Photo: Illustration by Adam Collins

Facing fear: The impact of Islamophobia

About 1.6 billion people are Muslim — roughly 23 percent of the world's population. The word "Islamophobia" then carries heavy weight in both social and political respects.

In contrast, less than one percent of South Carolinian adults are Muslims. Their representation in media is largely limited to discussion of "radical Islam" and the possible threat of terrorism. 

Students have opened the floor for discussion of Islamophobia, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to address the impact of how the Muslim faith and those who practice it are perceived.

USC's Department of Religious Studies, in partnership with Peace Integration Council of North America, sponsored a panel discussion on Islamophobia on Tuesday evening. The panel was hosted at Wardlaw College by the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine. 

Grant Seuser, a member of SJP, said there have been other discussions on Islamophobia, but he was particularly glad about Tuesday's panel because it addressed the issue between Israel and Palestine. 

"There's two dimensions to it for me," the graduate chemistry student said. "How Islamophobia is affecting Muslims living here in the United States, but also how the Israel lobby uses Islamophobia to marginalize and dehumanize Palestinians in order to essentially delegitimize their cause." 

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Seuser said he is not a Muslim, but he has Muslim friends at USC, especially since joining SJP. He said that the group aims to open a floor for discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "and all it's different dimensions." 

"Islamophobia happens to be one of those dimensions," Seuser said. 

The panel focused on attitudes toward the Muslim faith, particularly the role such attitudes play in Israeli occupation of Palestine. The panel included Noah Rubin-Blose, a representative of the group Jewish Voice for Peace and of the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia. 

"Islamophobia is a racialized system that oppresses Muslims and black and brown people locally and globally," Rubin-Blose said, reading aloud a definition written by MERI. "Islamophobia operates through military operations abroad and sometimes state oppression at home. Islamophobia is exercised by U.S. and Western nations through economic, military, political and cultural means." 

Rubin-Blose said that there are individuals and organizations who may be open to talking about Islamophobia but become uncomfortable if the conversation shifts to its alleged role in the war on terror or its connection to Israeli politics.  He also spoke of a concept referred to as the "clash of civilizations" framework, in which a culture demonizes another for perceived differences in values. 

"There was this battle between ... the West and communism, and that's over now," he said. "So, who's the enemy going to be? ... The end result of this is basically that the West and Islam have to battle it out and, for the good of humanity, the West has to win." 

Each panelist was given a limited amount of time to speak, but before Rubin-Blose wrapped up, he talked about a report that showed the amount of money funded to certain organizations in America. She said that one such group is "ACT! for America."  The organization participated in a "national day of action, where they encourage people to protest Islam outside of mosques ... and to exercise their Second Amendment right while doing so," Rubin-Blose said.  

The Center for American Progress released the report. It found that over $42 million from seven different foundations funded an "Islamophobia echo chamber," which included the "ACT! for America" group. 

The Rev. James Thomas from the Lutheran Southern Seminary was also a panelist at the event. His address focused mainly on Israeli occupancy of Palestine. 

Thomas spoke about Augustus Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, saying that while the hospital served Palestinians, "the Israelis make it almost impossible for Palestinians to get to the hospital — holding people up at checkpoints until they die." 

In an Israeli-occupied settlement, according to Thomas, settlers dumped bricks, soiled diapers, eggs and urine on the Palestinians living in the area. 

"The establishment of the state of Israel and subsequent denial of equal rights to the Palestinians, more recently, within the occupied West Bank and Gaza," Thomas said, "represents one of the most blatant systematic violations of human rights by one government of an entire people in the world today."

"It began with a two-year campaign of ethnic cleansing still unacknowledged by the West," Thomas said. "This was followed by the colonial project of dispossession and control that has continued for more than 60 years, financially and politically supported by the greatest power in the world." 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video earlier this month claiming that Palestinian leaders are the ones pushing for ethnic cleansing.

"Israel's diversity shows its openness and readiness for peace," Netanyahu said. "Yet the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: no Jews." 

The prime minister called on those watching the video to ask themselves if they would accept ethnic cleansing in their home states. He said that the presence of Jewish children does not make peace impossible, but intolerance does.

"I envision a Middle East where young Arabs and young Jews learn together, work together, live together side by side in peace," Netanyahu said. "Ethnic cleansing for peace is absurd. It's about time somebody said it." 

The last panelist to speak was Taher Herzallah, who participated as a representative of American Muslims for Palestine. He said that Islamophobia has existed for centuries.  He also said that the term "Islamophobia" seems benign in the sense that it suggests a "legitimate fear," more so than hateful bigotry. 

"Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure," Herzallah said, citing the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Race and Gender. "It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve 'civilizational rehab' of the target communities." 

Herzallah suggested that this definition of Islamophobia is rooted in the relationship between Muslim people and their colonial occupiers. "Settler colonization has played a devastating role on the Muslim," he said. 

"Wars and occupation with religious overtones have dehumanized the Muslim into being the enemy ... or the alien," Herzallah said, "which means that any murder or massacre of the Muslim is considered justified or necessary." 

Herzallah referenced the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as examples of the use of Islamophobia to take political action. 

The Muslim faith is not confined to Israel or Palestine. It has a global following, and the attitudes surrounding it affect people in America, including those at USC.

"I haven't personally experienced [Islamophobia], but I do have Muslim friends who say that they do feel that they are treated differently," Seuser said. 

Dana Al-Hasan, a third-year doctoral student in epidemiology  and president of SJP,  recounted her experience with Islamophobia. She is a Muslim who identifies as Palestinian. 

"If I'm walking out on the street, people aren't going to identify me as Muslim because I ... don't cover my hair," Al-Hasan said.  "People wouldn't even know that I'm Muslim, and sometimes they might make, like, somewhat ignorant comments about Islam and then they'll be surprised when I'll defend it and I'll explain it." 

Al-Hasan's experience with people being unaware of her Muslim faith due to the way that she looks tied into the idea that Islamophobia is a form of racism. Second-year biochemistry student Zohra Sultan said that "the terrible thing is that ... there's definitely a set profile behind who a Muslim is." 

"I think it's really weird that people very quickly associate a faith to a race," Sultan said. 

Al-Hasan said that, for her and her family, the process of going through airport security is often an issue.

"My brother ... any time before he travels, he always has to shave his beard," Al-Hasan said, "because when he doesn't, he's just — he's stopped, he's harrassed, he'll miss his flight." 

Al-Hasan has been traveling between the United States and Saudi Arabia for 10-11 years. She said that for the first few years, she would "always be stopped at customs" when coming to the U.S. 

"I [was] escorted into a room — a room filled with blacks, Hispanics, Asians," Al-Hasan said. "And then I was interviewed again, for like the fourth time that day, and there were video cameras there, and they're just asking question after question after question."

Al-Hasan said she was 16 or 17 years old at the time. 

During a Q&A session at the end of the panel, one person in attendance asked the panelists what steps law enforcement officers could take to "better improve relations between [them] and Muslim communities in the United States." 

"The only interaction that I've seen with ... federal law enforcement, mostly, has been through the lens of counter-terrorism, and that's a problem," Herzallah said.  He referenced his home community in southern California, saying that the FBI has "wreaked havoc" there. 

In regard to terrorist attacks, Sultan said that she does not feel a need to prove herself as "one of the good ones"  by condemning acts believed to be committed under the Muslim faith. She also said that the IS is not associated with Islam,  and that she and her friends of the Muslim faith typically will not speak on terrorist attacks. 

"We let people have their opinions, and whoever wants to hate on us can hate on us and say whatever they want," Sultan said. "If they don't want to get to know the person, there's no point in proving to that person ... It's like talking to a wall." 

Herzalla called for law enforcement not to "interact with [his] community on the basis of counter-terrorism." 

"Interact with our community as the tax-paying citizens that we are," he said. 

Sultan said that she is not a "stereotypical Muslim." She also does not wear a hijab.  

"I do ... keep up with the moral values that Islam brought me, like be nice to others, respect others ... be the best person you can be," Sultan said. "In my mind, you know, God's going to look at what you did as a person — what you did to help the world." 



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