Fear in America’s heart: Islamophobia in today’s America

Story by Bryanna Weinstein/Contributing Writer

Photo courtesy of MTSU News

This past Thursday night, Dr. Caleb Elfenbein, associate professor of Religious Studies and History from Grinnell College, gave students and faculty alike a look at race, religion, fear and conditions of public life in contemporary America. He specifically focused on Muslim Americans and the hostility the community has faced since even before September 11. 

Before he started, he stated, “This talk is about many things, but at [its] base it’s about wanting people who live among us to feel at home, to feel like they can participate in the life we all share together.” 

He then began his seminar with an acknowledgement, one he said some would find a bit unusual but relevant. “Based on my research, we currently gathered together on the ancestral lands of the Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw people whose land were encroached upon by settlers throughout the eighteenth century and were officially removed from ancestral lands in 1838.”

He explains that he includes that tidbit because the seminar is about people feeling at home, and connecting that idea makes it possible for people to feel at home in the first place. Questions like that are deeply rooted in this country’s history. 

But the main part of the seminar focused on anti-Muslim sentiment and hostility and how it is connected to a whole range of American issues. Its effects have become more prominently evidenced through trends and data over the past decade that Elfenbein collected from a project entitled Mapping Islamophobia. The data detailed anti-Muslim activity all over the United States, and it is no surprise that the numbers in incidents spiked around 2015 to 2016. 

Elfenbein explained that he would have loved to spend the night focusing on the trends and data collected but he instead thought it best to really go in-depth about how anti-Muslim sentiment and the activity it motivates really influences or tells us about the nature of our public, shared life in the United States today. 

We can also learn from our shared life with the Muslim communities across the country and find out what they are doing to push back against this sentiment and hostility. 

“There is nothing inevitable about where we find ourselves right now,” Elfenbein said. “There are, of course, identifiable reasons that anti-Muslim hostility has a very real presence in our public life.” 

Again, while he states that hostility is nothing new, he points out the recent near record-breaking incidents surrounding the topic. It is more publicly acceptable than it ever has been. Muslims in the US are working overtime to push back, but there is real space for the possibility of change. 

Fear is at the center of public life. It has pervaded public spaces, allowing kind and accepting people to turn a blind eye to mistreatment of others around them. 

Elfenbein brought attention to stories of different Muslim citizens that stuck with him and how living in this country as a Muslim brings a sense of that fear in their hearts, in an accumulation of painful and scary moments. Nasty comments slung their way. Feeling powerless when called a terrorist, even though they themselves are terrified of this hostility. 

But how should they respond? Elfenbein quoted Maheen Haq, saying “Be courageous in the face of fear.” 

Many communities are setting the example of being courageous in the face of fear, even Murfreesboro, by following a model of push back that not only educates but gives those who want to learn the chance to.  Muslim communities still commit themselves to outreach and publicly engage themselves in an effort to humanize their way of public life. They do this by setting up events such as Ask a Muslim at coffee shops simply to give people the chance to really just understand those who they fear. 

Elfenbein brings up an example of this engagement, “I’ve come across multiple instances, for example, in which communities have held mosque open houses just days after terrible anti-Muslim vandalism including one instance, bullets being shot into a sanctuary.”

So, what can Islamophobia tell us about public life in today’s America?

Elfenbein ended it with this answer, “It tells us that fear, fear that comes from public hate is more a part of our public life than is sustainable for us to follow. There’s a model right before us that we can see here that offers a different path to follow.”


To contact Lifestyles Editor Brandon Black, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Life.

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