On August 25, 2010, Ahmed H. Sharif, a taxi driver in New York, was attacked with a knife and slashed on the neck and face by Michael Enright. The attack occurred immediately after he had replied yes to his young white Christian passenger’s question about whether he was a Muslim. After fleeing the taxi cab, Enright was quickly caught by the police and charged with attempted murder [1]. The attack on Ahmed Sharif was not only a personal tragedy but, like all hate crimes, a reminder to the Muslim community that they are under siege, seen by many white Americans as outsiders, and thus, vulnerable to violence.

Islamophobia is a combination of religious, racial, and cultural oppression targeting the presence, dress, behavior, job and educational opportunities, and institutions of anyone perceived to be Muslim, Arab, or generally Middle-Eastern. As a result of long-standing patterns of Islamophobia, which have increased dramatically since the attack on the World Trade Center, Muslims and Islamic organizations are under attack on many fronts. Muslims are racially profiled in airports and in urban settings, routinely discriminated against in job and housing situations, and portrayed as dangerous fanatics in the popular media, particularly in movies and video games. Islamic organizations are under intense surveillance by the government, are denied access to some of the funding and other opportunities that Christian and Jewish groups have access to, have their charitable activities challenged, are routinely denied building permits, and have their mosques and cultural centers attacked.

What popular culture in the U.S. doesn’t reflect is that most Muslims are neither Arab nor Middle Eastern. Of the over 1.57 billion Muslims in the world (about 23 percent of the world’s population), the majority live in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, China, Nigeria, Kenya, India, and the Philippines [2]. Despite the dramatic religious and cultural variety of the Muslim world, Islam is often portrayed in the U.S. as a monolithic, militaristic religion, unchanged since the seventh century, hostile to Christianity, and inimical to all things modern and Western. Muslims are often assumed to be mindless adherents, devoid of any individuality–fanatical followers of extremist clerics such as Osama Bin Laden.

Muslims have been treated as the prototypical enemy of western Christendom since the first crusade was announced by the Pope in 1095. The crusade was conceived as an expedition to unite the fighting rulers and people of Southern Europe under a new common identity as Christian. In his proclamation, the Pope denounced Islam as an abomination and enemy of God and declared that every Christian had a moral obligation to march to the Holy Land and claim it from the Moors. Over the following centuries [3] Christian secular and religious leaders forged a common European identity whose defining characteristic was the threat of Islam.

During the 15th century, in the first process of racial (as opposed to ethnic) cleansing, Spanish rulers began persecuting the Moors as well as Jews in their attempt to create a racially and religiously pure country, expelling the Moors entirely from Spain in 1609. The Spanish Inquisition was established to hunt down conversos (Moors and Jews who were suspected of falsely converting to Christianity) lest they pollute the blood of a new national and eventually European identity. During this period, the religious identity “Christian” began to take on a racial component, signifying white Christian, and the word “European” began to be equated with both white and Christian [4].

Emerging nation-states such as Spain claimed legitimacy from a unity of faith and a common pseudo-scientific racial heritage encapsulated in the Spanish phrases sangre puro and limpieza de sangre [5]. During this period of nation building and emerging national identities, the word “moor” was used as both a religious and a racial signifier and a general term to describe the Other—the perennial enemy of Christendom anywhere in the world who, by rejecting Christianity, “…remains outside the Western economic, cultural, and political consensus” [6].

In contrast, there have been periods in U.S. political history when Islam was not treated as an enemy of Christendom and relations between the U.S. and Muslim nations were friendly. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson respected and had generally positive things to say about the religion.  In 1777, Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the new United States government, with Tunisia following suit the next year. Even in the period of the Barbary War against pirates off the coast of North Africa, Islam was referred to with respect and a political alternative to war was sought to the conflict. At the same time, however, stereotypes about Muslims as infidels were promulgated by Christian priests and ministers and expressed in popular culture, often through the negative portrayal of Native Americans as Moors [7].

During the post WW II period, immigration from Muslim countries to the United States increased. At the same time, the African-American Muslim community continued to grow, now about one-quarter of the Muslim population in the U.S. The rest of the Muslim population is primarily first or second generation immigrants from South Asia (India and Pakistan) various West Asian countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran, and Indonesia, Bosnia, Kenya, Somalia, and Malaysia. Estimates of the total population in the U.S. range widely but there are at least 4-5 million Muslim Americans. As a Pew Research Survey title suggests, most Muslims in the U.S. are well-educated and middle class. The report concludes that Muslim Americans are “…largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world” [8].

The reality of Muslim life and belief in this country, however, has had little impact on popular opinion compared to the continued effect of centuries-old stereotypes of Islam and Islamic countries that continue to be put forward by political, religious, and cultural leaders to justify interference in the internal affairs of Muslim countries and surveillance and curtailment of the rights of Muslim Americans.

The target of present day Islamophobia is Muslims, not as they are, but as they have been demonized for centuries in the western imagination. They are the dark, menacing, non-Christian Other, intent on destroying western civilization. And this danger becomes the justification for public policy that targets individual Muslims and Islamic organizations for marginalization, discrimination, harassment, hate crimes, and continual vilification.

Recent controversies over the siting of Mosques and Islamic cultural centers and the continued widespread belief that President Obama is Muslim are indicative of this deep-seated Islamophobia and racism.

While anti-mosque proponents claim that their concern is the location of an Islamic cultural center so close to ground zero, in fact, there are protests against the building of mosques in such diverse places as Murfreesboro, TN, Sheboygan, MI, and Temecula, CA, as well as in Brooklyn and Staten Island, NY. In Columbia, TN, a mosque has been burned down and in Cedar Rapids, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Seattle mosques have been smeared with animal feces, defaced with graffiti, vandalized, attacked with pipe bombs, and set afire by arsonists [9]. Just the day before the attack on Ahmed Sharif, a mosque in Madera, CA was attacked for the third time within a week [10]. In Columbia, TN, in a powerful act of solidarity with the Muslim community, the local pastor of the Presbyterian Church gave the Muslim community the keys to the church and said that they could use it as their house of worship.

The protest against the Park51 Islamic cultural center proposed for a site 2 blocks from the location of the 9/11 bombings is indicative of Islamophobia. Protesters assume that because Al Qaeda is a Muslim organization all Muslims are terrorists, there were no Muslims who died in the 9/11 attacks or who played roles in the rescue of people caught in the buildings, and an old Burlington Coat Store is suddenly “hallowed ground.” They also assume that Muslims should not enjoy the same religious freedom as Christians or Jews, even while many U.S. Muslims are risking their lives fighting as U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world.

The continuing controversy over whether President Obama is a Muslim is another example of racism and Islamophobia. Underlying the disbelief that Obama is a Christian is an assumption that African Americans cannot be true Christians and will always be outsiders. This disbelief is based on an assumption that Muslims and people of color are dangerous, and neither can be the equal of law-abiding, white, Christian Americans.

These issues are obviously stirred up by conservative political leaders and mainstream, corporate media. But they tap into widespread underlying beliefs that must be taken seriously. In a recent CNN poll, 68 percent of those polled said that they opposed the building of a proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks from where the World Trade Center had stood [11]. At the same time, a Pew poll showed that 18 percent of the population believes Obama is a Muslim, only 34 percent believe he is a Christian, 43 percent claim not to know his religion (even after all the furor over the statements of his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright two years earlier) [12]. A more general USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in July 2006 found that thirty-nine percent of respondents said they felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID “as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States.” About one-third said U.S. Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and over one-fifth said they wouldn’t want Muslims as neighbors [13]. Those numbers would likely be much higher today as conservative leaders tap into latent anti-Muslim sentiment.

Islamophobia justifies systemic and institutionalized discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States and by the U.S. throughout the world. Just as with racial profiling and discrimination directed against other groups, Islamophobia threatens our collective safety when resources are selectively and inappropriately directed at specific communities. It threatens our civil and religious liberties when one group is singled out as not entitled to constitutionally guaranteed rights. It also curtails our freedom when surveillance and harassment are legally sanctioned under the justification that the danger of some group is so great that we must limit our civil rights in order to prevent attack. When we speak out and stand strong as allies to the Muslim community we challenge violence and injustice, increase our safety and freedom, and challenge age-old Christian stereotypes and myths. We also uphold our legal rights to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom from discrimination and attack.

The attack on Ahmed Sharif, the Park51 protests and the physical destruction of mosques, and the questioning of President Obama’s religious faith are just indicators of the larger pattern of anti-Muslim oppression that plagues our society and undermines our values. Now is the time to work with Muslims to challenge Islamophobia.

[1] “Slashed Muslim taxi driver to visit NYC mayor” by Tom Hays. Associated Press, August 25, 2010. Available at

[2] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009. Available at

[3] There were crusades waged by Christians against Moors, Slavs, dissident Christian groups such as the Cathars, and even against individual secular Christian leaders over a period of 600 years.

[4] As part of this whitening process western Christianity transformed God and Jesus into light-skinned Europeans.

[5] The limpieza de sangre statute was passed in 1449.

[6] Majid, Anouar. We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and Other Minorities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p. 62.

[7] Majid, p. 71.

[8] “American Muslims: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” Pew Research Center May 22, 2007. Available at Viewed on 8-10-10.

[9] For details and pictures see “Coast-to-coast Anti-Islam Movement results in Protests, Attacks on Mosques” Responsible for Equality and Liberty (R.E.A.L.) organization, July 22, 2010. Available at

[10] “Mosque Attack in California refers to Ground Zero” by Joseph Picard, International Business Times August 26, 2010. Available at

[11] CNN Opinion Research Poll, August 6-10, 2010. Available at

[12] “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim: Religion, Politics, and the President,” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 19, 2010. Available at

[13] “U.S. Muslims Under a Cloud” by Marilyn Elias, USA Today August 10, 2006. Available at

All articles may be quoted, adapted, or reprinted only for noncommercial purposes and with an attribution to Paul Kivel, Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit here.

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