A small dip in Islamophobia in the US gives us hope

Last year CAIR registered a decline in the number of complaints from Muslim Americans for the first time since 1995.

Yusuf Abdulle, standing, director of the Islamic Association of North America, prays with fellow Muslims at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 12, 2022. This spring Minneapolis became the first large city in the United States to allow the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, to be broadcast publicly by its two dozen mosques. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
Muslims pray at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis on May 12, 2022 [File: AP/Jessie Wardarski]

After 27 years climbing a mountain of Islamophobic bias, America appears to have taken a step back. The intake staff of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organisation, received 5,156 total complaints in 2022. This represents a 23 percent decrease since the previous year.

It is the first recorded decline since we started tracking such data in 1995. Perhaps, we have summitted the mountaintop of bias directed at American Muslims, and while we are still way up where the eagles fly, we are, nevertheless, entitled to some hope.

Complaints about law enforcement and government overreach dropped by 38 percent. Given that we reported a 32 percent total complaint increase in the first year of the Trump presidency, the change of administration in Washington may have played a role. The fallout of the January 6 insurrection in 2022, during which the seat of the US Congress was ransacked, may have contributed as well.

For years, white supremacists and antigovernment groups enjoyed political cover. Republican-driven political correctness ensured that staff at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security knew that focusing on groups unrelated to the Muslim community could have negative implications for their careers.

After January 6, it is possible that overbroad law enforcement surveillance and informants deployed against law-abiding Muslims may have decreased, as such law enforcement agencies directed their focus toward actual threats.

In educational settings the picture remains troubling. School incidents of Islamophobia rose by 63 percent in 2022. Among them was the case of a Florida teacher interrupting praying Muslim students and accusing them of doing “magic”. She told them she was “interrupting the floor” and almost stepped on a child, as she walked over the group’s prayer mats while the children were still engaging in prayer.

There was also the case of an employee at a Maryland school who allegedly locked an Afghan Muslim ninth grader in a bathroom where the child was beaten by other students. A week later the student still had a severe concussion.

But there have been also positive developments in the education and sport sectors.

Public officials in Ohio and Maryland enacted laws designed to protect athletes who observe their religious beliefs while competing. This came after student athletes Noor Abukaram and Je’Nan Hayes were disqualified from high school sports competitions in the two states for wearing headscarves.

In 2021, Illinois became the first state to protect religious athletes in this manner. We encourage legislators in other states to follow suit.

In other spheres, challenges remain. Banking while Muslim continues to be a struggle for many, as financial institutions continue closing or not opening bank accounts for people based on their choice of religion. Why? Because existing legislation, such as the Patriot Act, allows such discrimination to take place.

Last year, 22 US lawmakers concurred in an open letter, noting, “Countless US individuals, businesses, and charities have been victims of discriminatory policies and practices that appear to limit their access to financial services because of their religion or national origin.”

In March, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reported that 27 percent of the Muslims they surveyed reported facing challenges from financial institutions. It is all legal so no lawsuit can clear up this inclination to discriminatory practice.

That is why, the US government must take action; it is time for the Biden administration and banking regulators to update account monitoring practices put in place over the last 20 years to ensure that financial institutions no longer see it as beneficial to discriminate against certain types of customers – mainly Muslim, Iranian and Arab Americans.

Another area that needs urgent attention is freedom of speech. Many American Muslims participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to help pressure Israel to treat Palestinians with dignity and in accordance with its obligations under international law. So far 35 states have passed anti-BDS legislation and many others are considering such bills.

Last year, there was a positive development in Texas, which has had an anti-BDS law in place since 2017 requiring local government contractors to sign a certification that they do not support the boycott of Israel.

In January 2022, a judge ruled in favour of Rasmy Hassouna, the owner of an engineering company, who had sued the city of Houston for trying to impose an anti-BDS clause in his contract with the city administration. After the ruling, Hassouna was able to sign the contract without the clause.

BDS, modelled after the successful global South African antiapartheid movement, is a key test for the freedom of speech in the US today. This encroachment on the freedom of speech must be challenged and we at CAIR can help people who are affected by such legislation. Call us.

The positive signs we saw in 2022 do not mean we should let our guard down. Hate is still ubiquitous around us. We see anti-Semitic and anti-Asian hate rising. We see violence against brown and Black people persisting. We see public officials turning Americans against each other for a percentage at the polls.

Yet this glimmer of hope our data offers feeds the optimism that drives us to keep standing up against hate, linking arms with our friends, and not waiting to be engulfed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.