Today marks the United Nations’ International Day to Combat Islamophobia, serving as a stark reminder of the need to challenge Islamophobia and religious discrimination in all its forms as Muslims in the U.S. and across the world continue to face discrimination, bullying and hate-based violence.
According to a 2022 report from Fernand de Varennes, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on minority issues, Islamophobia is among other forms of bigotry “surging” in the U.S. and is “creating real societal harm and cleavages in the country with xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering mainly aimed at minorities.”
The report, which stemmed from a visit Varennes made to the U.S., where he met with the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups in 2021, concluded Islamophobia “can be added to the pandemic of intolerance and growing extreme right-wing nationalism, violence and attacks, usually against minorities.”
Anti-Muslim animus manifests in various ways, from individual acts of bullying to the systematic harassment and intimidation of Muslim communities carried out by government agencies. On top of that exists an interconnected and well-funded network of groups and individuals committed to churning out anti-Muslim propaganda and creating a climate of fear of Islam.
In its most recent count of far-right extremist groups operating in the U.S., the SPLC documented 50 anti-Muslim hate groups. They are organizations that broadly defame Islam and traffic in conspiracy theories of Muslims being a subversive threat to the nation.
While the number of anti-Muslim groups has decreased since its record high in 2017, this network of groups remains active and enjoys access to mainstream political institutions and politicians. Through a variety of media, websites and even some mainstream conservative media platforms, these groups deploy a steady stream of anti-Muslim tropes and rhetoric, fomenting a toxic climate that encourages hate-based violence and discrimination.
The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) notes that Islamophobia is a threat to us all. According to polling data aggregated by the ISPU, respondents who self-reported prejudice toward Jews were 32 times more likely to self-report “a great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims as well. In 2014, the ISPU reported an 80% overlap of lawmakers who introduced Islamophobic legislation like anti-Shariah bills and also introduced other restrictive measures on issues related to voter identification, right-to-work, immigration, abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights. The ISPU also highlights scientific evidence showing that those who harbor fear are more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity and prejudice.
‘Great replacement’ lie
Anti-Muslim hate and extremist groups generally claim that Muslims pose a threat to the dominant culture. This mirrors the “great replacement” notion, a racist conspiracy theory claiming there is a coordinated effort to replace white people in Western nations.
As ISPU notes, “The year 2050 is when many experts project that America will become a nation without a specific ethnic or racial majority. While some welcome this growing diversity, others see it as a demographic threat and are working to broadly erode the rights of several historically marginalized and minority groups, including American Muslims.”
This kind of rhetoric fuels not only discrimination but hate crime and terrorism.
The International Day to Combat Islamophobia was established on the anniversary of the horrific mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, when a gunman inspired by great replacement theory-style ideas attacked two mosques, killing 51 people and injuring 40 more. In recent years we’ve seen similar hate-inspired attacks against Black and Brown communities in Buffalo, New York; El Paso, Texas; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh among other places.
Combating Islamophobia remains crucial, along with challenging all forms of racism, religious intolerance and systematic oppression. This can start by the U.S. government taking the proliferation of white supremacist ideas seriously and taking steps to end state-sponsored Islamophobia.
Since its founding in 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies tasked with keeping the U.S. safe have too frequently engaged in campaigns to spy on, harass and vilify the Muslim community. It’s time for these agencies to shift focus to the real threat posed by white supremacist-inspired violence. The Biden administration has taken steps in the right direction and has established an interagency working group to “better coordinate U.S. government efforts to counter antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination.” The U.S. has also joined the Christchurch Call to Action to address violent extremist content online.
We must remain vigilant, because the nation has seen what happens when Islamophobia is baked into federal policy.
While Islamophobia did not start with former President Donald Trump, he was able to harness and exploit it during his campaign and while in office, as he maintained close ties to Islamophobic extremists. Armed with shoddy polling data from an anti-Muslim think tank, candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This mirrored longstanding calls from anti-Muslim hate groups to put a moratorium on Muslim immigration. The Trump administration would go on to implement various versions of his Muslim ban. And while the ban was eventually reversed in 2021, the nation is still grappling with the effects of this policy today.
While the government can undo harmful policies, challenging Islamophobia is a multipronged effort. It’s critical to continue to track and expose organized anti-Muslim hate groups and push their lies and hateful agenda back to the fringe.
The ISPU and other organizations have published a useful guide that contains tools that all of us can use to help counter and dismantle Islamophobia. Challenging Islamophobia also means we must challenge our own biases. The ISPU offers a National American Islamophobia Index that provides information to help dispel harmful tropes about Muslims and Islam.
We also need more government action. The U.N. recommends a “strategic campaign for the adoption of comprehensive national human rights legislation to include the USA’s international human rights obligations, particularly on the recognition of the right to equality without discrimination on grounds” of one’s immutable characteristics.
On this International Day to Combat Islamophobia, we must all recommit to ending not only anti-Muslim bigotry but all religious discrimination.
Caleb Kieffer is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
Photo at top: In 2022, the United Nations designated March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. It was established on the anniversary of the 2019 mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Pictured, New Zealand artist Ruby Jones’ illustration responding to the attack is seen at a memorial site in Christchurch on March 21, 2019. (Credit: Kyodo via AP Images)