Op-Ed: The Intersection of Islam with Racism & Immigration

Written by Marwa Abdelghani, Media Fellow

October 26, 2017

Photo by Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of A Matter of Spirit on October 26, 2017.

There is no doubt that American politics has become defined by race. As a country, our defining values of equality and justice for all are being challenged by those that seek to divide us, some of whom hold high public office and make decisions that determine our policies. Americans are now pitted against one another in a clash of status, privilege and cultural acceptance. Fear perpetuated by hate speech has been the driving force behind racist policies, especially on immigration. Recent catastrophes, including multiple terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis, are major factors that have led to this political climate. 

During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump announced a campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the U.S, violating our Constitution, according to many court rulings. When the Muslim Travel Ban (which suspended immigration from six Muslim-majority countries) was signed into an executive order in the first two months of Trump’s presidency, many Americans came together to resist, and others tried to spread hate and fear.

At a time when color, faith and nationality are the first identities we see in each other, religious and ethnic boundaries have become political banners. Controversial issues like “Black Lives Matter,” a Muslim registry, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Muslim Travel Ban became platform issues upon which Americans based their votes in the 2016 election. Immigration, trade, and national security became issues upon which Americans connected to their identity. For the first time in U.S. history, American Muslims were catapulted into national politics like never before. Suddenly, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, LGBT and other groups who have faced a long history of discrimination in this country felt compelled to defend their Muslim neighbors. For many, Islamophobia, a political force used to spread hate and fear of Islam and Muslims, became seen as unacceptable. Our identity as Muslims was being challenged, and numerous Americans took a stand against the Islamophobic policy. 

After the Muslim Travel Ban was signed into an executive order, crowds of people organized and banded together to stand outside mosque doors across the country, holding signs of support and solidarity after every Friday prayer. About a thousand demonstrators attended the “Today I Am a Muslim, Too” rally in New York City holding placards of a woman in a headscarf. Airports across the country were crowded with people protesting the Muslim Travel Ban and fighting for the release of Muslims who were detained.

These acts of love and solidarity with American Muslims provided a significant amount of support. However, it is important to address those on the other side who have not yet come to regard American Muslims, and other minority groups, as a part of this country’s fabric. Our own President’s track record has shown him trying to ban an entire religious group from coming into this country, and defending those who try to divide us. There is fear that the Muslim Travel Ban paves the path for other policies that discriminate on the basis of nothing other than religion and nationality.

In June and September of this year, ACT For America set up over 60 anti-Muslim rallies across the country to push for “anti-Shariah” legislation. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls this organization the “largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.” Shariah, one of the most commonly misinterpreted Islamic terms, is a methodology by which Muslims understand the Qur’an. Islamophobic groups have twisted the word and define Shariah as a tool that violent extremists use to spread their ideology. 

For Muslims all over the world, it is a difficult reality to grasp how their religion is being twisted and turned into a banner for evil. While only a fraction carry out extreme violence in the name of Islam, we often forget that there are close to 2 billion Muslims living peacefully and coexisting with others. To put this into perspective, it is important to understand the following four points:

  1. Islam, in its fundamental essence, came as a message of peace to relieve a society from oppression, misogyny, and racism. Yet, it is currently being used as a banner, a tactic, and a tool to erase this message and promote one of supremacy and death by groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
  2. Many refugees who are running from persecution are Muslim. The Rohingya, Burmese Muslims, are fleeing Myanmar in an attempt to escape rape and murder by the Burmese military. Syrians are fleeing their country to escape the wrath of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Muslims all over the world are escaping hunger, persecution, and death.
  3. Violent extremists and people who call for the killing of all Muslims are two sides of the same coin. Both groups do nothing short of creating division and spreading hate that perpetuates violence.
  4. As a result of the anti-Muslim hate speech by some politicians during the 2016 election campaign, hate crimes against Muslims in America have risen sharply, nearly 44%.  Muslims continue to be targeted, whether it is a woman wearing a headscarf getting attacked or a Muslim-owned business being vandalized.  And now, policies like the Muslim Travel Ban force many Muslim families to be cut off from their relatives. The Muslim Travel Ban is the result of a long assault on the American Muslim community.

In the same way that other minority groups stood and continue to stand alongside American Muslims, Muslims themselves can connect with issues that are affecting other communities. The plight of undocumented immigrants who come to America to find more opportunities and a better education streams alongside the challenges of as Syrian refugees face the challenge of escaping war. The Trump Administration recently announced plans to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a policy that is meant to protect young people who were brought to the United States as children from deportation. The Muslim Travel Ban, which has been debated in the courts since its signing, was recently reintroduced by the Trump administration with revisions that will make it even more difficult for refugees to find a new life away from war. More countries were added to the ban, as well as tighter restrictions on immigrants.

Immigration has a foundational relevance to Islamic history, very similar to the Jewish Diaspora, where Jews fled persecution and were exiled from their homeland. In the year 622 A.D., Prophet Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina after escaping persecution in the city of Mecca, not unlike what we see today. Medina was where Muslims worked hard to create a society of coexistence with preexisting religious communities and to fight against religious persecution.

Today, humanity is being tested with the same task. Will we welcome those running away from harm and create a society that is inclusive? People all over the world are looking for a new place to call home, away from poverty, mass killings, and hunger. Recently introduced executive orders and immigration policies make it harder for people to seek refuge in the United States. The words etched on Lady Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor...yearning to breathe free” are being challenged, and we must come together to uphold the foundation of America.



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