Confronting Islamophobia

A conversation with Jamal J. Elias, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and scholar of Islamic thought, culture, and history.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

By Blake Cole

Jamal J. Elias, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities

Photo credit: Mir Elias

This past August, Jamal J. Elias, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and professor of religious studies and South Asia studies, and Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, a senior lecturer at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, participated in the workshop, “Islamophobia: Confronting Bias in the Classroom and Beyond.” Penn’s Middle East Center, the principal organizer for the event, supports nearly 100 events in the greater Philadelphia area each year to foster the understanding of the Middle East and related issues. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Center created the event in response to a department initiative to confront bullying in classroom settings.

We sat down with Elias, a scholar of Islamic thought, culture, and history, to discuss the current climate of Islamophobia in the U.S. A recipient of grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council, Elias is the author of the upcoming Alef is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visuality in Islamic Society, as well as On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity, and Culture in Pakistan and Aisha's Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam, as well as several other books and numerous articles.

BC: What kinds of strategies can teachers use to combat Islamophobia in the classroom?

JJE: The first step is to identify what Islamophobia or even prejudice actually means, because there are several different aspects to it. For example, how to parse out the difference between regular bullying and then kids picking on others primarily out of prejudice. The differences between children’s motivations really came out in the workshop through the disparate experiences and approaches of elementary school teachers and high school teachers.

BC: Given the spectrum of abuse, from verbal bullying to hate crimes, at what point is it appropriate for teachers to take more direct action?

JJE: My workshop partner, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher from our Graduate School of Education, asked the question, “What if a girl’s hijab gets pulled off?” In adult society, this constitutes a significant form of assault, and so high school teachers felt this is really serious, to the point that they would actually take this to higher authorities at their schools. With little kids, though, it’s harder, because you’ve got to figure out why they did it. And it may be simply because, “She pushed me off the monkey bars.” The issue really is how do you sensitize people—particularly kids—at a level where they should know better. There are existing policies on things like gender and race bias and homophobia. And I think Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bias are probably best thought of and dealt with in terms of these existing categories.

BC: How are Philadelphia-area schools dealing with these issues?

JJE: As you’d expect, the better resourced schools are better at this stuff, so some of the private schools have advantages over the public school system. On the other hand, the public school system in Philadelphia has a lot of Muslim kids primarily because of the African American population, so the teachers have more familiarity in dealing with Muslim kids, and there are more Muslim teachers. In that sense, the city of Philadelphia has a kind of unique dynamic and is probably better on this issue than many other parts of the country.

BC: What kinds of questions did you receive at the workshop?

JJE: We asked the participants at the end of the day, what’s your takeaway? Many people had very nuanced things to say, but one teacher said, “The most important thing I learned was that Muslim women aren’t required to wear hijab.” This gives a sense of how slight many people’s exposure to Muslims can be, and how important such outreach activities are.

BC: How have the Internet and social media impacted these issues?

JJE: One of the big problems with the Internet and social media, particularly as a source of news, is that we really get to select who we listen to and what our sources of information are, and who our conversation partners are. So you never have to be challenged in your opinion. That’s why there’s flaming at the bottom of pretty much every article online because many people lack the tools of expressing normal disagreement. So people get to live in these unchallenged fantasies. And in that sense, if you’re going to be into hate of any kind, and have some conspiracy theory, it’s a lot easier for you to find people who think like you and reaffirm you in that attitude, and much easier to ignore people who don’t. This applies to racists in this country the same way it does to radicalized Muslims who get caught up in the fantastical rhetoric of terrorist groups.

BC: How are Muslims’ everyday lives affected by Islamophobia?

JJE: Well, just to give one example, about a month ago we heard about this young Muslim couple coming back from vacation in Europe, who were probably taking their first vacation alone together since they had a baby. Once they took their seats on the plane, the woman said “Inshallah” or something like that because she was talking to her mom and saying something like, ‘we’re going to land at such and such a time, god willing.’ And the husband was sweating as he carried the luggage onto the plane. It took just one other passenger to say, “This person makes me uncomfortable,” and they were taken off the plane. This happens very regularly—sadly, we’re living in this kind of atmosphere.

BC: During this election season there has been a debate, particularly focused on Donald Trump, about whether words can be dangerous. Could the rhetoric we’ve seen during the campaign have long-lasting effects?

JJE: I think what Trump is doing is to encourage some people to not be politically correct, which they see as a burden, although all it really means is that they are free to act like bigots (or to put it politely, to give voice to thoughts that are best kept to oneself in civilized society). There are certain ways in which hate and acts of violence directed against Muslims are being accepted in sections of this society, and I don’t think everything will go back into the bag once this election is over.

BC: Trump has also been quoted as saying the U.S. should consider profiling. Do you think it’s possible such legislative measures will ever be enacted?

JJE: As for the issue of profiling and legislative change, there is certainly an argument to be made that, at the level of a stereotypical extreme, profiling makes sense. Yes, you’re more likely to be robbed at gun point by a young man with something bulging in his hoodie pocket who comes and sidles up to you at a lonely bus stop at night than you are to be robbed by a little old lady with a walker at that same bus stop. But the overwhelming evidence suggests that profiling does not work, unless one is willing to take draconian measures that should be unacceptable in any democratic society. To give a blunt example, if this society was to lock up every single young African American man, then there would be no young African American men committing any crimes (outside jail), and one could say that profiling had worked. But the moral and other costs of something like that are completely unacceptable, and you and I would not want to live in a society of that sort.

Short of such horrible measures, the fact is that profiling does not work better than other measures of crime prevention—in fact, it distracts attention from more effective ways of policing. This is very much the case with terrorism and potential terrorism in this country. Time and again, one hears of local members of American Muslim communities bringing potentially dangerous people in their midst to the attention of law enforcement who then drop the ball either because they are overworked or because their metrics for profiling suspects are bad. The man who killed a large number of people in a dance club in Florida had been reported to the FBI by a member of the local Muslim community. The recent bomber in New Jersey and New York had been reported by his own father, who told the FBI that his son was becoming radicalized and he was worried his son might turn into a terrorist, but the FBI carried out their investigation and dropped it. We may be too busy gathering too much trivial information, rather than targeting our attention better.

One big problem is that there’s this enormous tendency to treat all Muslims as one group. And that’s simply not the case. There’s no empirically verifiable data showing that they behave in one way. And that’s because people just cut so many different ways, whether they’re immigrants, converts, or whatever other group they are. And a second thing is that even though the FBI and police chiefs across the country go blue in the face stressing that American Muslims are enormously cooperative on law and order issues, there is a persistent suspicion among many people, perhaps the majority, that Muslims represent a disloyal fifth column in America. Every time there is a horrible incident with a Muslim perpetrator, Muslim groups across the country (including in Philadelphia) make public statements against the violence and in sympathy with the victims—they hold vigils, demonstrations against terrorism and violence, and so on, but it doesn’t get any media coverage. The end result is that Muslims remain monolithic, foreign and hostile in the imaginations of a whole lot of people.

Workshops such as this one we just held at Penn, and outreach in general, constitute one method of addressing this problem in a small way.