Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Law alone can’t dismantle Islamophobia

We must also tackle the policies, media narratives and political rhetoric that perpetuate a climate of fear

February 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

Deah Shaddy Barakat
Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha
Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha

With the Feb. 10 shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that left them dead, they joined a long list of people who have been injured or killed by violence and appear to have been targeted for their faith, national origin or race. There are many others — 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, who died in December after a driver plowed into him, almost severing his legs, outside the Somali Center of Kansas City, Missouri; Paramjit Kaur, a mother of two who was among six Sikhs killed by a white supremacist at a Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012; and Sunando Sen, a Hindu Indian who was shoved into the path of a train at a subway station in New York City. These are only a few of the acts of violence committed against Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Sikhs and Hindus since 9/11.

In all these instances, the families of the victims and community-based organizations rightly demanded that they be characterized as hate crimes and prosecuted as such. In fact, from 2001 to 2011 (PDF), the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuted 50 defendants in 37 cases involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against South Asians, Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs. These prosecutions send a clear message: As a nation, we will not condone such vicious targeting and will pursue perpetrators through the justice system.

While critical, legal solutions cannot by themselves stem or prevent hate crimes, because they do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in the midst of heightened suspicion and hostility toward Muslims, South Asians, Arabs and anyone perceived to be from those communities. We must directly address the forces that perpetuate this climate, such as unfair government policies, misleading media narratives that promote Islamophobia and xenophobic political rhetoric.

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has implemented policies that target members of these communities, reinforcing the notion that they are worthy of suspicion. George W. Bush’s administration, for example, required people from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries to register with immigration authorities, detaining and deporting nearly 13,000 of them. Under President Barack Obama, the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to engage in pointed surveillance of and information gathering in Muslim communities, as do local authorities such as the New York Police Department. Recently, the DOJ released guidance barring profiling by federal law enforcement but carved out exceptions in cases of national security and racial mapping, which allows authorities to gather information about particular communities for intelligence purposes. And just this week, the White House convened a national summit to discuss programs to counter violent extremism in the U.S. Instead of addressing all forms of violent extremism — including the threat from, say, white supremacist groups — the summit and programs’ framework broadly focused on Muslim radicalization, reinforcing the narrative that American Muslims are inherently suspect.

The media, public and political figures and a growing Islamophobia industry buoy this climate of suspicion. In January one organization placed anti-Muslim ads on Muni buses in San Francisco. Vanderbilt University law professor Carol Swain’s op-ed in The Tennessean stirred outrage among students on campus when she asked, “What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently made comments about “no-go zones” in Europe that are purportedly under Muslim control. And in Texas, protesters shouted, “Go home! ISIS will gladly take you!” at a group of Muslims visiting the state Capitol to meet with their legislators. 

Legal efforts will be only partly effective if we do not confront the culture that allows hate violence to chafe and fester.

All these incidents occurred in the two months leading up to the Chapel Hill shootings. The cumulative effect is overwhelming. In the week after the tragedy, communities around the country have reported other acts of violence and vandalism. Someone spray-painted racial slurs such as “pigs” and “Now this is a hate crime” on the doors of the Islamic School of Rhode Island. In Dearborn, Michigan, police are investigating two white men’s assault of an Arab man who was with his daughter in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store. In Bothell, Washington, leaders of a Hindu temple found a swastika and “Get out” spray-painted on a wall, and a nearby junior high school was vandalized with “Muslims get out.”

Without systemic solutions and practices that challenge and change the culture and climate of hostility toward Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities, efforts to counter hate violence through only legal solutions will not stick. The federal government can do its part. It can jump-start the Interagency Initiative on Hate Crimes, which the White House announced in November 2014 and include a focus on Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, given the ongoing violence targeting them. Government agencies must cease unwarranted surveillance and profiling of those communities. These practices are at odds with the government’s commitment to enforce civil rights laws and will lead only to greater mistrust.

State and local legislators can introduce bills that set up local government and community rapid response mechanisms to address acts of hate and hold formal sessions to hear directly from community members and leaders. Politicians must abide by a code of civility and hold one another accountable for racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Philanthropic stakeholders can invest in the efforts of community-based organizations that are often at the front lines of responding to the heightened sense of alarm that their constituents experience.

Fostering a climate based on mutual understanding and respect of the multiracial communities we are fast becoming in America will take vigilance from each of us. It starts with a better understanding of one another’s stories, histories and experiences, with the intention of finding common threads and identifying one another’s humanity. Civic, faith, education and business leaders, in partnership with artists and cultural bridge builders, can create spaces and opportunities that allow people to engage in dialogue with one another. We can learn from movements such as #BlackLivesMatter that have allowed us to have honest national conversations about how people of color experience violence and discrimination.

We must continue to address hate violence through effective tracking, prosecution and interagency coordination. But these efforts will be only partly effective if we do not confront the culture — one that is nearly 14 years old — that allows hate violence to chafe and fester. We must do this for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and all the other people we have lost. We must do it so that we can stop adding names to a list that is already too long and painful for our families, communities and nation to hold. 

Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, was an executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and an activist in residence at the University of Maryland. Her book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” will be available in November 2015.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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