The current election cycle is, sadly, shining a light on a blatant and disturbing level of Islamophobia in the United States.
What’s more, many Muslims in the United States are paying a heavy price for this bigotry. Muslims, and people perceived to be Muslims, have been threatened and attacked throughout the country. Mosques have been vandalized and Muslims are reporting a high incidence of discrimination at work.
In addition to interpersonal attacks against Muslims and the proposals of various political candidates to make anti-Muslim discrimination an official part of U.S. immigration policy, there is an institutional form of Islamophobia, often coordinated by organized hate groups. An example in this area is the nationwide “anti-Shariah” movement, which is based on the myth that Muslims want to introduce a religious law that would somehow supersede civil and criminal statutes, as well as our state federal constitutions.
This is, of course, nonsense and makes no more sense than the notion that other religious laws and codes, such as the Catholic Canon and Jewish Halakha (both of which have been used for decades in interpreting American civil contracts), somehow threaten America. As with the codes of other faiths, Shariah law has often been referred to in the U.S. courts so long as it does not conflict with statutes or constitutions, but anti-Muslim activists have created a paranoia that champions of Shariah are somehow trying to take over the country.
Not surprisingly, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an anti-Shariah law in 2013 (HB 522). This measure was modeled on legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which seeks to prevent state courts from considering foreign laws or rulings. A New York-based anti-Muslim activist known for his racist views named David Yerushalmi is the author of these statutes. Yerushalmi has claimed that white people are genetically superior to black people. He has also called for the United States to wage a “war against Islam and all Muslim faithful”. Talking about anti-Shariah legislation, he told The New York Times, “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would have not served its purpose … the purpose was heuristic – to get people asking this question, ‘What is Sharia?’”
Yerushalmi is not alone. He often collaborates with anti-Muslim advocate Frank Gaffney to push a “national debate about the nature of Sharia and the need to protect our Constitution and country from it.” Gaffney has concocted conspiracy theories about “Islamists” infiltrating the Obama Administration. He has served on the “national security advisory team” for the failed GOP presidential nominee Ted Cruz.
Overlapping Gaffney and Yerushalmi’s efforts is a grassroots organization called ACT for America, which has the largest footprint in the anti-Muslim ecosystem in the United States. ACT for America mobilized its North Carolina network to lobby for the anti-Shariah bill in North Carolina. ACT for America’s founder Brigitte Gabriel was quoted as saying “a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday … cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
Ultimately, Islamophobia, like other forms of oppression, is a divide-and-conquer tool employed to increase socio-economic and political disparities. Legislators who have supported laws that harm Muslims have also frequently supported bills that target other marginalized communities. In a study of more than one hundred anti-Shariah bills introduced in the country, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that 80 percent of them were proposed by legislators who also introduced voter suppression, anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and anti-immigrant laws. In fact, a version of the anti-Shariah bill introduced in North Carolina had measures to restrict women’s reproductive rights.
Fortunately, Americans of good will are pushing back against this disturbing tide. One of the highlights of the recent Democratic National Convention was a speech by Rev. William Barber II, in which he called for an intersectional movement against all forms of oppression. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands North Carolinians from all backgrounds are working to realize this mission, which was brilliantly summarized in the observation of the great civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free!”
Let’s hope, that by focusing more attention on the issue of Islamophobia, the 2016 election debate ultimately helps sound a death knell for this destructive and un-American phenomenon.
Manzoor Cheema is a Fellow at the Center for New Community, a national nonprofit that tracks organized racist movements in the U.S. He is also a founding member of Muslims for Social Justice, a North Carolina-based organization dedicated to human rights and social justice for all, and a Coordinator for MERI (Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia).