Legalizing Othering: The United States of Islamophobia

Legislating the exclusion of Muslims through state and federal policy

A group of scholars recently released a major research report on Islamophobia in the US. Legalizing Othering: The United States of Islamophobia, representing rigorous analysis over the past few years examining the orchestrated, racialized movements in the US to legislate the exclusion of Muslims through state and federal policy.

BERKELEY, CA: Ultra right-wing activists and their allies in state legislatures and the federal government have in recent years undertaken coordinated and systematized efforts to alienate, criminalize, and perpetuate fear and othering of Muslims in the United States, a new report published by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society finds.

Following the tragedy of 9/11, and heightened racial animus following the election of the nation’s first Black president in 2008, Islamophobia in the US entered a new phase, resulting in an organized and strategic anti-Muslim movement that has gained significant influence leading to the introduction of a slew of bills targeting Muslims in state legislatures.

“The foundations of the contemporary Islamophobia movement can be correlated with the rise of racial animosity and anxiety in the United States, exacerbated by multiple events, most notably the election of the first Black president, and the racial anxiety over changing demographics in the US,” report co-author Elsadig Elsheikh, who heads the Global Justice programme at the Haas Institute, said.

“Together, these events have been perceived as a threat to the standing hierarchy and political power among certain white conservatives,” he added.

The report, titled “Legalizing Othering: The United States of Islamophobia,” discovered that from 2010 to 2016, anti-Muslim activists helped get nearly 200 bills introduced in 39 state legislatures across the country that sought to ban what was termed “Sharia law,” or a set of Islamic legal codes, from being applied or considered in US courts.

Of the 194 bills introduced in different state legislatures, 18 have passed and been enacted into law in 12 states, under the guise of protecting US constitutional law. But according to the research, the efforts to get the bills passed had more sinister aims, namely, to exacerbate a climate of fear of Muslims and to exclude them from society.

In many of the states where anti-Sharia bills were introduced, such as Mississippi which alone introduced 20 bills, Muslims only account for a fraction of a percent of the population.

Moreover, the researchers argue that the anti-Sharia bills hurt not just Muslims, but all religious groups that seek to have courts consider religious codes to settle cases, including those involving divorce and dowries, as is commonly practised in US courts within the boundaries of the law.

“Although anti-Sharia legislation intentionally singles out Muslims by specifically naming ‘Sharia law,’ if such a bill is enacted into law it may also restrict the freedoms of other minority religious groups who look to religious arbitration,” Basima Sisemore, a co-author of the report and researcher at the Haas Institute, said.

In addition to the report, the authors also compiled an exhaustive database detailing each of the 194 bills introduced in state legislatures. The database, organized in spreadsheets, reveals the names the bills’ sponsors, lists organizations that supported the bills, shows if they were enacted into law or not, and provides other key items.

The report offers a number of recommendations to respond to the anti-Islamophobia movement, including federal measures to protect Muslims’ rights, and the formation of global solidarity movements and coalitions to support Muslim communities.

This report was compiled by the Haas Institute. The Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley is a research institute bringing together scholars, community stakeholders, policymakers, and communicators to identify and challenge the barriers to an inclusive, just, and sustainable society in order to create transformative change.

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