On Sep. 15, 2001, a turbaned gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi was fatally shot five times while planting flowers around his property, becoming one of the first victims of post-9/11 Islamophobic hate violence in the United States.
Over a decade later, Islamophobia remains alive and well in the American experience. A recent study by South Asian Americans Leading Together found that in the last three years, there’s been a documented instance of hate crime against Americans perceived to be Muslim — whether Arab, Sikh or Hindu — every 3.5 days on average, a rate 40 percent higher than previous years. Nearly half of American Muslims report having experienced racial or religious discrimination within the past year, including everything from verbal and physical assaults to employment discrimination and hijabs ripped off of girls’ heads. These rates of discrimination are nearly twice as high as that experienced by their Protestant, Catholic and Jewish American counterparts.
Last Monday was the thirteenth anniversary of Sodhi’s death. On that day, Ayaan Hirsi Ali addressed the Yale community in a talk organized by the William F. Buckley Program. During her lecture, she expressed her view that Islamophobia “is a disingenuous term” and that those who espouse biases against Islam are justified in their antagonism.
In recent days, students have engaged in a contentious debate over Hirsi Ali’s visit to our campus. Some have argued that she must be given a forum to express her beliefs, while others maintain that she does not have the credentials to speak authoritatively on the state of the Islamic world. While these debates have consumed our community, they have arguably failed to highlight perhaps the most troubling aspect of Hirsi Ali’s recent appearance. By portraying Islam as an inherently dangerous, unstable doctrine that must be contained and quieted, Hirsi Ali reinforces Islamophobic ideologies — ideologies which have dire consequences for Muslims. These ideologies will continue to have violent ramifications as long as American communities, including Yale’s, fail to engage with this rhetoric carefully and critically.
Hirsi Ali ended her talk on Monday by addressing Yale’s Muslim students, asking us the following: “Muslim Students Association of Yale: You live at a time when Muslims are at a crossroads. Every single day there is a headline that forces the Muslim individual to choose between his conscience and his creed…with every atrocity they commit, they remind the Muslim of his commitment to submit to Allah. Will you submit passively or actively, or will you finally stand up to Allah?”
By suggesting that Muslims — particularly Yale’s Muslims — can only save their humanity by abandoning their identities, Hirsi Ali’s call to action erases the experiences of any Muslim who is in fact a decent human being. It gives no consideration to the countless Muslims whose lives are enriched by Islam, and made more peaceful by their religious and cultural identification. This reduction of Islam to a “creed” of manic violence serves to cast a blanket of doubt on the innocence and loyalty of an entire community, thereby reinforcing Islamophobic ideologies that allow targeted racial profiling, surveillance and discrimination to run rampant. This narrative also puts American Muslims in the excruciatingly taxing position of having to constantly explain ourselves and defend our relationships to our faith under scrutiny, in the process sacrificing personal narratives of complex, compelling and varied lives.
Much as we would like to believe that our communities are immune to intolerance, Muslim Yalies are no strangers to Islamophobia. Many of us have grown up dodging slurs and watching other passengers leer and whisper after spotting our bearded fathers and Hijabi mothers boarding flights. Many of us have spent our youths constantly trying to prove how “American”, “peaceful” and “respectable” we are, only to be told by Fox News that terrorists “all look alike. They’re all foreign-born … They’re all Muslim.” Just three years ago, the NYPD was found to have been surveilling Muslim Student Associations along the East Coast, including those at Yale, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and a number of other colleges. Hirsi Ali’s talk and the debates it sparked have been a reminder of how alienating and intimidating it feels to be seen as a dangerous other.
While Ayaan Hirsi Ali may have come and gone, the larger issues of Islamophobia and post-9/11 racial politics will persist, on our campus and in our nation at large. As we continue to think about Islam as a campus, it is my hope that we can all work to create a Yale that takes a stand against Islamophobia in championing social justice and caring for all of its students.
Nafeesa Khan is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.