In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, an intense wave of nationalism gripped the United States. This led to an earnest “us or them” mindset throughout the country.
Any criticism of America at the time, regardless of the validity, was seen as vehemently anti-American. Six days after the attack, popular late-night host Bill Maher got his show canceled due to his response to President George Bush referring to the terrorists as cowards. Maher said “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that’s cowardly.”
Unfortunately, it was not only pretentious late-night hosts who were negatively affected by the “pro-America or the highway” approach; cultural and political Islamophobia became rampant. People of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians were the subjects of broad racial profiling practices from the United States government. Muslims were not portrayed favorably whatsoever in American pop culture during this time either. Hollywood often reinforced many of the stereotypes surrounding Muslims at this time by portraying them with racist tropes.
You’ve seen them before — from people yelling on airplanes, to depicting Muslim women as needing to be “liberated” from their seemingly oppressive symbols of their Muslimness such as their headscarves, to only depicting muslims as terrorists. These stereotypes and policies have had disastrous consequences for American Muslims. Anti-Muslim hate crimes increased dramatically after 9/11 and has remained a persistent force in daily life today.
So, why did I tell you all of this? In the wake of the Israel-Hamas War, that same Islamophobia that was constant throughout the United States post-9/11 is beginning to rear its ugly head yet again.
Let’s be clear, what Hamas did was abhorrent, but their disgusting actions are not representative of the entire Muslim community. Additionally, antisemitism has long been prevalent throughout our country and our world causing untold pain and suffering to our Jewish communities. These facts should not prevent us from talking about the very real threat that islamophobia presents to Muslim-Americans.
The current frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump, has pledged that if elected in 2024 he will immediately expand on his xenophobic Muslim ban and bar refugees fleeing Gaza from entering the U.S. In addition, he called for ideological screenings of incoming refugees.
Other prominent Republicans have echoed similar sentiments. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis not only advocated for blocking all refugees from Gaza but took it a step further, saying of the 2.2 million people who live in Gaza “If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all antisemitic. None of them believe in Israel’s right to exist.”
DeSantis also doubled down on his support of the Israeli government cutting off electricity to Gaza. “I don’t think they’re under an obligation to be providing water and these utilities while the hostages are being held,” he continued.
It’s worth noting that DeSantis is actively defending a war crime. The Israeli government’s blocking of water, food, electricity and fuel constitutes collective punishment. What makes these comments particularly cruel is that the average age in the Gaza Strip is 18 years — half of the people there are children.
The lone Palestinian-American in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib, (D-MI), has had a Palestinian flag outside of her office since January. House Republicans were so outraged that one Republican representative moved to ban flying foreign flags outside lawmakers’ offices.
But it’s not just on the American political right where Islamophobia has been rampant; even institutions on the American political left have caved into loyalty testing. MSNBC, an overwhelmingly liberal media outlet, removed three Muslim-American broadcasters — Mehdi Hasan, Ayman Mohyeldin and Ali Velshi — from their weekend lineup after the war. All three of these men have also been openly critical of the actions of the Israeli government.
Even President Joe Biden has engaged in Islamophobia. In a press conference, he claimed to have seen footage of the 40 children beheaded by Hamas. The White House eventually had to walk this statement back since even the Israeli Defense Forces could not validate the claim.
This rhetoric has tragic effects for both Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and across the world. The war has been ongoing for less than two weeks and Israel has already dropped over 6,000 bombs on a strip of land roughly the size of Philadelphia; that’s more than the United States dropped on Afghanistan in a one year period.
In the United States, this poisonous rhetoric about Muslims has already incited violence. In Chicago, a man killed a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Alfayoumi, and left his mother wounded. The murderer feared that he and his family would be attacked by people of Middle Eastern descent and texted of a “hatred of Muslims” the day before the attack. He was also a frequent listener to conservative radio stations.
Just as Jewish-Americans should not be held responsible for the violence of the State of Israel, Palestinian-Americans and Muslim-Americans should not shoulder blame for the carnage committed by Hamas. We cannot allow our leaders to dehumanize an entire group of people yet again.