It’s Not Enough to Dismiss Islamophobia

A new book argues that conversations about Muslims in America and Europe are about more than rights and freedoms.

Students attend a vigil for three young Muslims who were killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in February 2015.  (Chris Keane / Reuters)

Controversies over Islam take somewhat different shapes in Europe and the United States. While France attempts to ban burkinis, or full-body bathing suits worn by some Muslim women, U.S. state legislatures attempt to ban the use of sharia law in American courts.

And yet, argues Nadia Marzouki in her new book, Islam: An American Religion, anti-Islam arguments in the West have become “surprisingly standardized.” It’s “no longer possible to discuss Islam’s place in Western societies without systematically invoking a series of normative oppositions: good/bad, moderate/radical, faith/law, West/Muslim, modernity/tradition, and so on,” she writes. “For a majority of Americans and Europeans, Islam remains an opaque object that one is unable to think of in any way other than as a problem, threat, or retrograde legal code.”

It’s not enough to understand this simply as Islamophobia, argues Marzouki, who is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. She believes Islam has become a cipher in Western societies for the tough questions of secular, liberal democracies: how much to champion liberty over equality, for example, and whether legal rights should entitle Muslims to fully express their faith in public. As much as Europe and the U.S. have different histories and legal traditions, she claims, anti-Muslim groups in both places share their discomfort with these challenges.

At the same time, Muslims in the U.S. have become distinct from other Muslims around the world, Marzouki says: They have embraced the American tradition of civil religion, which mixes a sense of transcendent purpose with a sense of civic duty. Understanding Islam as an American religion, and understanding why anti-Muslim groups react to Islam the way they do, she argues, is the only way to deescalate the tension surrounding the religion in America and abroad.

I spoke with Marzouki about attitudes toward Islam in America and Europe. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Green: What are the fundamental differences—and similarities—between attitudes toward Islam in Europe and in the United States?

Nadia Marzouki: I wanted to go beyond this notion that you have two distinct models of understanding Islam in Europe and in the U.S. I wanted to focus on the increasing convergence between modes of argument about Islam in Europe and the U.S. due to right-wing organizations that have been working together.

You have very different Muslim communities and populations in the U.S. and in Europe—different ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds, forms of socioeconomic status, occupations, and number and percentage in the population. Despite all these very important differences, you end up having debates that are organized around the same stereotypes: the invasion of Muslims in the suburbs of America or Europe, the oppression of women, mosques turning into breeding camps for terrorism, stealth jihad, sharia.

I want to suggest that anti-Muslim movements are maybe not just an effect of distinct historical and legal traditions. These debates about Islam say something more profound about an unease among parts of the public toward democracy and the meaning of political community.

Green: People in the U.S. sometimes refer to Europe as an example of what can happen in America if Muslims don’t assimilate into their broader communities. President Trump, for example, has pointed to Sweden and France as examples of disordered Muslim communities.

Why do you think that comparison is so common?

Marzouki: The notion that the Muslim population is replacing the old European population has been very common in the discourse in right-wing and anti-Muslim movements in the U.S. Arguments do not spread just by themselves. They have been manufactured by specific organizations. There’s been an important back-and-forth—some people from the U.K. or the Netherlands or Switzerland have been invited and brought these arguments to the U.S.

Green: Don’t some of these anti-Muslim figures in Europe, including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, have very different coalitions than those in the U.S.—including support from some members of the European LGBT community?

Marzouki: One major difference between Europe and the U.S. is that anti-Muslim arguments in the U.S. haven’t been very prominent within the Democratic Party or the left. Maybe you can find a few exceptions here and there, but broadly speaking, it’s mostly people from the right wing of the Republican Party. In Europe, some of the arguments about the fear of Islam, etc., have been endorsed by the right, but also by the left.

Green: You describe a process all religious groups go through in America: They start taking responsibility for the country’s founding myth of pluralism, which says that every religious group should have the freedom to worship in the U.S. Do you think the American Muslim community has gone through that process?

Marzouki: Major American Muslim organizations have been focused on defining their struggle as belonging to this mythology of American pluralism. In speeches, Muslim leaders will say things like, “Yes, Muslims right now are going through difficult and challenging times, but we should not despair of what the American constitution and political system offer us. This is the price to pay. All communities have been through this kind of challenging time of suspicion and discrimination.”

When two students were murdered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it was a tragic murder, but at the same time it was interesting to see the response of American Muslims. They were insisting that these students were brilliant and about to be extremely good contributors to their country and society. Their profile was defined in order to celebrate, even in these tragic circumstances, the American idea of a pluralist society.

“It’s not enough to dismiss them as Islamophobic. You have to take seriously this claim that they are being offended.”

Green: You also argue that all American religions also get “neutralized” into “faith and spirituality.” What do you mean by that?

Marzouki: The strategy of American Muslims to be recognized, accepted, and integrated has been to argue that Islam is primarily just a form of ethics and faith—it’s inoffensive, harmless, and has no impact on the public sphere. Muslims are normal citizens, normal humans, who just happen to have a different ethics, and do not have any intention to transform, invade, or hijack the constitution or American politics.

This nicely fits in the mythology of the American civil religion. Acceptable religious practice in America is primarily invisible and private. Expressing your faith in a more public and political way is a threat to democracy and modernity.

This begs the question of whether Muslims can make political interventions that are not immediately cast as dangerous or un-American.

Green: Other groups, like Mormons, have gone through intense periods of persecution and suspicion in American history. These days, Mormons are widely accepted as a religious group. Why hasn’t that happened with Muslims—some of whom have been in the U.S. longer than the Mormon church has existed?

Marzouki: Islam has been constructed consistently in an ambivalent way at once as an ultra religion and as a non-religion. It’s an ultra-religion in the sense that it embodies too much of religion, too much legal obligation. Islam is always defined or reduced to sharia by these anti-Muslim groups—an indication of fear that Islam is too legalistic.

Islam, at the same time, has been constructed as a non-religion. All the legislators supporting anti-sharia bills argue that sharia is not part of a religion—it’s an ideology. They do this for various reasons. One is to suggest that if Islam is not a religion, Muslims do not have the right to claim the protection of the First Amendment.

Despite the fact that Muslims have been around since they were slaves from Africa, there’s always this discrepancy between reality and the public construction of Islam.

Green: You argue that anti-Muslim demonstrators are objecting to more than just Islam—they’re reacting to the world, and more specifically to the values of a secular, liberal democracy. What do you mean by that?

Marzouki: I was intrigued by the arguments of people opposing the Islamic Center in New York in 2010. It was not about rights; it was about what is right. Anti-mosque people were not saying, “We hate Islam,” “we don’t want Muslims,” or “you don’t have a right to build a mosque.” What they were saying was more specific: “We don’t deny you the right to build an Islamic center. But we think this is inappropriate. This is not the right place or time.”

One could argue that this is all rhetorical, but I don’t think so. It’s not enough to dismiss them as Islamophobic. You have to take seriously this claim that they are being offended.

These arguments about appropriateness have been very prominent in European debates. For example, a lot of women opposed to Muslims wearing the burka in public have said, “Well, you can practice your religion the way you want, but it causes some kind of disgust or fear when we see a woman in a burka.” It’s this notion of unease—it’s not just a discussion about rights.

What’s at stake is not just a hate of Islam or a hate of Muslims. It’s an unease toward the capacity of abstract language to capture their sense of being disgruntled, or being perceived as losers, or as people who have been hurt or offended. Understanding the role of emotions and affect is important, because it helps us better understand why people consider certain things sacred, like the constitution, or some territory where a mosque should be constructed. Focusing just on law is not enough to address what’s really at stake.