States and other “enlightened” nations. Islamic law is described as “sinister” (#creepingsharia), “barbaric,” and “rigid,” and the religion itself is commonly portrayed as a political affiliation more than a bona fide faith.

These narratives are sponsored by a million-dollar industry and lead to the enactment and support of policies like the PATRIOT Act, the War on Terror, no-fly lists, indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay, CVE programs, and the Muslim Ban, which have collectively had devastating impact on American Muslims and Muslims abroad. The narratives dehumanize Muslims — likening Muslims to “vermin” or a “cancer” or some other non-human entity because of an “allegiance” to Islam — and the resulting policies are often indiscriminate in who they harm, targeting civilians and children, since all Muslims are seen as less than human and therefore justifiable targets to keep those who are seen as human safer.

The basic takeaway message for these Islamophobes is that anyone who becomes Muslim or is born Muslim is either currently a terrorist or will someday become a terrorist through exposure to the “true teachings” of Islam.

Many liberals — whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim — often accept this framework. They set out to disprove the talking points about Muslims not being compatible with Western values instead of deconstructing the talking points altogether.

You see this in the embrace of stories of Muslim soldiers and veterans, the centering of narratives about Muslim doctors and “badass” Muslim women, and the amplification of stories where Muslims are giving in charity or “breaking stereotypes” by getting along with Christians, Jews, or the LGBTQ community.

The embrace of Muslims by non-Muslim liberals — as demonstrated by the most recent Democratic party messaging on the issue, for example — is still couched in terms of national security and compatibility with Western values, except this time, everyday Muslims are “patriotic Americans,” “good immigrants,” “law-abiding citizens,” and therefore “staunch allies” in the fight against “Muslim extremism.”

These well-meaning allies then fail to acknowledge the systematic nature of anti-Muslim discrimination and rush to encourage dialogue among Muslims and non-Muslims. This is done under the assumption is that if only American non-Muslims understood their American Muslim neighbors, Islamophobia would lessen. This core theory not only centers the concerns of the “persuadables” who are “misinformed” about Islam, but places the burden on American Muslims, who make up 1.1% of the US population, to play outreach in the most friendly manner possible to get bigoted American non-Muslims to like them. In response, American (and British and Australian and European) Muslims have handed out roses, sat for hours outside with donuts to answer questions, and published all kinds of writing and art about our families and dreams and hopes to humanize ourselves.

A quick study of US history — especially Black history — demonstrates that familiarity with public figures or individuals from marginalized backgrounds does not automatically translate into the dismantling of racist laws or systems. Nothing showcases this as well as our current President’s claims that he loves or gets along tremendously with “the Muslims” or “the Blacks” while simultaneously instituting discriminatory policies.

Narrative and interpersonal work must be coupled with policy and advocacy work to accomplish systemic change.

Isn’t that work happening?

Certainly. I’ve been in multiple spaces where well-meaning allies are organizing against Islamophobia from a policy and advocacy lens.

But from my observation, many of the people salaried to organize against Islamophobia on that systemic level are non-Muslim white liberals or Muslims who self-label as “more culturally Muslim” than religious. Often, the Muslims who are grounded in faith-based community spaces are there pro bono to “advise” on the actions that the liberal groups will work on so that these actions are more “respectful” to Muslim communities.

This hesitation to center the Muslims who are most affected in a way that lets us actually lead — and be funded — to do the work for ourselves, despite our lives depending on it, is still a function of Islamophobia.

I can step outside every day in a hijab, knowing that I could be subject to the actions of a vigilante or to profiling by the government, and still be held at arms length by “good people” when looking to discuss where we go from here to organize against a system that spies, jails, deports, and ultimately destroys lives.

Is this allyship? I think it’s soft Islamophobia.

At the end of the day, good PR for “Muslims who are just like you” still allows space for narratives and policies that alienate and target the Muslims who are not like you — those who are “too conservative” to be allowed into the umbrella of who is allowed to have an ally.

This often includes Muslims who don’t speak unaccented English, Muslims who are low-income, and/or Muslims who have a criminal background. It also includes Muslims who are actively ritualistically religious — there’s a reason why CVE looks to whether someone is fasting more, praying more, attending religious lectures, keeping halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher), growing a beard/wearing the headscarf, or learning how to speak Arabic.

Increasing religiosity is still seen as a precursor to terror, since the underlying assumption that “Islam = dangerous” has not shifted despite people being more accepting of Muslims.

Which leads us to the third issue, the erasure of Islam as a religion that provides specific guidance on all avenues of life.

When faith is apparently still the problem

Despite what our current Vice President may say, Americans as a whole are in an era of increased distance from organized religion. People are unchurched, unsynagogued, untempled, and unmosqued. Sentiments like “I’m spiritual, but not religious” are common and there’s discomfort with rituals and rites.

It doesn’t come as a shock to me that there’s a widespread discomfort with talking religion or citing scripture in activist and organizing spaces. The people most often referencing religion in the news or in politics are those on the religious right — whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. Many make the news because they’re using religion to justify limiting the rights of others to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, resulting in the death and suffering of innocents.

Thus, those opposing these actions often eschew religion altogether. The “religious left” may have scholars and clergy who get down in the weeds with scripture, but in many liberal spaces, we see generic references made to religious sentiments, if any sentiments are included at all. It’s not uncommon to see an opening prayer or reflection, soundbites on interfaith harmony or the golden rule, and the mention of religious holidays and multicultural neighborliness.

But in this context, who’s fighting Islamophobia — and how — sits within the tension of celebrating religious plurality while also being deeply uncomfortable with religion as a whole, and Islam as a faith in particular.

Thus, in these contexts, Islamic religious practices are Westernized as much as possible to be non-threatening.

For example, the more a Muslim woman is trendy with her hijab style, the more she’s “on point” with a full face of makeup, the more she’s instagrammable and snapchattable, the more she’s in lockstep with ideals of white feminism and neoliberalism, the more she’s celebrated by liberals. A trendy Muslimah can satisfy that sweet spot between white saviorism and the celebration of diversity.

The more a Muslim embraces their “Muslim heritage” but not Islamic tenets, the more excited Hollywood and media outlets are in covering them. By talking about eating pork, drinking alcohol, not praying/fasting, that Muslim is dubbed a non-threat and granted mainstream coverage.

If religious institutions are oppressive — and Islamic religious institutions threatening in particular — then holidays-only “spiritual” practitioners or “cultural Muslims” are the ones that are truly safe. Ramadan is safe when we frame it like Christmas, with the commercialization of crescent-shaped trees, advent calendars, greeting cards, and Party City decorations up for sale while also engaging in Christmas-esque narratives around giving and charitable activity.

There is still a positioning of “Muslim values” against “American values” and assimilation is the price of getting in and being afforded the privileges of being a “real American,” i.e. someone who doesn’t get discriminated against.

All too often, this results in Muslims clamoring to enter into whiteness — as a sociopolitical category, and not just through changing names or lightening skin — to become “American enough” to be safe.

With the transition of “Muslim” into a cultural category, Muslims are expected to show up on panel discussions or in the media with only the faintest mention of hadith, Qur’an, or Islamic history — these verses and stories and philosophies should be generic, feel-good, and inspirational. I have attended events where no other Muslim speaker even generically references Islamic theology. The focus is on Muslims as people and not on Islam as a faith.

Islam is still seen as inherently dangerous and compatible in this country only if it’s in small doses.

Anything a Muslim does still needs a translation to make it ‘safe’ in the eyes of non-Muslim moderates.

Despite it being progress that we have an audience for that dialogue, in the end, it still creates an environment where Muslims are othered, surveilled, and profiled. Liberals — of all races and backgrounds — still “keep an eye” on the religious Muslims because of this fundamental belief that if anyone is going to go into a murderous path, it’s going to be the religious one.

Where do we go from here?

Solidarity is about centering the most affected. There’s a reason why so many Islamophobic attacks center around victims who are elderly immigrant Muslims, young African/Black Muslims, low-income Muslims, and/or women in hijab — these individuals are facing the intersections of race, class, gender, and religion.

Focusing on narratives of Muslims who are proudly unmosqued and have no connection to a house of worship is not the same as centering the voices of the loved ones of people who were killed while at the mosque or those who have faced arson. Focusing on liberal Muslimah media figures or “culturally-Muslim” male comedians doesn’t mean that a serious-looking long-bearded man in a thobe, or a woman in niqab, is going to feel the benefits of that acceptance.

They are still seen as the foreign risk.

While those Muslim narratives may not be as “sexy” or “stereotype-breaking,” we do need a space for these. Not only that, but we need more inclusion in the activism space for these voices — not just the millennial or ‘woke’ or ‘cool’ Muslims who are easily consumable by the general American public.

I’m not good if I’m safe but my mother still fears walking outside. I’m not good if a Muslim cabdriver or mosque-goer or auntie wearing non-Western clothes is still at risk. I’m not good when Muslim men are still detained in Guantanamo Bay despite never being charged with anything, or when drones are being dropped on civilians abroad, or when Black Muslims are political prisoners for their work.

#BlackLivesMatter applies to Muslims. Bangladeshi Muslim women garment workers are dying in fires to sew your trendy, “cheap” clothes. The Rohingya are being slaughtered at the hands of Buddhists, and Latinx Muslims are facing deportations. Native American Muslims are still at Standing Rock.

Muslim is not a cultural category because we come from all different ethnic backgrounds. “Growing up Muslim” means a million different things, and while the cultural relevancy of wudu jokes or istinja references or fasting during Ramadan are nice, having Ramadan decorations in stores or hijabs in department stores is not automatically going to lead to better policies for all.

I lived and traveled in Europe for 4 months in 2015. My hijab made me recognizable as a Muslim — it is not a fashion statement nor is the connection between myself and people of all colors under the sun simply a ‘cultural’ one. It’s deeper than that, and my religion is not something that can be condensed to the artificial simplicity of a Flintstone vitamin.

If you have questions about that, then ask. But let’s get deeper than these surface level niceties about “diversity” or “multiculturalism.” Let’s really look at the history of Islam in America, or the deep, multi-century-long discussions about Islam and democracy and interfaith societies.

They say that Islam is not incompatible with Western values —I say it is, unless your only “Western values” are white supremacy, unchecked materialism, and militarism.

If racism, poverty, and war represent your America, then, you know what, as a Muslim, I’m fine with not being American enough for you.

Eldest daughter, chef wife, lawyer + graphic designer. Human rights education & training on race, disability, faith. Metro Detroit / مسلم / বাঙালি

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