What Do You Know about Islamophobia?

Amer F. Ahmed talks about the misconceptions that fuel discrimination against Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians

The first step in combating Islamophobia is understanding what Islam is not. 

It is not bound by one interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law. It does not espouse violence. Most of its followers are not Arab. 

Those are some of the misconceptions that Amer F. Ahmed, the vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University of Vermont, highlighted as he spoke at Tufts this week. Ahmed discussed the assumptions and erroneous beliefs that fuel discrimination against Muslims and people perceived as Muslim.  

The workshop he offered, titled “Addressing Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias and Creating Inclusive Campus Environments,” was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Inclusive Excellence. On March 27, Ahmed led one session for faculty and staff and another for students. 

Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians are different groups, although individual people may belong to more than one of those groups, Ahmed explained. Only about 18-20% of the world’s 2 billion Muslims are Arab. A significant number of Arabs identify as Christians, including more than half of Arab Americans.  

One thing people in all three groups have in common? Whether they are Muslim are just perceived as such, Ahmed said, they can all be targets of the same fear and hostility that result in the bias, discrimination, and marginalization called Islamophobia. 

Ahmed, who grew up in Ohio as the son of Muslim immigrants from India, emphasized that Muslim communities and their cultures are as diverse as the places in the world they can be found, from Saudi Arabia to China to France to Mali.  

“There’s all this diversity, and that also translates into different interpretations, different understandings of how the religion shows up in peoples’ lives,” he said. Thus, the Taliban’s extremist laws, for example, are at odds with the equity that many Muslim individuals and communities interpret as inherent in Islam. 

Before 9/11, Ahmed said, he and other Muslims in the United States dealt with ignorance. After 9/11, it was suspicion.  

“There was a sudden focus on our community,” he said. “There have been hate crimes, threats, harassment, surveillance, investigations.” He and his family, he said, “have experienced every one of these things.” 

His worst experiences have to do with coming back to the United States after traveling and being taken into a room by customs officers for interviews. “I’ve experienced this a lot,” he said. “You have to sit there. If you ask questions, you get yelled at.”

“I live 35 minutes from the Canadian border, and I just don’t cross the border by myself,” he said.

Members of the university community can act by recognizing microaggressions, the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults that target marginalized groups, he said. Such microaggressions, intentional or unintentional, may endorse the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, assume that all Muslims have the same culture, or pathologize the Muslim religion as abnormal or a problem. 

Allies can also reach out to Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian people to hear what they are going through, “because there’s fear to share our experiences,” Ahmed said, “especially students, because of the doxing that they’ve seen happen.”

This workshop was part of Tufts Talks Openly, a newly launched series of programs across Tufts focused on building awareness and knowledge to nurture an inclusive community. Among other Tufts Talks Openly offerings: a series of conversations called “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides,” organized with colleagues from across nine Massachusetts universities; expanded programming on inclusive and responsive dialogues; employee trainings on navigating challenging interactions; and training sessions on addressing hate and discrimination, including antisemitism.

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