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Sadiq Khan proved the limits of Islamophobia, at least in multicultural London. But we’ll know that the era of Islamophobia has passed when the most common reaction is a shrug and a yawn. (Photo: Carl Gardner / Flickr)

Sadiq Khan and the End of Islamophobia

The victory of Sadiq Khan has "normalized" Muslims in UK politics in much the same way that JFK normalized Catholics in American politics. But American Muslims are still waiting for their JFK moment.

Even his own sister was mortified.

In the recent mayoral race in London, the Conservative Party’s Zac Goldsmith was in many ways the perfect candidate: a young, handsome fellow who possessed full-spectrum appeal.

To win the election, Goldsmith could have focused on all the work he’d done on the environment, as a journalist and former editor of the magazine The Ecologist. To further woo liberals, he could have highlighted his considerable international experience and his support of the rights of indigenous peoples. Conversely, he could have cemented his popularity among conservative populists by emphasizing his skeptical attitude toward the European Union. If he’d played it safe, Goldsmith could have translated an early lead in the polls into a victory at the ballot box.

Instead, the Goldsmith team prompted a huge backlash by suggesting that his opponent, the Labor Party’s Sadiq Khan, was a Muslim extremist because of his associations and his political bedfellows. The rhetoric from the Conservative camp was nothing so blatant or ugly as some of the proposals in the Republican presidential primary, such as prohibiting Muslims candidates from entering the Oval Office (Ben Carson) or prohibiting Muslims immigrant from entering the country (Donald Trump).

Still, the insinuations prompted Goldsmith’s sister Jemima, a prominent journalist and convert to Islam, to write on Twitter: “Sad that Zac’s campaign did not reflect who I know him to be.” Even fellow Conservatives distanced themselves from the candidate. Former Conservative cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi, for instance, decried the “appalling dog whistle racism,” and the Conservative leader in the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, called the tactics “outrageous.”

Last week, when Londoners went to the polls to elect their mayor, the billionaire conservative suffered a humiliating landslide defeat. Sadiq Khan will be the new face of multicultural London.

What’s most interesting about the handling of Goldsmith’s campaign is the perception, among his advisors, that the instrumental use of Islamophobia would be politically helpful. It wasn’t such a reach, perhaps. On the continent at least, the tactic seemed to work in boosting the fortunes of what should otherwise be fringe parties like the National Front in France, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, and the Sweden Democrats. And the blatantly anti-Muslim UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been steadily gaining support, nearly doubling its representation in the same local elections.

London, of course, is a city, and a very diverse one at that. What might work in Britain as a whole clearly failed with the more cosmopolitan voters in its capital. Polling at 20 percent across most of the country in the 2014 elections, UKIP managed only 7 percent in London. One UKIP candidate attributed the difference to the “more media-savvy and educated” population of the capital city.

It would be reassuring to believe that Sadiq Khan’s victory will banish Islamophobia from the electoral toolbox, particularly here in the United States. But America is not London. And our billionaire conservative is no tree-hugging friend of indigenous peoples. He doesn’t care about offending liberal sensibilities.

Moreover, anti-Islamic sentiment has been steadily rising in the United States, thanks to a relatively small group of well-funded organizations and individuals. Even if Donald Trump loses in November, as he most assuredly will, Islamophobia will not slink into the shadows along with its mouthpiece, the disgraced reality star.

Astounding Misinformation

Since 2001, the United States has resettled about 800,000 refugees inside its borders. Of that number, five have been arrested on terrorism charges. Two were arrested this January, another in 2013, and the other two in 2011. Five out of 800,000 equals .000625 percent. That’s practically the definition of statistically insignificant.

Yet, as the Brooking Institution’s Robert McKenzie pointed out at a recent panel in Washington, DC sponsored by Brookings and Duke University, 31 out of 50 governors have announced that they want to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states. All but one of these governors is a Republican. It’s an important reminder that the scaremongering of Trump, Carson, and the other erstwhile presidential candidates poisons the party as a whole.

The problem extends beyond individual Islamophobes. Equally troubling is the overall climate of bigotry and fear. Christopher Bail, a Duke University researcher who also participated in the panel, has been documenting the spread of Islamophobia. He presented a series of graphs that revealed that:

Over the past decade, 32 states proposed shariah law bans, controversies about the construction of mosques have increased by more than 800 percent, and the number of Americans with negative opinions of Islam has more than doubled.

To understand how astonishing these results are, imagine if I wrote that 32 states had proposed anti-UFO laws, that controversies over the construction of playgrounds had increased by 800 percent, and that the number of Americans with negative opinions of Judaism had more than doubled. You’d think that the country had been taken over by delusional, child-hating Nazis.

After all, there is zero evidence of a campaign to impose shariah law anywhere in the United States — the only case ever cited is one in which a domestic court judge based his judgment on shariah law, which the appellate court sensibly overturned — just as there’s no evidence of an alien plot to take over the world. Mosque attendance has been definitively demonstrated to reduce extremism, not encourage it. And although anti-Semitism is universally reviled, anti-Islamic sentiment flourishes because many Americans associate the religion with the tiny number of extremists who call themselves Muslims rather than with the 99.9 percent who are not followers of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

For information on the negative correlation between mosque attendance and extremism, you can turn to an important 2010 study, also from Duke University. Or you can look at recent polling from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), which Dalia Mogahed also presented at the Duke-Brookings panel.

Muslim Americans who regularly attend mosques are more likely than those who do not frequent mosques to work with their neighbors to solve community problems (49 vs. 30 percent), be registered to vote (74 vs. 49 percent), and are more likely to plan to vote (92 vs. 81 percent).

ISPU also found that Muslims in America are just as likely as members of other religious groups to “oppose the targeting and killing of civilians by individuals or small groups” and far more likely to “oppose the targeting and killing of civilians by the military” (65 percent, versus 45 percent of Jews and slightly less for Catholics and Protestants, say such practices are never justified).

The fact that Americans are so ignorant of the basic facts about Muslims in America isn’t simply the result of a lack of contact (most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims) or the absence of information in school curricula. Much of the ignorance around Muslims, particularly as it relates to security issues, is manufactured.

A relatively small industry of pundits and activists — Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney, Walid Phares, Robert Spencer, and their associated donors — have managed to inject their views into mainstream organizations (if you consider the Heritage Foundation mainstream) and into the news media (if you consider Fox to be “news”). And from there, these calculated distortions have entered the political discourse (if you consider what Donald Trump says to be “discourse”).

But it’s not just The Donald.

From the Margins to the Center

In her victory speech after the Pennsylvania primary last month, Hillary Clinton gave a shout out to all the various constituencies that make up her voting bloc: women, workers, LGBT, people with disabilities. She also warned of what would happen should candidates “from the other side” prevail:

They would make it harder to vote, not easier. They would deny women the right to make our own reproductive health care decisions. They would round up millions of hardworking immigrants and deport them. They would demonize and discriminate against hardworking, terror-hating Muslim Americans who we need in the fight against radicalization. And both of the top candidates in the Republican Party deny climate change even exists.

At first glance, Hillary is hitting all the right notes. But as Omid Safi, the head of the Duke Islamic Center, pointed out at the above-mentioned panel, only Muslim Americans merited an ominous qualifier: “terror-hating.”

Hillary is implying that, without such a qualifier, Muslim Americans are somehow guilty by association. They are connected in the public mind with the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people at the end of last year — unless they explicitly say otherwise — in a way that white Christians are not expected to disavow their connection to Dylann Roof, who likewise killed nine people last year.

For most Americans, Muslims are the “other,” a group of people who have to constantly prove the negative: that they’re not terror-loving. Good luck proving the negative. In such an environment, Muslims will never be above suspicion. Muslim organizations have repeatedly decried every terrorist act linked to Muslims, but the mainstream media has just as repeatedly ignored them. And so continues the myth that Muslims secretly approve of what al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are doing.

To defeat Islamophobia, or at least to stigmatize it to the same degree as racism and anti-Semitism, political victories over candidates who use both dog whistles and megaphones to trumpet anti-Islamic sentiment are, of course, essential. But the challenge is greater.

First, as Omid Safi pointed out, you shouldn’t fight intolerance with tolerance. A concept emerging from ancient pharmacology, “tolerance” meant the degree to which a body could put up with a toxin. Muslims are not toxins. They are part of the fabric of American society. Like all other Americans, they deserve to be respected for how they are the same as everyone else — and different.

On the side of difference, they practice a religion that has features in common with other monotheisms as well as quite a few unique features. But whether it’s praying toward Mecca, making annual charitable contributions, or undertaking the hajj (pilgrimage), the essential features of Islam have been part of the American landscape since before even the birth of the country. Difference is what makes America great. Those who prefer cultural uniformity should relocate to, well, Saudi Arabia, for instance.

On the side of similarity, it’s time to stop securitizing Muslims — thinking of them only in terms of terrorism, national security, and “threat.” As the ISPU polling indicates, American Muslims have the same preoccupations as the rest of America: the economy. They identify strongly as patriotic, and the more religiously observant they are, the more being American is important to their identity. They are far more satisfied than any other religious group with the direction the country is currently heading. And they are far more diverse a group than any other religious community. With large numbers of African American, Latino, and Asian adherents, the American Muslim community looks more like America than Protestants, Jews, or even Catholics.

The victory of Sadiq Khan has “normalized” Muslims in UK politics in much the same way that JFK normalized Catholics in American politics. American Muslims are still waiting for their JFK moment. True, for the last seven years, large numbers of Americans have thought that their president is a Muslim, which in Islamophobic America has been just another way of saying that these conspiracy theorists don’t like Obama. So, obviously, that doesn’t count.

The presidential victory of Obama was not the end of racism. But it did serve as a watershed moment in the evolving status of the African American community and represented a significant nail in bigotry’s coffin. Some day in the future, when the grotesqueries of Donald Trump are a fading memory and even the Islamophobia-lite of mainstream politicians will seem as archaic as the anti-Semitic insinuations of polite 1950s America, the occupant of the Oval Office will state that she is proud to be both American and Muslim.

There will be cheers. There will be boos. But we’ll know that the era of Islamophobia has passed when the most common reaction is a shrug and a yawn.

© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
John Feffer

John Feffer

John Feffer is the author of the dystopian novel "Splinterlands" (2016) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new novel, "Frostlands" (2018) is book two of his Splinterlands trilogy. Splinterlands book three "Songlands" will be published in 2021. His podcast is available here.

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