What does it mean to be a Muslim in the United States? For many of us, that includes some form of consistent discrimination or prejudice, whether on the streets or in the classroom. Islamophobia has become one of the most poignant issues for Muslim Americans, a community that makes up less than 1 percent of the American population. According to a 2015 Brookings Institute poll, 61 percent of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of Islam. Dealing with the consequences of consistent anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and in politics, Muslims’ struggle for an acceptance into the broader American community has been exacerbated by the most recent election cycle.
Awareness about Islamophobia arguably took off in 2015 after the Chapel Hill murders of Deah Baraka and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha in what was reported to be a “parking dispute.” Muslims around the United States, myself included, held vigils and protests to raise awareness about the largely unaddressed yet prevalent Islamophobic culture present in America. Islamophobia has become increasingly discussed in the media here in the United States and in other countries such as Britain and France.
One of the largest sources for the rise of Islamophobia has been domestic politics and the media’s portrayal of the violence in the Middle East. With terrorist organizations and militancy movements throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa, media reporting has caused the religion of Islam to be closely tied to groups such as Boko Haram, the Taliban and the Islamic State Group. These two things have been so closely tied together that Sheldon Adelson’s famous quote, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Islamic” has taken hold in much of the American psyche.
Others have gone even further, as the Republican presidential candidates seemingly took up a competition to make the most Islamophobic statements. When all the frontrunners of the 2016 Republican Party start saying that the United States should never have a Muslim president — Ben Carson — or that police should “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” — Ted Cruz — we know there is a problem.
No one has made the issue of Islamophobia bigger than Donald Trump. By calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants and the registration of Muslim-Americans into a database, Trump’s bigotry and discourse on “radical Islam” provides some Americans with a justification for displaying their discomfort toward Muslims. Many see Trump as the symbol of free speech, and with his attacks against Islam, supporters are more emboldened to act.
Such a rise in Islamophobia stems from the effect of “trickle-down racism.” It does not even matter if Trump wins the 2016 presidential election; the rhetoric and statements have already caused current and future damage. By becoming the American symbol for a pattern of xenophobia, he has already begun a movement that will impact the United States for years to come. With every statement directed against Muslims, the more and more the average American citizen will begin to believe such things to be fact. This does not just apply to Muslims either; whether it is the comments about Mexicans or the LGBTQ community or women, the fact that Donald Trump is able to say these things without consequence results in others believing they can and should do the same.
The second thing is that this rhetoric causes “normalized Islamophobia” in politics, media and culture. Awareness of Islamophobia has definitely increased in this past year, but at the same time, so has Islamophobia in general. Consistently pairing terrorism and Islam together causes an association and, over time, people forget there is a difference. Media groups ranging from Fox News and Breitbart News Network talk about Islam in a negative light over and over again, causing people to be more readily used to Islamophobia and less willing to speak out against it.
Although Islam’s image has become increasingly negative over the past few years, many more people have also developed strong interests in learning about and studying the religion, culture and society of Muslims. There is now also more potential in raising awareness about the issues of Islamophobia. Georgetown has been doing work in this field through the Bridge Initiative, a research center established in April 2015 that seeks to educate American society about Islamophobia.
Yet at the end of the day, the pervasive effects of the normalization of prejudice will permeate long after “The Donald” fades from the stage, and combating Islamophobia will likely turn into a lengthy struggle as opposed to a simple flashpoint of this election.
Saad Bashir is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.