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Q&A: Islamophobia Alive and Well in the U.S.

Omid Memarian interviews DR. MUNIR JIWA, director of the Centre for Islamic Studies

BERKELEY, California, Apr 24 2009 (IPS) - In an Apr. 6 address to the Turkish Parliament on the final day of his European trip, President Barack Obama praised Muslim Americans for “enriching the United States”.

Dr. Munir Jiwa Credit: Gtu.edu

Dr. Munir Jiwa Credit: Gtu.edu

However, according to Dr. Munir Jiwa, director of the Centre for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union of the University of California, Berkeley, “virulent Islamophobia” persists across the country.

Jiwa, who is also a professor of Islamic Studies, told IPS that among those who did not vote for Obama last November, there are even more anti-Muslims. “They think we have voted in someone who is, as they say, a ‘closet Muslim’, and they think that sometime, he will come out of the closet,” he said.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that 12 percent of the U.S. public believes Obama is a Muslim, virtually unchanged from 10 percent in March. This misconception – he attends a Christian church – is shared equally by Republican and Democratic respondents.

In an interview with IPS, Dr. Jiwa spoke about Muslim Americans’ expectations from the new administration, Islamophobia in the United States, and the prospects of improving the image of Muslims in the United States in the coming years.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: What is the relationship between freedom of speech and Muslims in the United States? MJ: When Muslims are critical of the American political process, they are seen as anti-American and radicals. When others are critical of America, it’s like, “Look at how democratic we are. We allow multiple voices.” So it’s always that double bind.

African-Americans are the perfect example of that. That is what has happened in this country. When they were critical, it was always seen as a revolution. That’s why Malcom X was never invoked once in the Obama campaign. Never once. And yet, we have stamps commemorating him.

IPS: According to some reports, 90 percent of Muslims voted for Obama last November, even though they have traditionally leaned toward Republican candidates. Why? MJ: It’s hard to gauge any kind of voting pattern for Muslims. Having said that, interestingly, leading up to the nomination and then his presidency, there was real anxiety and then disappointment in so many Muslim communities for the ways Muslims often felt marginalised from the national rhetoric around the country about Muslims, which didn’t seem so far off from Bush.

So still, there was a sense that there would be a more inclusive nation. There are actual facts on the ground that Obama had to distance himself from Muslim communities; any sort of connection made with Muslims was seen as a possible liability.

Now it’s interesting, Muslims felt saddened, offended, and marginalised by this, and it happens at the same time there is a real sense of hope in Muslim communities for participating in the American political process unlike ever before. So they often had to contain themselves from being outwardly seen as embracing Obama because it could hurt his candidacy.

IPS: Since the election, the president has repeatedly talked about his diverse religious background, showing his interest in the other communities, including Muslims. MJ: President Obama has a global background: a Muslim father from Kenya, even though he claims he [his dad] wasn’t practicing, (a childhood) spent partially in Indonesia – all of these things are part of what makes someone. For many Muslims, just knowing that is important. It’s interesting, on the other hand, those are the very things that for some Americans become unpatriotic. If you are a global citizen, you aren’t American enough.

And for many Muslims, they read it the opposite way. They are like, “Um, that is what makes a great American. “Also he has made some speeches, including one in the first 100 days from a Muslim-majority country [Turkey]. The first person he called after he was elected was [Palestinian Prime Minister] Mahmoud Abbas, his first interview with an international TV was with Al-Arabia He mentioned Muslims in the inauguration speech. All of these things combined are in the right direction.

IPS: Did the marginalisation after 9/11 prompt Muslims in the United States to have a more radical view about religion? MJ: In terms of radicalisation, I think it’s very marginal. People would have to show me where that occurs. With all the work I have done in mosques, especially after 9/11, I’ve found quite the opposite. I’ve found people who are turning to the mosques because it provides them spiritual ground, community, and a way to carry out their Islamic obligations. In fact, it’s a place where you’ll find conversations not only about what it means to be a Muslim but what it means to be a Muslim in America in terms of carrying out the common good.

IPS: When you go to a mosque and want to take a picture, even as a journalist, they turn their face [away]. When Muslims see a camera crew, they leave the mosque. Why are many Muslims in the United States so fearful of being identified by their religion? MJ: Rightly so, people are cautioned, whatever we say will be held against us. They weren’t sure what to say, when to say, how to say it. Even as researchers going in, there were all sorts of questions for us, you know why do you want to research this? Who’s going to read it? Who’s going to hear it?

With the Patriot Act coming out and all sorts of surveillance going on in Muslim communities, people were afraid to speak, and I don’t blame them. I think it’s very easy to take out of context what people are saying and use it against them, and we see that all the time. For example, on campuses, we see just horrible efforts at marginalising Muslims and other faculty for a variety of reasons.

IPS: Do you have any personal experience in this regard? MJ: Many of us as faculty were put on watch lists, which made travel very difficult. A specific example: I was asked questions about my travel to Syria and Bosnia, where I worked in 1995. Those were places I had visited on my old passport, and I was traveling on my new passport because my old one had expired. I was asked why I had visited those places even though they weren’t stamped in my new passport.

So you know that you are on some database and they know where you have traveled because they are asking you why you have visited Syria and Bosnia. They are asking you, and if you tell them you are working in the arts and interested in visual culture, it doesn’t resonate. Overall, in terms of what others experience, mine were minimal.

IPS: What do Muslim-Americans expect from President Obama? MJ: They want what all other Americans are wanting: a sense of political participation, better education, better healthcare, and so on. There is a sense that Muslims are marginalised. They are vilified constantly in the media and in real life.

There is a sense that this will change if there is a national rhetoric around words like respect and listening. (Obama) reaching out to the Muslim world is a more hopeful sign. (But), it has to be followed by actions.

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