Answering the Islamophobia question from the debate

Last weekend's titillating US presidential debate touched upon several topics, including Islamophobia. Gorbah Hamid, a Muslim American woman, asked, “There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States and I’m one of them. You mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with this Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?” Here is my response.

The question was particularly notable, considering the controversial call Trump issued last December for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. Trump’s response focused on Muslims reporting hatred and ensuring the rhetoric incorporates Islam. "Muslims have to report the problems when they see them... It’s radical Islamic terror. And before you solve it, you have to say the name,” Trump said.

A more directed response, Clinton encouraged partnering with Muslim nations and making sure “everyone has a place.” She went on to say, “I intend to defeat ISIS, to do so in a coalition with majority Muslim nations…We are not at war with Islam. And it is a mistake and it plays into the hands of the terrorists to act as though we are.”

Islamophobia

The term ‘Islamophobia’ itself, with its connotations of a psychological disorder, can be loosely defined as “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” An International Business Times article says, “the word has a broad meaning and often serves as an umbrella term to encapsulate negative sentiments ranging from an individual’s anti-Islam views to society-wide discrimination against Muslims. It evokes similar pejorative labels for discrimination against other groups of people, like homophobia or anti-Semitism, civil rights activists said.”

With radical Islamist terrorism and its effects spanning the globe, Americans, have shown fear and hostility toward Muslims. Author Sam Harris writes, much of the antagonism toward Muslims or Islam is exacerbated by the fact that “Islam has doctrines regarding jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, etc., that pose a special problem to the civilized world at this moment in history.”

American leaders should not play into American fear of Islam or Muslims. Instead, they should  make a distinction between a radical Islamist ideology and moderate Muslims, so this phobia can be laid to rest.

Why is this distinction important?

While many factors influence an individual’s choice to participate in terrorist activity, one predominant factor is disenfranchisement. If an individual feels cast out, unwanted, and disenfranchised with his or her government, culture, or society, he or she is at risk to engage in terrorism. The European experience exemplifies this.

Following World War II, there was mass immigration of Muslims to Europe. The immigrants were at first welcomed, but as time progressed their mass and difference created divisions within European society. European Muslims are now experiencing adversarial assimilation, where the host country is hesitant to accept the culture, even if they attempt to assimilate. “Many Muslims are willing to integrate and try to climb Europe's steep social ladder” writes the Council on Foreign Relations, “But many younger Muslims reject the minority status to which their parents acquiesced.” These Muslim offspring are European citizens in name but not culturally or socially.

As a result, “the state appeared unable to regulate the entry of immigrants, and society seemed unwilling to integrate them.”

What can the US do?

The United States must not fall prey to the temptation to alienate its Muslim population by using demagogic rhetoric. Politicians should be cautious with how they address the threat of terrorism is association with Islam.

As a nation, we have had relative success in assimilating Muslim immigrants, and this process should be continue. “In Europe, pockets of Muslims are isolated by country of origin, which hampers integration. That keeps Islamic identity tied to a home country and so the community is more insular. The umbilical cord is still there,” says Shahed Amanullah, who has worked as a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of State on issues surrounding Muslim youth around the world. “In America, no one group that dominates. It’s not an affinity-based community but a value-based community.”

To do this, US leaders should focus policy on assimilating Muslims into society and not feeding into fear propagation. This should be partnered with a better immigration policy and strong borders to ensure we can regulate immigration flows. In addition, as the Brookings Institute states, there is a need to challenge the spread of anti-Americanism within the Muslim community. Recognizing that anti-Americanism and Islamophobia feed each other.

Islamophobia is a real problem, and by addressing this issue, the US will also counter terrorism.