Islam · Islamophobia · Outreach

Teaching “Muslim Americans” in Texas, the Hotbed of Islamophobia

“Armed and Vigilant: In Fear of a Muslim Uprising in Texas.” That is that title of a recent Al Jazeera mini-documentary on YouTube. The clip delves into the inflammatory anti-Muslim sentiment bubbling up in Texas. In the video, Tania Rashid, an Al Jazeera reporter, talks to David Wright, a member of the Bureau on American-Islamic Relations, or BAIR, an obvious mockery of the advocacy group CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Wright told Rashid: “A lot of us here are using either pigs’ blood or bacon grease on our bullets, packing it in the middle, so that when you shoot a Muslim, they go straight to hell. That’s what they believe in their religion.”

As I highlighted in a recent publication, hardly anyone flinched after Wright incited violence against Muslims. Nobody questioned where Wright had been radicalized. There were no hearings on Capitol Hill to discuss “Christian crusaders” or “white supremacists.” Essentially, it was open-season for Islamophobia.

Muslim Americans have recently come under the spotlight in Texas, thanks largely to the 2016 presidential election and the skyrocketing of anti-Muslim political rhetoric. According to a Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll published in February 2016, about 46% of all registered voters in Texas supported a complete ban on Muslims from entering the United States. The mayor of Irving, one of the bigger cities in Texas, recently accused imams of creating “separate laws” for Muslims. The Irving city council later endorsed a state bill that Muslims say targets Islam. Numerous mosques around the state also have been threatened due to Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, Muslims have expressed concern about living in fear for their safety in Texas.

And, unfortunately, I am only scratching the surface of Islamophobia in Texas.

Recognizing and countering Islamophobia is one of the goals of “Muslims in American Society,” an undergraduate sociology course that I am now teaching at Rice University in Houston. As a diverse group of about thirty students, we look at the intersection of Islam and American identity. We synthesis these two concepts by moving beyond the binary of “Muslim” and “American.” These are not mutually exclusive identities. They can coexist and, better yet, be in harmony with each other.

Our first order of business is to shed light on the history of Islam in America, which predates the founding of the United States by hundreds of years. The first Muslims to arrive on American soil were Africans who came over as slaves, and they were followed by Muslims from the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. We also cover events like the Revolutionary War, which saw Muslims fighting in General George Washington’s Continental army, and the extraordinary lives of Muslim Americans like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, two of America’s greatest icons.

Once we have established the place of Muslims in American history, we explore different interpretations of American identity. We recognize that the lives of Muslims today cannot be properly understood without understanding American history, and vice versa. Throughout history, America has been conceived in competing terms including as a “Christian nation” (think about Plymouth Rock), a “pluralist nation” (think about the Founding Fathers’ views on Muslims), and a “militaristic nation” (think about genocide and war). In order to understand the experiences of Muslims today, we have to see how these three types of national identity have affected ethnic, racial, and religious minority communities over the decades.

The question”What does it mean to be American?” has no simple answer. Ideally, our nation should be a community that defines itself on citizenship rights and shared democratic values. The Islamophobia sweeping the country today reminds us that our ideals are not always realities. For several weeks, we demystify several assumptions of Islam including “Islam is a monolith;” “Islam is inferior;” and “Islam is America’s enemy.” We consider the impact of the “Islamophobia industry,” a lucrative business made up of pseudo-scholars who spread misinformation and hatred of Muslims and Islam. As part of our discussion on Islamophobia, we also break down the emergence of the “good Muslim/”bad Muslim” binary, or the tendency to classify Muslims as either “with America” or “against America.”

I often tell my students that the Muslim population of the United States is the most diverse “Islamic community” in the world. Our course dedicates many weeks to specific Muslim groups including black Muslim movements (The Nation of Islam and W.D. Muhammad);  Arabs and South Asians (“between Muslim and white” and “flying while brown”); Muslim women (hijabis, activists and converts); Hispanics and Latinos (“New Muslim Cool” and IslamInSpanish); as well as the Mipsters, punk rock Muslims, and LGBT Muslims. Clearly, these groups prove that Islam is not a monolith. It is due time for Islamophobes to recognize the diversity of Muslim Americans.

Other topics that we cover in class include jihad (it doesn’t mean “holy war”), sharia (Islamic law is not a threat; sorry Newt Gingrich), the experiences of Muslim students on campuses, Muslim Americans and civic engagement, anti-racism activities, and Islamic community building. Throughout the course of the semester, several influential intellectuals and activists will visit us including Dalia Mogahed, Imam Wazir Ali, Nathan Lean, Tayyib Rashid, and Harris Zafar.

Our classroom environment is the perfect antidote to Islamophobia. We have agreed to listen respectfully to the experiences and perspectives of Muslims and non-Muslims. We have agreed to pay attention to the group process, making sure that everyone has the opportunity to have their voices heard. And we also have agreed to use our discussions as an opportunity for ethical, religious, moral and spiritual growth, rather than as a time to simply debate politics and religion.

Texans can no longer afford to be misinformed about Islam and Muslims. According to the 2010 Religious Census, Texas leads the country with approximately 422,000 Muslims. Houston and Dallas are cities with the third and fourth largest Muslim population nationwide. Muslim doctors, engineers, lawyers, and businessmen have contributed so much to Texas’ society, and Muslim students around the state are adding to the rich cultural vibrancy of university campuses. Hakeem Olajuwon, the former star of the Houston Rockets, is himself a Muslim. Islam is ingrained in the social life of the Lone Star state, yet Islamophobia persists. That is both dangerous and unnecessary.

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