On December 4, 2006, the national leadership of American Muslims met with key senior US government officials to discuss the state of Islamophobia in America and US Muslim relations. The conference was organized by the Bridging the Divide Initiative of Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. It was co-sponsored by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.
As the conference chair of the program, the most extraordinary challenge that I faced was to bring together two parties that did not see eye to eye on this issue. While American Muslim leaders and participants were arguing that Islamophobia was not only a reality but rapidly increasing phenomenon in America, the government’s position was that while there have been increased incidences of anti-Muslim episodes in the US, the word Islamophobia deepens the divide between the US and the Muslim world. Other representatives of the government also suggested that the fear that Muslims were referring to was not the fear of Islam but the fear of Muslim terrorism as manifest on September 11, 2001.
Stephen Grand, the Director of the US-Islamic World program welcomed the forty plus participants from US government and the Muslim community and launched the conference. The government was represented by several participants from the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and associated agencies. The morning keynote address was delivered by Alina Romanowski, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Affairs. She was introduced by Ambassador Martin Indyk the Director of the Saban Center. He argued the importance of such dialogues at a time when the gap between America and the Muslim World appeared to be widening.
Alina Romanowski reiterated the vision and objectives that Ambassador Karen Hughes seeks to advance at the State Department on public diplomacy. She talked about the three key public diplomacy objectives – offering a positive vision of hope and opportunity around the world that is rooted in America’s belief in freedom, justice, opportunity and respect for all; isolating and marginalizing the violent extremists and confronting their ideology of hate and tyranny; and fostering a sense of the common values and common interests between Americans and peoples of different countries, cultures and faiths around the world. The question and answer session was remarkably open and candid. Ms Romanowski agreed to relay the issues raised by the group during her session to others in the Department. Listening and creating opportunities for people-to-people exchanges and dialogue, she said, was a key component of the work of the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau at the Department of State.
Nihad Awad, the Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, argued that Islamophobia was a new word but not a new phenomenon. He presented data to indicate that hate crimes against Muslims had risen by 29% in the last one year and in the ten years since 1995 that his organization [CAIR] had collected data on Islamophobic episodes, it has shown nothing but steady increase. He concluded that being critical of Islam and Muslims is not Islamophobia, but to ridicule the faith and the faithful, certainly is.
Louay Safi, the Executive Director of the ISNA Leadership Development Center, insisted that Islamophobia deepens the divide between the US and the Islamic World. He argued that increasingly Islam is being presented as a violent and intolerant religion and this message is spreading from the margins to the mainstream. A report entitled “Blaming Islam” authored by Dr. Safi and published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding was released at the event.
Imam Mahdi Bray, the Executive Director of the MAS Freedom Foundation expressed concern that in spite of the fact that most Muslims cherish American values, they are portrayed as seditious. He lamented the ignorance of Islam that underpins Islamophobia and suggested that occasionally some measures of the government, when in its overzealous endeavor to prosecute the war on terror it overplays its hand and undercuts Muslim civil rights, may also be contributing to the growing instances of Islamophobia.
The afternoon Keynote address was delivered by Dan Sutherland, the Officer for Civil Rights at the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Sutherland started by observing that there is “a lot of heat but very little light” on the subject of Islamophobia. He addressed the issue of Islamophobia and the rising hate crimes and anti-Muslim discourse in America head-on. He argued, based on fifty years of statistical data, that America has progressively become less and less racist.
Sutherland then spoke at length about the stunning achievements of American Muslims in every sphere of American life asserting that the degree to which American Muslims are integrated and successful belies any claims of systematic Islamophobia in America. He did however concede that there have been several incidences of Islamophobic episodes, but he also claimed that there were many which were resolved in the favor of Muslims and discussed a few cases where the government has interfered effectively on the behalf of Muslims.
The government’s case was very clear; yes there are disturbingly large numbers of incidences that suggest that prejudice is at work, however the overall picture indicates that things are not as bad as some Muslim leaders were claiming them to be.
The final panel of the day included, Ahmed Younis, the National Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and myself from the Brookings Institution. This panel sought to balance the debate by arguing that while there are disturbing indications of the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice in America, there are several surveys which speak to this reality, American Muslims must be careful how they talk about Islamophobia.
The panelists also argued that American Muslims must work with our government to not only challenge the anti-Islamic discourse that is spreading in the US but also work to correct some of the misunderstandings that the government itself may be harboring about Islam and American Muslims. An additional theme that was explored was the need to challenge anti-Americanism that was spreading within the Muslim community. Recognizing that anti-Americanism and Islamophobia feed each other, the panelists called for simultaneously addressing both prejudices.
While this was the first US Government and American Muslim conference on Islamophobia, there is need for several more such interactions in order to help define the term and come to a common understanding about the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice in America and how the government and the community can jointly address it.
M. A. Muqtedar Khan is Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware and a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is also a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the Alwaleed center at Georgetown University. His website is www.ijtihad.org