“You must be really tired of being called a terrorist,” said the man who was interviewing me – about four years ago. The fact that I was sitting at one of the largest development agencies in the world (established after the Bretton Woods Agreement) in the nation’s capital was not lost on me. It took me by shock, but the manner in which he said it was so out of context (and out of order) that I couldn’t find the right words to respond. Sitting in front of me was a fellow man of color, “highly educated,” with international work experience and with familiarity with complexity of our world, spouting out the most racist and bigoted thing in the world. “Welcome to Washington D.C.,” I told myself.
How did I react to this? Unfortunately, I just chose to ignore it, as I was too shaken to digest what had just been said. After having graduated from the nation’s top public policy school, from a program ranked #1 in the country, I was facing this question. I must admit that it was the most blatantly Islamophobic thing someone has said to me and I had not anticipated this from someone who had received as much formal education as he. Also, I was not aware that such things could be said out in the open. Besides, there is common decency not to insult someone to their face. What goes on behind closed doors is another matter. I am not privy to the casual Islamophobia or inadvertent slips of tongue that implicate me because of my religion or color of my skin. The micro-aggressions and daily insults that come one’s way as part of belonging to a particular race, religion or ethnic group are more insidious. And by certain measures, the current political cycle is only exacerbating this trend. The trend of painting Muslims as terrorists, a threat to national security and clearly outsiders, continues unabated.
“How will you address Islamophobia?” Asked one of the interviewers during a job interview I had recently. And coming from a well-meaning, kinder gentleman; I gave him a comprehensive answer. I outlined a few things that can be done. On further reflection, I think this question is a very deep one that goes to the heart of what we are about as humans. Muslims may be the latest target of racism, bigotry and prejudice but are not the only ones and Islam is not exceptional in that sense. This phenomenon is nothing but racism by other means. Ask any Black person what they have accomplished since the Civil Rights movement and you can expect a far more complex answer than just the catch phrase “equality.” The ongoing debate about police brutality against Black people is just one example.
Tackling Islamophobia in the public & private spheres
We need to address the root cause of xenophobia and racism to tackle Islamophobia or homophobia or any other form of prejudice. While tactically, we can do a few things: organize more meetings addressing these issues, build coalitions of willing partners who will tackle these issues in the ‘public sphere,’ what goes on in the ‘private sphere’ is far more important. But addressing the prejudice that one sees in the public sphere is the first key step. The kind of negative portrayal of Muslims and other minorities that is going on in the political campaign leading up the 2016 elections is detrimental to any informed discussion. And not surprisingly, this is tied to the perception that all American Muslims are ‘foreigners’ and not able to assimilate in American society. This perception is not based on empirical reality, as most American Muslims are ‘assimilated, mainstream and middle class’ according to a recent survey by Pew Research. Still, public perceptions about Muslims continue to be negative.
While we need to check all forms of prejudice in the public sphere – by calling out bigotry and racism, we also need to tackle the prejudice that goes on in ‘private sphere.’ The daily insinuations, gossip, slanders against people must stop. Each time we come across these attitudes, we must put an end to them– or at the very least, not indulge those who are spreading this negativity. This is the best way to tackle Islamophobia. Not just by launching fancy advertising or advocacy campaigns. The Islamophobia of everyday life is far more dangerous than what Mr. Trump or others are spreading.