American Islamophobia

Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear

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Khaled A. Beydoun
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islamophobia as a concept initially emerged in two separate works by French authors critiquing their nation’s colonial administration of l’Afrique occidentale (Fernando Bravo López, “Towards a Definition of Islamophobia: Approximations of the Early Twentieth Century” in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2011). Edward Said offered the first English expression in 1985, yet for decades afterward scholarship only occasionally addressed non-Muslim Western antipathies towards Muslim Westerners and non-Westerners. However, by 2020 Islamophobia studies has become its own field with scores of articles, monographs, and edited volumes dedicated to it. American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear represents a welcome contribution as it expands the scope of and voices heard in this burgeoning academic realm.

Its author, Khaled A. Beydoun, identifies himself as a “Muslim American law professor and civil rights activist” (11) and as “a critical race theorist” (246). He offers American Islamophobia as an introduction to the issues involved and a call to action at a moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Islamophobia activists can mutually illuminate discriminatory dynamics and structures that in many cases are deeply intertwined, if not co-emergent (11). His book arrives at a crucial moment, as increasing numbers of Americans seek to deconstruct the structural racism so evidently and violently manifest with the advent of ubiquitous cameras, social media, and a story-hungry news media.

The author puts his work as an activist and scholar to good advantage as he usefully draws upon his engagement with a wide variety of Muslim Americans and communities. Better than most scholars on the subject, Beydoun offers personal and humanistic insights into both the spectrum of injuries that Islamophobia inflicts upon Muslims and their diverse responses to prejudices and hate crimes.

Chapter 1 helpfully delineates various forms of Islamophobia. Individuals and organizations express “private Islamophobia” (32), the government manifests “structural Islamophobia” (36), and the impact of the latter within and beyond the United States represents “dialectical Islamophobia” (40). This delineation draws attention away from mere personal prejudice to a broader set of dynamics that help perpetuate and broaden individual animus.

However, the chapter’s conclusion, that other scholarship on Islamophobia predominantly focuses only on the private level (42), is erroneous, and leads to a missed opportunity to draw on, among other publications, Nathan Lean’s work on the “Islamophobia industry” (mentioned but once) and what the Center for American Progress calls “Fear, Inc.” in their report by that name (unmentioned). These complementary investigations establish a deliberately managed cycle of mutually reinforcing actors: professional Islamophobes, the organizations that authorize them, the donors that support them, the news outlets who promote them, and the politicians (and one political party, at least) that capitalizes off their salacious claims.

The next chapter traces the historical roots of “modern Islamophobia” to the enslavement of Muslim Africans, pointedly establishing the shared origin point for Muslim American and Black American histories. It continues its explanatory narrative through the emergence of American Orientalism, albeit with too much reliance on Said’s groundbreaking but outdated masterpiece. Next, Beydoun’s legal and race studies expertise shines as he then tracks matters of whiteness, blackness, and Muslim belonging in American migration law through what Mustafa Bayoumi has called “racing religion.” The legal use of color as a determinant that effectively excluded Muslims (usually racialized as non-white) ended in 1944, although it was not until the 1965 Naturalization Act that foreign Muslims gained widespread access to American citizenship.

Chapter 3 describes the US government’s weaponization of Orientalist tropes through the language of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory—first stated in 1993—which some scholars, such as historian Bernard Lewis, promoted. Beydoun then briefly reviews news and entertainment media from the preceding two decades. All this establishes the recent historical background meant to help the following chapter evaluate the structural Islamophobia of the new millennium as the US government pursued Muslim enemies (real and imaginary) at home and abroad.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were coupled with Islamophobically propelled projects on both state and federal levels. Initiated at different points during the Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies, the PATRIOT Act, the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) program, the National Security Entry and Exit Registration System, and myriad anti-Sharia bills all intended to surveil, limit, and prosecute domestic Muslims. Chapter 5 elaborates at length on the CVE endeavor, with a brief reflection on how this project disproportionately impacts impoverished Muslims. The detailed examination of how CVE policing has disrupted Detroit’s Muslim communities proves particularly insightful and illuminating of structural Islamophobia’s rippling consequences.

Perhaps the most original contribution in the volume that helps assess the current moment is the exploration in chapter 6 of the intersections between anti-Black racism and Islamophobia and between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Muslim activism against discrimination. While underlining how media representations often erase the role of Muslim Black Americans in BLM, Khaled takes non-Black Muslims to task for their own marginalization and exclusion of their Black coreligionists. Presumably as an example of dialectical Islamophobia, Muslim Americans of Arab and South Asian heritage have contributed to the public criticism of the Nation of Islam in a bid to win recognition (and toleration, if not acceptance) as “moderate Muslims.”

American Islamophobia concludes by considering what constructive lessons Muslim Americans can learn in the era of Donald Trump. The expansion of institutionalized Islamophobia as signaled by “the Muslim ban” coincides with conservative and white supremacist derision for a spectrum of minorities, sparking coalitions between Muslims and similarly marginalized groups. This has resulted in a broadening popular awareness of Islamophobia, Muslims and non-Muslims flocking to airports to support immigrants, and a rising resistance to blame Islamic traditions for the crimes of one person who happens to be Muslim (as in the case of the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting). Meanwhile, Beydoun reminds us that intersecting interests among divergent groups may be embodied by individuals belonging to two or more outgroups, such as Black and/or LGBTQ Muslim Americans.

All told, American Islamophobia represents a useful complement to existing scholarship. Although its comprehension of Islamophobic dynamics is undermined by important omissions in scholarship, the book signals notable strength in its distinctive voice, analysis of legal history, and attention to intersections of race and religion. The personal Muslim perspectives expressed by Beydoun will captivate undergraduate readers, while he also offers them insightful access to critical race theory. The volume will also well serve activists and the general public at this precarious moment when Americans need to deepen their understanding of how dynamics of race, religion, gender, sexuality, migration, and class intersect not only in American politics, or in its communities, but in individuals as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Gottschalk is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
November 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Khaled A. Beydoun is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and Senior Affiliated Faculty at the University of California–Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project. A critical race theorist, he examines Islamophobia, the war on terror, and the salience of race and racism in American law. His scholarship has appeared in top law journals, including the California Law Review, Columbia Law Review, and Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review. In addition, he is an active public intellectual and advocate whose commentary has been featured in the New York Times and Washington Post as well as on the BBC, Al Jazeera English, ESPN, and more. He is a native of Detroit and has been named the 2017 American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Advocate of the Year and the Arab American Association of New York’s 2017 Community Champion of the Year.


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