There is a seismic shift in the Muslim American community

Muslim and Arab Americans are no longer placated by cultural tolerance and interfaith gestures.

Protesters call for a ceasefire and an end to U.S. military funding in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as they demonstrate inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2023. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
Protesters call for a ceasefire and an end to US military funding to Israel inside the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington on December 19, 2023 [File: Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz]

On November 1, less than a month into Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, United States President Joe Biden’s administration announced a national strategy to battle Islamophobia. The move came as anti-Muslim incidents were on the rise nationwide.

On October 14, Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian American child, was stabbed to death in Chicago while his mother was critically wounded in a racially motivated assault by their landlord. Five days later, Jasmer Singh, a 66-year-old Sikh man, was beaten to death in New York City by a man screaming “turban man”. (Observant Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims.) On October 28, Muslim American physician Talat Jehan Khan was stabbed to death in Texas.

Biden’s initiative was mirrored by some US academic institutions, which adopted anti-Islamophobia measures, typically alongside anti-Semitism prevention policies. Stanford, the University of Maryland, Columbia and Harvard are among the educational institutions that announced such initiatives.

But the White House strategy to fight Islamophobia has been met with widespread scorn and ridicule. X (formerly Twitter) users responded to Vice President Kamala Harris’s announcement of the initiative with criticism and pointed questions about US complicity in the atrocities taking place in the Gaza Strip. On campuses, the crackdown on pro-Palestinian activism and advocacy has belied universities’ anti-Islamophobia initiatives.

These reactions reflect Muslim Americans’ growing rejection of the attempt to replace systemic political demands with those focused on intolerance or exclusion. This marks a break from the past two decades, when a focus on cultural acceptance or interfaith dialogue, rather than political critique and action, shaped Muslim American advocacy and organising.

This shift was apparent in the funeral of the slain child Wadea, which was attended by thousands and became a veritable Free Palestine rally. Speakers condemned the pro-Israel slant of US media coverage, the blank cheque given by the US to the Israeli occupation forces to commit atrocities and the years-long siege on Gaza that has hobbled life for its residents. Wadea’s death was mourned not as a matter of anti-Muslim bigotry or hatred but a grisly domestic flashpoint in the US-Israel alliance.

A similar position was taken following the shooting of three Palestinian college students in November, whose keffiyeh scarves likely marked them for the attack. When asked about the assault, Kinnan Abdalhamid, one of the survivors, insisted that the focus should remain on calls for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza rather than on his personal experience.

Abdalhamid’s friend Hisham Awartani, who was left paralysed from the waist down by the shooting, also refused to have his ordeal repackaged into an instance of anti-Muslim intolerance. Awartani said he was but “one casualty in a much wider conflict. Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services which saved my life here would have likely been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who shot me would go home and never be convicted.”

Meanwhile, the Muslim and Arab communities have come out en masse at demonstrations calling for an end to US material support to Israel and an immediate, permanent ceasefire.

This mobilisation is a far cry from the dynamics of the past two decades, as my research on Muslim multiculturalism during the “war on terror” years illustrates.

Following 9/11, Muslim American organisations engaged in cultural and attitudinal projects meant to combat misconceptions about their communities. Many believed that changing America’s perceptions (by teaching about the significance of the Hajj or Ramadan or refuting stereotypes about hijab) would legitimise Muslim presence in the US. In my ethnographic fieldwork, I was told that raising questions of US militarism would jeopardise the fragile project of Muslim American legitimacy.

These years saw a proliferation of cultural awareness events. On college campuses, Muslim Student Associations held Islam Awareness Weeks, again motivated by the belief that correcting misperceptions about Muslims would defeat Islamophobia. An annual International Hijab Day invited non-Muslim women to don a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women. Museum exhibits showcased inventions from the Muslim world.

Diversity initiatives, like the one by Gap, in which Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia was featured in an ad campaign, were widely commended. After one billboard featuring the advertisement was defaced with racist graffiti, Gap used it as its Twitter banner, celebrating their diverse casting and inspiring a viral #thankYouGap campaign across Sikh and Muslim America.

Muslim American activists also joined various interfaith initiatives, such as the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom, which was meant to bridge Muslim-Jewish divides through dialogue and friendship, and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, which was tasked with building Muslim-Jewish relationships.

Not all Muslim Americans embraced these initiatives. Some often marginalised voices offered trenchant criticism, accusing such programmes of “faithwashing”, that is using interfaith dialogue to distract from the Israeli state’s colonial violence against the Palestinian people. To these critics, bromides of tolerance and understanding turned Palestinian dispossession into a matter of opinion and individual differences while opposition to Israeli apartheid was explained away with a supposed “primordial hostility” between Jews and Muslims, which could be overcome through social exchange.

Similar ruptures emerged around the annual Ramadan dinner organised by the White House, which convenes Muslim American leaders for an iftar meal with the president. President Bill Clinton’s administration held the first White House community iftar, and all presidents since then have followed suit. Even Donald Trump, who issued a “Muslim ban” during his presidency, hosted the event during his term.

While some saw the White House iftar as a chance for Muslims to connect with America’s powerbrokers, others condemned attendees for breaking bread with the architects of coups in the Muslim world, assassination programmes, and systematic surveillance and deportations of Muslims. Many Muslim American organisations boycotted the 2021 White House iftar, citing Biden’s policies on Israel.

Today, these fissures within the Muslim and Arab communities are closing. With increasing fervour, Muslim America is united in demanding a shift in US Middle East policy.

Muslim and Arab refusal to support Biden, especially in key states like Michigan, has alarmed Democratic Party leaders. ”It is my opinion,” writes Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita, “that liberals who expect Arab Americans to forget about Biden’s endorsement of Zionist genocide when November comes around are profoundly mistaken.”

The rejection of faithwashing attempts is now widespread. Muslim Americans are joined by legions of non-Muslims agitating for Palestinian liberation. Rather than wishing to see more colourful boardrooms or government liaisons on Islamophobia, they now keep a weather eye on the enduring system of apartheid and its undeniable project of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Biden’s national strategy on Islamophobia has fallen flat among Muslim voters. Whether this is enough to push this voting bloc beyond two-party electoralism, opting instead for third-party options and mass-movement organising, remains to be seen. Yet it marks a seismic shift in Muslim American consciousness, which no longer accepts cultural tolerance and interfaith understanding as a remedy to the problems of empire.

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