It's Bigger Than The Ban : Code Switch Muslims make up a little over one percent of the U.S. population, but they seem to take up an outsized space in the American imagination. On this episode we explore why that is.
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It's Bigger Than The Ban

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It's Bigger Than The Ban

It's Bigger Than The Ban

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You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


And I'm Gene Demby. On the Wednesday that this episode is dropping, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in what is likely to be the biggest case of this term, Trump v. Hawaii, what most of us know as the Muslim travel ban case. The case will determine the constitutionality of the White House's ban on keeping nearly 150 million people, the large majority of whom are Muslim, from entering the U.S.

MERAJI: This case has already had serious ramifications for many Muslims who live in the United States. Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S., but they seem to take up a lot of space in the American imagination. On this episode, we're going to explore why that is.

DEMBY: To help us, we're tagging in NPR correspondent Leila Fadel. Leila spent months reporting a series called Muslims In America: A New Generation.

MERAJI: She spoke to all types of Muslims from communities all over the U.S.

DEMBY: So, Leila, you just finished a multipart series about Muslims in the United States. Why did you want to report on this right now?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, I think I just returned from covering the Middle East for 12 years, and I got to the U.S. at a time where the presidential election had caused quite an upset. And it was this realization that people kind of just don't know anything about each other and everybody's living off the stereotypes of the people they kind of intersect with but don't necessarily interact with. And Muslims and Islam was coming up constantly, and I thought, let me just start reporting, let me just see what people are dealing with, let me see where this could go.

MERAJI: One of the pieces that spoke most, at least for me, to this sign of the times for Muslims in the U.S. was the piece that you did on bullying. And before we talk about it, let's hear it.


FADEL: Sana Afzal is 16. She's talking to her mom. She wears a pink scarf to cover her hair, leggings and a sweater. In the fall of 2016, she started high school in the town of Gilroy outside San Jose.

SANA AFZAL: You could tell that there was just kind of, like, this feeling of, like, don't really go near her.

FADEL: A new school is always hard, but doing it as a Muslim kid of color wearing a religious head covering is even harder.

SANA: And, like, it's kind of just weird because they just kind of see you as the outsider and they leave you like that.

FADEL: After the presidential election, the bullying started. First, the note pinned to her backpack - I like Trump, you're fired. Then a Fox News editorial assigned in her English honors class that linked a horrific stoning of a young couple in Afghanistan to Islam as a religion. The article was accompanied by a picture of a young woman in a headscarf.

SANA: One guy was like, do you know what this word means? 'Cause I guess he, like, saw the picture and saw me and was like, it's the same thing.

FADEL: Sana's classmate was linking her to this awful thing that happened in a country she'd never been to and knew little about. It made her feel...

SANA: Bad, I mean, horrible.

FADEL: In telling the story months later, she starts to cry. Her mom, Noshaba, jumps in.

NOSHABA AFZAL: It was tough. You know, in our days, it was - you get slapped with kick-me signs. But it wasn't a safety issue. And I see her crying. I get worked up. So you're going to have to - you know, my kids are my weakness. So we do what we can to protect them.

FADEL: So Noshaba helped her daughter figure out how to respond to the bullies. They chose education. The Afzal family contacted the school and two advocacy organizations, including the Islamic Network Group or ING. Ishaq Pathan, the youth coordinator, says bullying like this is almost the norm for Muslim kids.

ISHAQ PATHAN: They deal with situations where they're being targeted or called terrorists. In some situations, this actually comes from the administrators or the teachers.

FADEL: One study says more than 2 of 5 Muslim kids report bullying at school. And another says, in California, it's more than half. So ING worked with the school and created a program to teach inclusion and understanding people's differences, including Muslims. Now it's a model ING pulls out for other schools who ask for help.

PATHAN: The main thing that we're focusing on is religious-based bullying. And a lot of what we believe is that religious-based bullying is based on ignorance and miseducation.

FADEL: This year, the school's pulled the offending article from the English class. And Sana says things are better. Her battle is mostly over, but her family's and her community's is not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in Arabic).

FADEL: The family of six prays in a remodeled barn in nearby San Martin with the South Valley Islamic Community. They've been trying to build a mosque for years, but the project's been a lightning rod. Noshaba remembers the first land use meeting at the Santa Clara Planning Commission.

AFZAL: Person after person after that got up and just blasted, you know, we don't want them here. They're bringing Sharia law. You guys are terrorists.

FADEL: This kind of rhetoric interspersed with concerns about the building's environmental impact. Since then, it's been six years of legal back and forth. Noshaba says you have to make a choice at moments like these - accept it...

AFZAL: Or we say, no, this is not the America we want it to be. And we know America can be what we want, where it's inclusion and it's our rights. And we just want to practice.

FADEL: And if all that isn't enough for one family, Noshaba's eldest daughter, Maimona Afzal Berta, is getting bullied by her students. She also wears the scarf. The 23-year-old special education teacher in San Jose says the problems also started in the fall of 2016.

MAIMONA AFZAL BERTA: I'd hear someone shout from outside my classroom, you know, you're working with ISIS or you're a terrorist.

FADEL: Others would say, shoot her and motion like they were firing a machine gun. She talked to the administrators, and Maimona helped them put together a program to teach kids about inclusion and celebrating diversity.

AFZAL BERTA: So at the end of that school year, it was like, wow, like, we made some progress.

FADEL: And so this past fall, she was excited to start teaching again. She showed up early on September 11 to get everything ready for a new unit on suspense. She turned the corner to her classroom.

AFZAL BERTA: And I find the windows and doors vandalized with words associating me with terrorism, you know, ISIS and just, like, very hateful words, profanities. And I was just, like, shocked.

FADEL: Maimona went to the school again. She says one person asked if she wanted to change schools.

AFZAL BERTA: Your solution is essentially to get rid of me? I'm not the issue here. It's not even these students. It's the fact that we haven't done a good enough job of educating our students.

FADEL: Imee Almazan, the principal of the middle school where Maimona teaches, says Maimona turned her trauma into teachable moments for the kids.

IMEE ALMAZAN: She has such great courage to speak up against the injustice that she had experienced, specifically here at our school. And school is, you know, school is supposed to be a safe place for everybody, right?

FADEL: Maimona says if this was happening in her school, a place with a majority student body of color, then it was happening other places too. So when a seat on her neighborhood school board opened up, she applied.


AFZAL BERTA: I am the granddaughter of a refugee and an orphan who fulfilled his dreams in this country through an educational experience.

FADEL: She was up against five other candidates, and Maimona was chosen.


AFZAL BERTA: I, Maimona Afzal Berta, do solemnly swear...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That I will support and defend the Constitution...

AFZAL BERTA: ...That I will support and defend the Constitution...

I'm just honestly in shock. I mean, I've never seen a board member who looks like me. So I'm - it seems like a dream right now.

FADEL: Maimona Afzal Berta did this, she says, not only to change things for herself, but for her younger sister, for other Muslim families and for any child who feels like an outsider.


MERAJI: So I've listened to that piece - this will be the third time now. And every time it makes me very emotional to hear it. And I think that is because I went through my own period of bullying in junior high and in sixth grade and it had to do with me be Iranian. And I never thought it was because I was Muslim, but then I don't know if you can disentangle those two things. My father is Muslim. It just brought back all these feelings and memories of being called, you know, a camel jockey, et cetera.

And to hear it again in 2018, it just, it hit me.

FADEL: Well, I think that's the thing about these stories, right? Like, as objective as you are, they're human stories. And, like, hearing about a 14-year-old girl being bullied at school over stuff that really doesn't have anything to do with her - the political climate and the whatever's happening in Afghanistan. And she's, you know, born and raised in San Jose area.

DEMBY: In that story, you talked about President Donald Trump and his name being invoked in some of these incidents. And Islamophobia is nothing new, but Trump's name being attached to Islamophobia and expressions of Islamophobia, that is new. How often did his name come up when you were out reporting?

FADEL: (Laughter) In every single interview I did. And it's not just the president, but basically in every single state, elected or appointed government state municipal officials talk about Muslims in the United States as a danger to America.

DEMBY: So for the younger people who have little knowledge of life in America before 9/11, would you say from your reporting that they are bolder in their expressions of their Muslimness?

FADEL: Well, you know, like, if you think of somebody who's in their 20s right now and it's 2018. So their whole life, there's been this sort of shadow of suspicion and the question of terrorism and is Islam violent and why do you do this? And Sharia and all these, like, catchphrases that people will - so they've lived with that their whole life. They know that. But they also lived with not really seeing themselves in a lot of public spaces, right? And so all these young people that I came across were creating those spaces for themselves.

And so I think of, like, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir - African-American woman, Muslim, incredible basketball player, wanted to go pro, had an opportunity in Europe, but FEBA, the international governing body for basketball, doesn't allow religious head coverings. And that means like hijab, yarmulkes, the Sikh turban, for example.

And so she really struggled because she had this talent that she considered God-given and her hijab had been, like, a really thing that had been noted by President Obama. She'd met him multiple times. It had been something celebrated. She was the first Division I collegiate basketball player with a hijab. And now, all of a sudden, it's done for her. She can't go pro because of it.

So instead of leaving the faith, which she actually, she said she really struggled with and thinking about taking it off. She decided, OK, I can't go pro, but I can change this for future girls. And so she did. You know, she fought with other athletes across the country, through social media campaigns and all this stuff, and it was overturned last year.


FADEL: And she was also fighting inner-stereotypes - right? - within the Muslim communities too, and more conservative communities that are like, you shouldn't be out there playing basketball in front of men and with men and that kind of thing. And so she was fighting this sort of double stereotype. And now she's trying to be that model for the next generation, you know?

After 9/11, there was a lot of like, let me put my baseball cap instead of my hijab on. You know, let me blend in a little bit more. And I see that a lot less with the next generation. I actually talked to one young woman, like 26 probably, I think. Of course putting the scarf on or the hijab on was a spiritual decision, but she also said she was tired of quote, "passing," because she was quite light-skinned, ethnically Arab. And she decided, I want people to know who I am, and I want it to be very clear who I am.

MERAJI: I'm thinking back to Iran and how in Iran there's this anti-obligatory hijab movement going on right now. You know, women are taking their hijabs off, their chadors off in public. And many of those women see being forced to cover as a sign of oppression and they don't want to do it anymore. And what I'm hearing from you is here, there's a sense with some Muslims that wearing a hijab in public is a way to express their identity, it's a sign of expressing their religious freedom here in the United States.

FADEL: Right.

MERAJI: It's just a very different thing, and I was wondering if you could talk more about that.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, what - the difference is choice, right? In Iran, it's obligatory. You don't decide, oh, you know what? I'm feeling like this is the right choice for me today. I'm going to put the hijab on. Here you have that choice. And you have the choice to wear it and not to wear it. And I think that's what a lot of people, when they look at the hijab, they see it as a tool of oppression. And it can be used as a tool of oppression, right?

When you have a government telling you how to practice and how to be and what to wear, then that's a tool of oppression. But here there is choice. And so people will talk about, like, the modern face of Islam, and liberal Islam and conservative, you know, that kind of thing. But ultimately, what's happening in the United States is all of that can exist in the same place.

DEMBY: You reported that Muslims in America, there's an incredible amount of pluralism, that they hail from dozens of different countries, including the United States, obviously. But what people might find surprising, I know that we did, is that Latino Muslims are one of the fastest-growing Muslim populations in the U.S. You visited a Spanish-speaking mosque in Houston. Can you tell us about what that was like?

FADEL: Yeah, I think that is a surprising statistic for a lot of people. There's this fast-growing Latino Muslim population. And I went down to the first Spanish-speaking center mosque in the country in Houston, in which two guys opened a mosque in their old neighborhood in Houston, in which they had gotten involved in gang activity, gone down the wrong path, you know, grown up in a family that didn't have the same opportunities that other families had.

And ultimately, both of them said they came to Islam as a source or a tool of empowerment, right? And the other interesting thing is that the founder of the center IslamInSpanish, or Centro Islamico, Jaime Mujahid Fletcher, he converted three months before 9/11. So I'll just let you take a listen to what he said about that.

JAIME MUJAHID FLETCHER: Then September 11 happened and it was like, there's no material in Spanish. All of these Spanish-speaking people want to know, you know, what this has to do with Islam. What is Islam? Because now it became, you know, general mainstream sort of conversation, this word Islam and Muslims. And I happened to be a new Muslim, you know, in the midst of an ethnic group that had no clue.

FADEL: Right. And so three months into this new religion that he's adopted, he's become the spokesperson for IslamInSpanish, right?

DEMBY: Spokesperson, wow.

FADEL: So he's going on Telemundo and Univision talking about what the religion is or what the religion is to him.

DEMBY: Wow. So, Leila, you reported on a mosque in Chicago called Masjid al-Rabia that was created to support LGBTQ Muslims in Chicago. You said that 60 percent of Muslim millennials in the U.S. say that homosexuality should be accepted by society, versus 44 percent of older Muslims. Is that just part of the larger ongoing generational shift among younger people towards queer people? Or is there something else at work there?

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, I think it is. I think it's on trend with younger Americans, right? I think here in the U.S., there are then also LGBTQ Muslims who are saying, we're here and we're not going to stay invisible and we want a connection to God. And if you're not going to welcome me into a traditional space, we're going to create the space for ourselves. This is a really unique space. There are not LGBTQ-affirming mosques across America, but it's growing.

So there are informal prayer circles in other cities. In Minneapolis, queer Muslims participated in Pride, the Pride parade with a float. You know, there is an LGBTQ Muslim retreat every year for LGBTQ Muslims to get together and to see each other, to find each other.

And spirituality and religious spaces have always been a very difficult place for LGBTQ people in general - right? - when you think of reeducation camps. And so those are spaces that they've had to claim in all religions. And it's definitely newer when you think about Muslim spaces, but it's something that's happening because LGBTQ people are making it happen.

MERAJI: Can you talk more about how your reporting on Muslims in the Muslim majority world and your reporting here on Muslims in the United States, how it differs?

FADEL: Right. Yeah, 'cause I kind of went into the project like, yeah, I worked in the Muslim world forever, I got this. And then I was like, wait a second.

DEMBY: Right.


FADEL: This is totally different. Well, first of all, it's not a Muslim majority country. That's, like, the biggest thing.

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Right.

FADEL: This is a minority group here and they're constantly sort of under scrutiny as this minority group. Like, who are you and what are you - that kind of thing. But also, I think, the biggest takeaway for me was that idea of choice that we spoke about earlier, right? So I was working in a country in Egypt where, you know, you tweet something against the president and then you go to jail. You tweet something about religion, questioning or something like that, and people will say it's blasphemy, you go to jail.

The thing that sticks with me a lot is I was speaking to a surgeon in Northern California, actually the same community that these young women who were being bullied are from. He's a Malaysian surgeon, married to a Canadian woman. And he said, you know, in Malaysia, I would go to jail for having Shia literature on my - Shia books on my shelves.


FADEL: But here, I can read everything. I can read everything about being Muslim, all of the scholarship that exists, nobody's going to stop me. And there's scholarship without intervention. And I can be the kind of Muslim that I want to be.

DEMBY: Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR. She's based in Las Vegas and she covers issues of culture, diversity and race. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thanks guys. This was fun.

DEMBY: Let's do it again.

FADEL: All right, sounds good.


MERAJI: After the break, we talk to an author of a new book, "American Islamophobia: Understanding The Roots And Rise Of Fear." In it, he argues that you can't separate individual Islamophobic acts from U.S. policies.

KHALED BEYDOUN: In the same way we think about racism - right? - we have individual racism, we also have institutionalized racism. I wanted to build that sort of framework and structure with how we frame and understand Islamophobia.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


MERAJI: Shereen.


MERAJI: And we're back with...

BEYDOUN: Khaled Beydoun. I'm a law professor and also author of the book "American Islamophobia: Understanding The Roots And Rise Of Fear."

MERAJI: Khaled's book just came out, and he was at the annual LA Times Festival of Books this past weekend. So I grabbed him for an interview while he was in town, and I started by asking him to read a passage from his introduction about the September 11 attacks.

BEYDOUN: (Reading) I recall the surreal images and events of that day as if they happened yesterday. And just as intimately, I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center - quote, "please don't be Muslims. Please don't be Muslims," unquote.

MERAJI: Please don't be Muslims. Those four words are something that you've repeated often since 9/11.

BEYDOUN: Yeah, definitely. After every incident that involves a mass shooter, that involves a terror attack or what's perceived to be a terror attack, that's the first, you know, immediate kind of idea or question that pops in my head.

MERAJI: We talk a lot, I think as journalists, and maybe even the activist community talks about this - that there are these, like, two tentpoles for Islamophobia. One is 9/11. One is the most recent presidential campaign. Do you think that's right? And were you saying to yourself, please don't be Muslim, before 9/11?

BEYDOUN: Popularly speaking, the two tentpoles are 9/11 and 11/9. They sort of structure, you know, what we understand is modern or contemporary Islamophobia.

MERAJI: So when you say 11/9, you're talking about the day that President Trump won the election.

BEYDOUN: Yup. You know, as a law scholar, I take it back well before 9/11. There were a couple of flashpoints that I talk about in the book in the modern era, specifically Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City was a moment that really highlighted how the media sort of jumped to the immediate conclusion that the culprits were in fact Muslims or Middle Easterners or Arabs.

MERAJI: And there was one person in particular that you call out in the book. It was Connie Chung.

BEYDOUN: Yeah. And I was a young kid. I was watching the news. Connie Chung is kind of like this larger-than-life figure, you know, a journalistic icon. And I saw Connie Chung say something along the lines of, this has all the signatures, all the markings of Middle Eastern or Muslim terrorists. But she wasn't alone in saying that, right? It was a number of other journalists. Prominent journalist on NBC News, ABC, CNN and so on jumped to the immediate conclusion without, you know, any evidence at all. And we see how this, jumping to that conclusion, really establishes this fundamental base line of Islamophobia today.

MERAJI: And that was in 1995. You also bring up even before 1995, you talk about 1979 and the hostage crisis in Iran. Can you talk more about that?

BEYDOUN: So in '79, you had a - you know, a major transition point in the country where there was a shah - right? - effectively, a monarch who was one of the closest allies to the United States who was removed by, initially, a popular revolution that eventually became the Islamic Republic of Iran. And as soon as the Ayatollah Khomeini became the new head of the state, they actually seized and took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and they held many of the employees of the embassy hostage for a long time.

And this became headline news every day on every major news station for a long time. Americans were seeing Muslims on television on a daily basis - right? - these brown, bearded, turban-clad individuals who were very critical of American foreign policy - right? - were engaging in rhetoric challenging the United States. Those images of the mullahs - the Ayatollah Khomeini becoming the archetype - opened the door for the new stereotypes and tropes that we attach to Muslims today.

MERAJI: So why do you think that we forget that? Is it just that we're forgetful and we don't want to go back that far? Or is it that 9/11 actually really changed things in a way that none of these previous incidents did?

BEYDOUN: Yeah. The first major difference is that the hostage crisis occurred beyond American mainland, right? It didn't happen domestically.

MERAJI: Right.

BEYDOUN: It was still in a foreign place far away from home. The second thing is that 9/11 was a major terror attack on American soil with a large number of victims. There are thousands of people who died as a consequence of that. The third thing is the way that American domestic policy really weaponized the 9/11 moment to carry forward the war on terror. You have the entire overhaul, wholesale reform and revision of the domestic counterterror, you know, apparatus and structure, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. We have the introduction of, you know, really sweeping and strident surveillance and immigration policy with the Patriot Act. We see, you know, very marked, very significant reform of not only law and policy, but structures, governmental structures.

MERAJI: So let's talk about that. In your book "American Islamophobia," you say that you want to talk about private Islamophobia and structural Islamophobia, and you want people to understand that they are very much connected. Say more about that. What does that mean for you?

BEYDOUN: Yeah. So one thing I found with the prevailing definitions of Islamophobia that I was encountering was that they were too flat. They were too narrow. They were focusing specifically on what we'd call today as private Islamophobia, the hate mongering, the violence, the bigotry that private actors engage in, whether it's individuals like Craig Hicks - right? - who killed the three students at University of North Carolina a couple of years ago, or whether it's your neighbor who decides that he has these bigoted views towards Muslims and wants to vandalize a mosque.

I wasn't satisfied with those definitions because they effectively exempted the state from what it was doing. It was critical for me to understand and structure Islamophobia as also being a state-sponsored activity in the same way we think about racism, right? We have individual racism. We also have institutionalized racism. I wanted to build that sort of framework and structure with how we frame and understand Islamophobia.

And they do have a relationship because if laws like the Patriot Act, if laws like the travel bans, the Muslim bans, if laws like counterradicalization policing are built upon this foundational Islamophobic tenet that Muslim identity is correlated or tied to terrorism or homegrown radicalization. The law has a very critical role in communicating these messages to the polity. It's endorsing stereotypes that we have to fear Muslims.

MERAJI: But you make the case in your book that this kind of structural Islamophobia is not something that we saw just after 9/11. It actually has a long history in the United States.

BEYDOUN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I could take it back to the - to 1790.


BEYDOUN: So in - one of the first pieces I worked on as a scholar was an article that examined this era called the Naturalization Act - or naturalization era. I'm sorry. From 1790 to 1952, there was a policy in place that mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship. So in order to become a naturalized citizen or a naturalized American, you had to prove to a civil court judge that you were in fact white or, you know, persuade somebody at a checkpoint - Ellis Island, Baltimore, Los Angeles and so on - that you were in fact white. The idea, however, with regard to Islam - there was a system in place called Orientalism. It's this theory that was, you know, constructed by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

MERAJI: Who was not a Muslim.

BEYDOUN: Who was not a Muslim. So I write in the book how the most famous and trenchant intellectual challenging Islamophobia is in fact a Palestinian Christian or somebody who might identify himself as an atheist. Muslim identity was oriented and positioned as antithetical to Christian identity. And we all know how Christianity was a cornerstone and still remains a cornerstone of whiteness. And Islam at that point was viewed as far more than just a religion. In some respects, it was dismissed as a bona fide religion, right? It was viewed as a political ideology. It was viewed as a rival civilization. It was viewed as a race, in some regards, by many judges.

So you had Muslim immigrants coming from a whole host of places, specifically the Levant - modern-day Syria, Lebanon. And they were Muslims. They were, you know, proud Muslims. They wanted to practice their faith in line with the liberal tenets of the United States, mainly the free exercise clause. However, because Muslim identity was viewed as antithetical to whiteness, they could not become citizens. So in the book, I talk about how the first travel or Muslim ban was definitely not one that was proposed or peddled by Donald Trump. But in 1944, something really curious happened. So we all know in 1944 as a consequence of World War II, the United States sort of positions itself - or as a consequence of the war becomes a global superpower, right? It becomes a hegemon. So at this juncture, American interests in what we know as the Middle East today was shifting. Specifically, American interest in, you know, accessing oil out of Saudi Arabia was really critical to a country that was really positioning itself as a global superpower. And we all know oil is critical to not only the economy, but everyday life for Americans. It fuels our cars. It fuels our appliances.

So in 1944, there was a gentleman by the name of Mohamed Mohriez, a Saudi petitioner who comes before a court in Massachusetts. And before Mohriez walked into that court, Muslims were vehemently ruled by courts as nonwhites. They could not become naturalized citizens. Now, the judge, Judge Wyzanski, realized - he's a smart guy, right? He knows this guy's from Saudi Arabia. Mohriez looks like you and I. He's tanned. He's definitely somebody who would fail the phenotypic or physical test of qualifying as white.

But the judge knew that he was from Saudi Arabia, a country that had critical value, really important economic value to the United States, right? And by - if he would have turned him down and said, this Saudi cannot become an American, that might've really stifled, potentially derailed or complicated this new economic and political partnership with Saudi Arabia. Really important critical race scholar by the name of Derrick Bell classifies this development as interest convergence, the idea that racial progress is typically only had when it aligns with the interests of whites or majoritarian interests. And this case, the Mohriez case, is a classic sort of example of interest convergence. Because of his economic situation, the court deems him for the first time - for the first time deems Arab Muslims could become naturalized or white by law.

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

BEYDOUN: And that's why we have the standing definition today. That is the roots of the legal sort of regime today that classifies not only Arabs, but Middle Easterners at large as white by law.

MERAJI: And, I mean, I would assume that throughout history or since that time, 1944, Arab Muslims, Middle Eastern Muslims have been OK with that because aligning yourself with whiteness, there's white privilege, there's all kinds of benefits involved.

BEYDOUN: I think many of them embrace the idea of white identity because you're exactly right, it came with a range of tangible benefits. Before 1952, it came with the biggest prize of them all, citizenship. You had to be white, perform whiteness in order to become a citizen. After '52 - and remember, the '50s and the '60s were a very sort of turbulent time in the United States. We had the rise of the civil rights movement. Race is still, I think, understood far, far, far less complex than we understand it today. You're either black or you're white.

MERAJI: Correct.

BEYDOUN: And because anti-black racism was so saturated in the minds of these individuals, they don't want to be black, right? They partook broadly in the project of anti-black racism. So one way to distance yourself from blackness was to embrace whiteness, so many of them did.

MERAJI: On the topic of race, you write about how, today, Muslim-American civil rights groups have really ignored black Muslim immigrants and U.S.-born black Muslims and have not addressed anti-black racism.

BEYDOUN: Yeah. A lasting residual testament of orientalism - and orientalism is critical, I write in the book how orientalism is very much the mother of modern Islamophobia - is this really rigid caricaturing of Muslims as exclusively Arab and Middle Eastern, right? We understand Muslim identity specifically and narrowly in the form of Arab Middle Easterners and so on. So we erase black folk as being bona fide or legitimate Muslims. And that holds true today, I think. This caricature of the Muslim is still very well embedded in the minds of everyday citizens in the United States, very still well embedded in the minds of the media, whether it be the news media or popular media, whether, you know, film, television and so on.

So you have this perpetual erasure of black Muslims from being, you know, illustrated, talked to, projected, even though historically, the first Muslim communities - and I write about this in the book - were enslaved Muslims in the Antebellum South. Islam in the United States, the Muslim experience in the United States is rooted in blackness even though the orientalist imagination erases black Muslims from discussion.

MERAJI: And why is that?

BEYDOUN: Do you want the quick response or the academic response?

MERAJI: Give me the quick one first.


BEYDOUN: So I'll try to do both.


BEYDOUN: But it's part and parcel of the racial construction of blackness, right? Remember, the formative construction of blackness viewed black identity as synonymous with property - right? - as a people that could not believe. A people that were stripped of faith. And also, when you tie that to the racial construction of Muslim identity, which I just discussed, was in the narrow form of Arab, Middle Eastern or maybe back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Ottoman, right? Those could not be reconciled. You could not be black and be Arab. Therefore, black Muslim identity was effectively, by law, sort of positioned as a contradictory identity.

MERAJI: You talk also in the book about when we talk about structures and policies that are put in place, the travel ban and how if you look at some of the countries that are listed on the travel ban, they are African Muslim countries. So when we talk about black Muslims, that is another aspect of that. And really, that hasn't been discussed much in the activist world or even - and definitely not in the media.

BEYDOUN: Yeah. No, definitely, I think that, you know, so it's clearly the travel ban. And it was amazing to see people really galvanized, you know, from the left and center and, you know, Islamophobia becoming a mainstream social justice issue sort of on the back of the travel ban, the first one especially and people sort of fighting against Islamophobia that was being unleashed by way of state policy. But a missing dimension was framing the travel ban as anti-black.

MERAJI: Or not framing it that way.

BEYDOUN: Or not framing it, exactly, that it had a very disproportionate anti-black consequence and impact just by virtue of the states that it encompassed. Right? Three of the states were African nations.

MERAJI: So let's think about that. So Sudan?

BEYDOUN: The initial rendition was Libya, which is primarily a North African state.

MERAJI: Oh, Libya, right.

BEYDOUN: And then you had Sudan and Somalia, predominantly black Muslim countries.

MERAJI: Right. And keeping on the topic of the travel ban, the Supreme Court is going to be hearing the case this week, which has got me thinking about the courts and whether you think the courts are pushing back against what you call structural Islamophobia in any way.

BEYDOUN: It depends which level of the court, right? I sort of have a pessimistic view as to what the Supreme Court is going to do in response to this third rendition of the ban. I think it's going to be upheld. But yeah, there have been many courts. So the Second Circuit, for instance, the Second Circuit federal court a couple of years ago struck down the spying on Muslims program that the NYPD conducted for a long time. Right? It found that the NYPD's tactics of mapping Muslims throughout the Metro New York area was infringing on the free exercise rights of Muslims, infringing on privacy and so on. So there's clearly precedent where the courts and some judges behind the bench on some courts have been, you know, fierce opponents of Islamophobia and structural Islamophobia.

MERAJI: If the travel ban is upheld like you think it will be, and you were talking about immigration early on in our history and how Muslims have been affected by immigration policies early on in our history, and you point to that as sort of the beginning of this structural Islamophobia that you talk about, is that what we're going to be seeing if this travel ban is upheld, that same kind of immigration-based structural Islamophobia?

BEYDOUN: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think so. And I think it's critical to sort of tie structural Islamophobia to the white supremacist vision of the Trump administration and populists who I think are going to come after Trump. I think we've reached a point, I hope - maybe I'm being naive. But I think I've reached a point where we no longer can specifically or explicitly tie citizenship to racial identity because that is viewed as being too outwardly and openly racist.

But there are other ways in which presidents and political gatekeepers can stifle the entry of black, brown, Muslim folk from coming into the country to maintain the demographic status quo. Right? The wall, the revocation of DACA - right? - expedited removals. So it's critical to understand structural Islamophobic policy, like the travel ban, that is targeting Muslims as part and parcel of a broader project to make America great again, which, decoded, means maintain the white identity of the country.

MERAJI: We've been talking a lot about President Trump.


MERAJI: But you write in the book that President Obama played a role in this as well.

BEYDOUN: Yeah, so I think Trump has become the poster man of Islamophobia. If the word Islamophobia is said by somebody, the first person that pops in our head is Donald Trump - right? - which is dangerous because as soon as Trump is out, we think - hey, great - Islamophobia is no longer a thing. But the reason I'm so keen on focusing in on structural Islamophobia as something that is typically inconspicuous - right? It's latent. We can't see it in the same way that we can read and see Trump saying Islam hates us.

DEMBY: Right.

BEYDOUN: Obama, who was engaging in rhetoric that was really accepting, almost laudatory of Muslims - you know, he gave this beautiful speech.

MERAJI: In Egypt.

BEYDOUN: In Egypt.

MERAJI: In Cairo.

BEYDOUN: Exactly, in Cairo in 2009. Even though the rhetoric is great and the sort of messaging and performance is accepting of Muslims, the policy is really destructive. Right? So he establishes counter-radicalization policing in 2011. In my opinion, counter-radicalization policing - Countering Violent Extremism is the name of the program that he actually installs - is the most destructive and pernicious form of structural Islamophobia. I find it to be far more destructive than the travel bans. I find it to be far more destructive than the Patriot Act, which was the Bush administration's signature structural Islamophobic policy.


BEYDOUN: For a number of reasons. Structurally speaking, it capitalizes on Muslims to spy on Muslims. Right? So it's the FBI teaming up with law enforcement like the LAPD or the NYPD. And their job is to build relationships, close rapport with Muslim leadership, advocates, individuals who are heading businesses and community centers. They're actually mobilized and enlisted to function as informants, as watchdogs - in the mosques, in the Muslim student organizations, in the halal butchers - to make this war on terror project work.

So it's destructive in the sense that it's really intensifying divisions within Muslim communities. With the Obama administration, we have this concept, this phrase, that rises to the fore of the moderate Muslim, which is really toxic.

MERAJI: Good Muslim.

BEYDOUN: Good Muslims, bad Muslims - right? So it's the good Muslims who are in line with the surveillance, the good Muslims that are apologizing and condemning every terror attack. It's the good Muslims who are, you know, overcompensating with regard to their patriotism. And anybody else who doesn't do that stuff - and even more than that, is critical of American domestic or foreign policy - might be a bad Muslim.

MERAJI: But I can hear people saying, terrorism is real. This is a real thing. And you know, we don't want another terrorist attack on this soil. And so what's so wrong with these policies? We need them.

BEYDOUN: Yeah. So Parkland was very real. Las Vegas was very real. Dylann Roof walking into a black church in South Carolina was very real.

What's really problematic and bigoted about counter-radicalization policies is the theory that specifically conflates - exclusively conflates - radicalization with Muslim identity; is disinterested entirely with white supremists; is disinterested entirely with neo-Nazis; is disinterested entirely with separatists. All the resources, all the manpower, all the strategy, all the attention was dedicated entirely to Muslims. I'm not saying let's not be concerned with anti-terror efforts against Muslims because there are fringe and deviant Muslim actors. Right? But let's dedicate the amount of resources and manpower based on research and based on real figures versus imagined threat.

MERAJI: Khaled, thank you so much.

BEYDOUN: Yeah. No, thanks so much for having me. It was really fun.

DEMBY: Khaled Beydoun is a law professor and the author of the new book "American Islamophobia: Understanding The Roots And Rise Of Fear."


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MERAJI: (Laughter) Head to and click on the CODE SWITCH link to sign up. Kumari Devarajan and I produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Jason DeRose.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Leah Donnella, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Steve Drummond, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Salaam. Oh...

DEMBY: Oh...

MERAJI: ...Can I say salaam?


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