“Islamophobia is Part of a Long Colonial and Racist Process:” An Interview with Amer F. Ahmed

Amer F. Ahmed
By Felicia Gustin
Nov 18, 2013

Islamophobia is bred from a culture of fear, misinformation and racism. Our society is rife with examples, especially since 9/11 - from stop and frisk policies directed at Muslims to government surveillance of whole communities; from increased hate crimes to media depictions that fuel the notion that Muslim equals terrorist.

To delve deeper into this topic, War Times spoke with Amer F. Ahmed, one of the country’s leading scholars on Islamophobia. Born in Ohio to Indian Muslim immigrants, Ahmed currently serves as Associate Director for the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Through public speaking, workshop facilitation and his writings, Ahmed has dedicated his life to addressing all forms of social injustice with a focus on Islamophobia.

WT:  After 9/11, we saw a surge in Islamophobia and hate crimes directed at Muslims in the U.S. Twelve years later, where do you see things?

Ahmed: Since the financial crisis, there has been a consistent and steady increase in hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims. I think it was starting to wane a bit before the crisis but our communities, like many others, have been used as a scapegoat for the frustrations of many who misdirect their anger. The reality is that misdirected anger results in violence, hate crimes, arsons and overall vilification of our community. There is a steady stream of vitriol directed at our community and it is an accepted norm in our media and overall public discourse. 

Islamophobes are given access to mainstream media and are often unchallenged in their public discourse. Fox News serves as the loudest and most overt examples of their mainstream media access but it is certainly not alone. There is consistent misinformation peddled by the entire broadcast media in a manner that is rarely challenged with the basic information that is needed. Counter-narratives are almost nonexistent in our mainstream media and the consistent framing of Islam as the enemy of America and the stereotype of the violent Muslim terrorist remains a staple in American media today. 

It is important to recognize that this framing by our media translates into rationalized and justified bias, profiling, incarceration, detention, criminalization and violence. It is not a benign message disseminating into a black hole. It is shaping perception and perpetuating violence while also silencing American Muslims and allies of our community.

WT: If 23–year-old Paul Ciancia, the man charged with the recent armed attack on Los Angeles International Airport had been a Muslim, the government and the media would have most certainly portrayed the incident as an act of terrorism. Contrast that with how the media and government handled the case of the young men charged with the Boston Marathon bombings.

Ahmed: I think when people first heard that their heritage was Russian, a lot of people didn’t know how to react. On top of that, their profile shifted to two guys who descend from the Caucus mountains region, the literal definition of Caucasian. They did not fit the stereotype of what people expect as the profile of Muslims or even ‘terrorists’.  Most Americans have never heard of Chechnya and the politics of resistance to Russian occupation. Once people found out they were Muslims, they simply recalibrated their Islamophobic perceptions to include these guys.

What was more important was that the narrative of Muslim terrorist was maintained and no longer needed to be questioned. However, it didn’t seem to occur to people to examine other aspects of their profile that better fit with what we have seen in recent U.S. mass murderers. This was partly because these two were framed as foreigners despite the fact that one was a U.S. citizen and both essentially grew up in the U.S. 

In my view, they more fit the profile of disaffected young males who arbitrarily take out their anger on innocents for no justifiable or rational reason like at Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown. Why was that not the profile articulated about these guys?  In what way, shape, or form do they represent Islam or Muslims? What does their religion have to do with their violent act and their operation from outside the fringes of normative behavior? Why do I have to be grouped in and associated with these guys? They have nothing to do with me and I am as upset about this act as anyone else; just as I was when a white supremacist indiscriminately mass-murdered Sikhs in Wisconsin. Why was the murderer in Wisconsin not grouped in with other white people or Christians? Why were White people not expected to denounce him and his cowardly acts? In addition, why is the incident at Wisconsin never grouped in with all the other mass murders? Do the killings of Sikhs hold less value than all the others who have been lost in these horrific incidences? Why are White supremacists like the murderer in Wisconsin not grouped in with Christians or white people but rather treated as individuals? It’s because he doesn’t represent most Christians or white people, just as the Boston bombers and others who commit violence in the name of Islam do not represent Islam.  We have to begin to challenge these narratives that are perpetually peddled and unchallenged. The framing is so problematic and needs to be dismantled.

WT: Many Americans equate Islam with terrorism and there is this notion that American Muslims are more prone to political violence than other Americans. Why do you think this is?

Ahmed: Your point is true. I think that this distortion comes down to who has the power and positionality in society to frame images and discussions through powerful vehicles like the media, government and other instruments of power. 

There is a concerted effort to decontextualize these matters that redirects the objective reality into a distorted lens. But this distortion is not new (as is evident for anyone who has read Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’) and it is not only subject to American Muslims. The distortion that has been perpetually peddled internationally has simply been applied to the constantly growing Muslim population within the Untied States. 

We must begin to recognize that post-9/11 Islamophobia is part of a long historical colonial and racist process that has been propagated by the West for many centuries. Islam has always been viewed as a threat by the West and the propaganda to perpetuate distorted lenses of reality has long been the practice to peddle misinformation and justify violence. 

For Muslims, we are often aware of this history going back to the Crusades, the reconquering of Spain from the Moors (who had the most advanced civilization in the world but were framed as ‘dark-skinned savages’ by various Popes), on to the colonial, post-colonial and now neo-colonial eras of the 20th and 21st Centuries. 

9/11 simply made the practice more overt to the modern masses in the United States and more easily justifiable in rhetoric in a mass-mediated manner. However, if one evaluates the discourse prior to 9/11, the same rhetoric was being used but not with the same level of reach in society. 

Certainly it was true as related to American foreign policy in Iran in the late-1970’s, for decades as related to Iraq, and perpetually as related to Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt as related to Israel. Examples of this go on and on; so it’s important to recognize that none of this exists in a vacuum.

WT: There’s been outrage over recent revelations of NSA domestic spying. But we know that since 9/11, covert intelligence gathering directed at Muslim communities and mosques has been disproportionate. What has this climate meant for Muslim communities or communities perceived to be Muslim such as Sikhs.

Ahmed: I think it’s interesting how our community has been subject to surveillance in all sorts of problematic ways since 9/11 which was exacerbated since the passing of the Patriot Act. People like myself and many others from our community have directly experienced the profiling, intimidation, and surveillance. We have lived for over a decade with the knowledge that we can be held or detained indefinitely at any time with no justification, charge or legal representation or protections. It has become an embedded aspect of the American Muslim experience.

Furthermore, the NYPD was discovered to have conducted a far-reaching surveillance program across the entire Northeast Seaboard of the United States of Muslim Student Associations, Mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, etc. They spent millions of dollars and acquired absolutely no leads over the years of implementation. 

First of all, what ever happened to jurisdiction for police departments?  Secondly, why was there no outrage about this in a comparable manner to what has emerged since Edward Snowden’s revelations? Suddenly, people realized that they’re not just spying on others, they’re spying on all of us! 

That is why it is so important to understand the far-reaching implications of Islamophobia as related to the pretense for the development of a surveillance state. This issue impacts EVERYONE, not just Muslims or people who are perceived as Muslims.

WT: How do you see the relationship between Islamophobia and racism/white privilege?

Ahmed: I think there is an inescapable relationship between Islamophobia and broader realities of racism and white privilege. Although race was socially constructed under specific circumstances in the United States, there is a longer history of Western Europeans portraying Muslims as ‘dark-skinned savages’. This was especially true in Spain with the removal of the Moors from Europe in which rhetoric portraying others as sub-human was cultivated then exported globally through the colonial process. 

In our modern era, it has been this ongoing history of framing Muslims as outside of the Western civilizational frame that has exacerbated the notion that Muslims are outside of whiteness. Despite the fact that the over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world have all sorts of identities including many White American and European, it is hard to extract a notion of whiteness from a person identifies as Muslims.

As a result, Muslims are overwhelming subject to the realities that apply in broader notions and realities of racism that we see play out in our society. In addition, color is associated with Muslims resulting in why a Hindu Miss America winner is subject to vile racist and Islamophobic rhetoric in reaction to her victory. It is her color that triggers the notion that she is Muslim, a terrorist, an Arab or whatever juxtaposed notions that the irrational racist mind conflates.

Furthermore, it highlights the fact that white privilege involves the benefit of not being subject to the type of vilification, profiling, surveillance and other actions that comes with being Muslim or associated with Arab or Muslim identities. 

WT: What will it take to challenge Islamophobia in the period ahead? What is the role of progressives and social justice activists?

Ahmed: I think the combination of more vocal Muslim voices in the public sphere, especially through media, will be necessary in addition to more visible efforts by allies. I think one that that has concerned me is that many progressive allies simply stand in principle but lack the meaningful relationships that are necessary to be effective allies. 

When Islamophobic rhetoric is spewed, allies often lack detailed understanding of the people who they are standing up for. In addition, I have found that few social justice activists have actively engaged these issues beyond political discourse.

When I have done workshops on Islamophobia around the country, it is disturbing to learn how little progressives and social justice activists know about the people and the issues. Given that we rely on such people to support the education of others, this is really problematic. It is for this reason that I have felt a responsibility in educating anyone interested in Islam and Islamophobia.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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