On Monday, Nov. 7, Imam Sami Aziz and Professor of Religion and Science in Society Peter Gottschalk gave a presentation titled “Understanding Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Sentiment: The Fear-Ignorance-Hate of Muslims” at the Woodhead Lounge in Exley. This event was sponsored by the African Students Association, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), the Wesleyan Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Wesleyan Refugee Project, the Asian American Student Collective, J-Street U at Wesleyan, the Muslim Students Association, Middle Eastern Perspectives, the Interfaith Club, and the Office of Student Affairs.
Aziz, affectionately known to University students as Imam Sami, is the University’s Muslim chaplain who is in his first year at the University. He has previously done work with Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, and political campaigning in gubernatorial and Senate races. Aziz started an organization called Common Ground Services about two years ago, which focuses on consulting and education about Islam, Islamophobia, and ISIS. The organization is a way for Connecticut Muslims and imams to speak about what Islam really says to the greater Connecticut community.
Aziz began the talk with defining Islamophobia.
“[Islamophobia] was first introduced as a concept in a 1991 Runnymede Trust report and was defined as ‘unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims,’” Aziz said. “The report pointed to prevailing attitudes that incorporate the following beliefs: Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities; Islam does not share common values with other major faiths; Islam as a religion is inferior to the West, and is archaic, barbaric, and irrational; and Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism.”
Aziz also talked about Sharia law, its misinterpretation in America, and how its misconception varies depending on where Islam is practiced, as well as the differing beliefs and cultures of the Muslim country in question. He says that the silver lining to the current rise of Islamophobia is that the hatred coming out now is more visible, and it can thus be addressed compared to when the detestation could fall under the radar.
Aziz mentioned that an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, fights for Muslim civil rights and liberties, and often defends Muslims in workplace discrimination cases. He also talked about organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Islamophobia.org that track Islamophobic behavior of organizations and individuals.
He went on to talk about 9/11 and its effect on the Muslim community.
“Muslims also died in the Twin Towers, Muslims also responded as NYPD and firefighters; in fact, 900 Muslim police officers responded to the Twin Towers tragedy,” he said. “That image is not put out there. We don’t see the image of Muslim police officers going in and saving people on 9/11. That image is probably not in any of your minds. But it exists…. Muslims have become the new source of discrimination and scapegoating in America.”
He then discussed and presented Internet memes, tweets, and posts by social media personalities that depict the rise of Islamophobia in the country.
“[There is these beliefs] that Muslims worship a different god [than the other Abrahamic religions] or that we worship a moon god…. The only reason to perpetuate [these beliefs]would be to show that [Muslims] are different than us so they can be discriminated and scapegoated against,” he said.
He showed a list of recognized terrorist groups, compiled by the U.S. State Department and mentions that the majority are Islamic groups.
“The news makes you think that there are so many terrorists out there,” he said. “The total count of Muslim terrorists is approximately 180,000; that is not a good thing by any means, but in comparison to the whole Muslim population of 1.6 billion people, it is insignificant.”
Gottschalk then mentioned that he started his work on Islamophobia after 9/11 and has spent time in Pakistan. He and a former student have since then co-authored a book called “Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy.”
“I was raised a Christian American and with a lot of Islamophobia around me,” Gottschalk said. “It’s very difficult to be raised in the United States and not have it as part of the ambiance. Just like anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia, it simply suffuses parts of our society in different ways, and it may not be ways that we are immediately aware of, but when something happens, things can emerge.”
He then spoke about the elections.
“I think this election is a good demonstration of how a certain person putting out a certain type of vibe and getting a lot airplay can really cause a resonance to erupt to the surface, [and] of an energy that has been in a reservoir for a long time,” Gottschalk said. “This stuff doesn’t just start with 9/11. That’s the way that is often portrayed, but there are very deep roots to this, and if we don’t get at them, then we can’t get at the root of the problem and are just dealing with the surface.”
He discussed the tendency of Americans to look at religion as being situated along a spectrum that centers on American-Christian values, and that a lack of religion or a perception of too much religion goes against the values of religious normativity.
Additionally, he explained that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights and touted the principles of freedom of religion, they didn’t believe there were any Muslims on the continent. The reality is that 20 percent of slaves that were brought to America from the African continent were Muslim.
He also said that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments have been present in history through art. Starting from the medieval period, there was the belief that Christianity followed God, and that Islam followed Satan, and this was showed in medieval art where Muslims were often depicted as the anti-Christ. This is also seen in modern political cartoons and in animated films, such as “Aladdin,” where Jafar is essentially a racist caricature of Muslim people.
Ally Gomberoff ’19, an attendee of the presentation, thought it was especially relevant given the current political climate following the presidential election.
“I was really interested in just how long Islamophobia has existed in the U.S.,” Gomberoff said. “While racism has always been a constant, I always assumed that anti-Muslim sentiments in particular originated as a result of 9/11. It’s also weird to think that the talk happened pre-election…. I’ve read up on at least four hate crimes towards Muslim women since Trump has been elected, where the offender specifically referenced Trump. The talk was great and so important, but this really can’t be the end of the discussion.”