Islamophobia spotlighted at daylong teach-in

Discourse and discussion examined anti-Muslim sentiment after terror attacks in New Zealand

To understand Islamophobia, it’s best to start at the beginning.

That’s why Paula Sanders, professor of history and director of Rice’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, kicked off a daylong Islamophobia teach-in March 27 with a deep dive into the roots of both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred.

The teach-in was just one Rice response to the terror attack in which 50 people were killed and 50 injured when a gunman opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. The university held a candlelight vigil March 20 in the Academic Quad.

Elora Shehabuddin illustrated her talk on Islamophobia and Muslim women using memes, postcards, paintings and other images from across the centuries. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Elora Shehabuddin illustrated her talk on Islamophobia and Muslim women using memes, postcards, paintings and other images from across the centuries. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

The next week, members of the Rice community gathered in the Ley Student Center’s Miner Lounge for the teach-in, where they heard short lectures from faculty members and engaged in discussion about Islamophobia. Topics ranged from discrimination in the workplace to anti-Muslim rhetoric’s medieval origins.

Christian European antagonism toward Jews was nothing new prior to the First Crusade, a four-year military expedition that ended in 1099 with the Siege of Jerusalem. But the Crusades unleashed a new wave of anti-Jewish violence across Europe, which soon spread to non-Christian groups as well. And in the centuries leading up to the First Crusade, the rise and subsequent success of the Islamic state under consecutive caliphates had been “a tremendous shock and a tremendous threat to Christendom,” Sanders said.

“They had to explain those successes somehow,” Sanders said. “They already had a rhetorical framework in which to create a new explanation and that was the framework that they had used in talking about Jews.”

Rhetoric condemning Jews as “evil” and “Satanic” was already established in medieval Christian discourse by this time. Therefore, Sanders said, “it was not hard to extend that rhetoric toward Muslims. This is the really, really deep root of what we now call Islamophobia.”

By the 14th and 15th centuries, the ongoing Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula saw the fall of the last Muslim dynasty. In 1492, Muhammad XII surrendered his lands to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile; that same year, all Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. But things had already been deteriorating prior to the Alhambra Decree, to the extent that Muslims were no longer even allowed their daily calls to prayer.

“The response of the New Zealand prime minister was to actually broadcast the call to prayer on the Friday after the terror attack,” Sanders said, “For me, as a medievalist, knowing this history, on so many levels it was just incredibly moving and really a spot-on response.”

Psychological sciences graduate student Shannon Cheng followed Sanders, presenting a nutshell version of her master’s thesis on the modern workplace experiences of Muslim Americans. It’s a topic that was inspired by a College Course she took as a Rice undergraduate, called The American Muslim, which was taught by a friend and opened Cheng’s eyes to what it is like to live in America as a practicing Muslim.

During the process of interviewing 70 Muslim Americans about their workplace experiences, Cheng said she found that “people don’t seem to understand the spectrum of how people practice Islam or how diverse Muslims can be.” This lack of education and insight can lead to discrimination on both formal and informal levels — everything from managers potentially overlooking Muslim employees for promotions or denying breaks for daily prayers to co-workers feeling uncomfortable in interactions or neglecting to invite their Muslim colleagues to after-work get-togethers.

Many Muslim Americans, Cheng said, “feel that they need to work harder to humanize themselves and make other people feel more comfortable.” They patiently answer questions about their hijabs, about fasting during Ramadan and about the need for a prayer space. They pray in their cars when they have no other recourse, take vacation days for Eid when others get Christmas off, and find themselves brushing off inappropriate or rude comments — even in white-collar jobs in highly urban environments.

Especially because of how Muslims are commonly portrayed in the media, the push to “represent Muslims in a positive light,” Cheng said, can lead to exhaustion as Muslims debate “which fights to pick and which questions to answer.”

However, Cheng notes that many of her participants also spoke of positive experiences in the workplace, and allies in the workplace can help by offering both advocacy and support. That includes “confronting others if they say something inappropriate, encouraging Muslim employees to take part in their practices, and speaking up for Muslims and other minorities,” Cheng said. And, perhaps most importantly, “not making religion a big deal — treating Muslims normally, just like you’d want to be treated,” she said.

The last session before a lunch of pizza, vegetables and hummus was from Elora Shehabuddin in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, who illustrated her talk on Islamophobia and Muslim women using memes, postcards, paintings and other images from across the centuries — images which routinely portray Muslims in a negative light.

“Representations matter,” Shehabuddin said. “There’s a history to them, and in the end these aren’t just images that are out there. They have very profound consequences if you see the same images over and over and over again.” These consequences take the form of small and large aggressions and hate crimes, as well as specific foreign policy decisions and justifications.

Although there are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Shehabuddin noted, “the range of representations tends to be very narrow.” There are far more Muslims in Asian countries, for instance, and yet mainstream depictions of Muslims tend to be of Arabs.

Equally deceptive is what we aren’t shown in these widely distributed memes or photos. “The images we don’t get are of Muslim women being happy and going about their business,” Shehabuddin said.

In the past, images of Muslim women were highly sexualized, portraying them in harems or as bare-breasted dancers and prisoners. Today, those images have been flipped: Afghan women in burqas, for instance, were used to push the narrative of war being necessary to “liberate” those women and bring them into the 21st century.

“Ideas about gender and women and sexuality continue to affect how we think about Muslim women,” Shehabuddin said. “These images continue to proliferate — and they’re not on the margins. They’re very mainstream.”

After lunch, Zahra Jamal, associate director of the Boniuk Institute, gave a presentation on historic and modern examples of anti-Muslim rhetoric in American political and social life, which often positions white, Christian and Western identities as enlightened, progressive and superior to violent, irrational and inferior brown, Arab, Muslim others.

“Over the past decade we’ve seen the mainstreaming of Islamophobia in personal, public and institutional ideologies,” Jamal said. “Since 2008, Islamophobia has become an industry, one that operates to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and is promoted by a constellation of political pundits, media figures, think tanks and funders. Through social media, demonizing views of Muslims proliferate across borders and stoke hate across the world.”

The Christchurch terrorist praised President Donald Trump and the perpetrators of atrocities in Oslo, Quebec, Charleston and Bosnia while citing “the great replacement” theory that Jews, blacks and Muslims will replace and subordinate white people, power and purity.

The attacks in Charleston, Oslo and elsewhere were framed in the media as isolated incidents by madmen. But historian Kathleen Belew argues that they are part of a growing, transnational and technologically coordinated white power movement that intentionally and successfully labeled its attacks as perpetrated by “lone wolves” to deflect attention from its structured activities.

“The impact is stark,” Jamal said. “Most American terrorist fatalities are at the hands of white supremacists. But attacks by Muslim are covered in the news 357 percent more than attacks by non-Muslims — who form the majority of terrorists in the U.S. and abroad.”

“The repercussions are felt daily,” she said.

In addition to encouraging allies to befriend and volunteer with Muslims, tour local mosques or take a course on Islam, Jamal had other recommendations for “upstanders.”

“Learn,” she suggested. “Ask questions. Know your sources. Listen to people you don’t like to understand their perspective. Model patience, reason, empathy and respect. Find ways to dialogue civilly across lines of difference. Report hate you see in person and on social media.”

The day’s final panel, “Religious Discrimination, Hate Crimes and Islamophobia: The Contemporary U.S. and Globe,” highlighted social scientists’ perspectives on the issue and the dire need for data to help inform policy and community responses. The panel was led by Elaine Howard Ecklund, founding director of the Religion and Public Life Program (RPLP) at Rice and the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences; Bob Thomson, postdoctoral fellow in the RPLP; and Sharan Mehta, a graduate student fellow in the RPLP.

“We want to acknowledge that this is the most extreme form of dehumanization,” Ecklund said. “Yet while the terrorist attacks in New Zealand were shocking for their size, they are not isolated instances, and that’s why it’s important to discuss the potential causes, the potential consequences of such incidents.”

Ecklund said the Pew Research Center and the FBI have found that assaults against Muslims in the U.S. have been surging since 2015, when there were 91 recorded assaults versus 56 in 2014. Muslims make up about 1.1 percent of the country’s population. Anti-Muslim violence spiked after 9/11, with 93 assaults reported that year, and then rose slowly from 2002 to 2015, Pew found. In 2016, there were 127 reported assaults.

“This is particularly striking because … federal agencies aren’t actually allowed to ask questions about religious identity,” Ecklund said. “This means that the person who has experienced the assault needed to have reported their religious identity and had to have some clear reason to know that the assault was religiously motivated. As social scientists we suspect that the incidence is actually much, much higher, probably significantly higher than that.”

The Religion in Public Life Program is utilizing National Science Foundation funding as well as a Rice Faculty Initiatives Fund grant to conduct surveys and follow-up interviews about Americans’ perceptions of religious discrimination and victimization, particularly focusing on Muslims.

“The data on these things is very difficult to collect, for obvious reasons,” Ecklund said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.