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Countering Islamophobia in Illinois

The terrain of Islamophobia ranges across the jagged peaks and dark valleys of group psychology to the relatively predictable paths of institutionalized behaviors. At one level, the politics of Islamophobia in Illinois is like that of most other states, comprehensible in terms of certain institutional levels, as well as the more uncertain levels – involving frequent manifestations of bias, prejudice, hate, and violence, and the sad experiences of those subjected to these abuses. At another level, the politics of Islamophobia in Illinois is highly distinctive and significant given the fact that about one sixth of all Muslim Americans live in Illinois, especially in the Chicago area. Recently, the Pew Research Center estimated the national total at about 3.3 million, including over 500,000 in Illinois. Other states with sizable Muslim American populations include New York, Michigan, Texas, Florida, California, and Virginia. The politics of Islamophobia in Illinois is further distinguished by the fact that this is a state with a substantial history of governmental-sponsored efforts to combat Islamophobia. Very few states have been proactive in this regard.

Most recently, the fight against Islamophobia in Illinois has taken the form of legislative and executive approval (SB 1696) of the Muslim American Advisory Council (MAAC), and similar approval of an amendment (SB 1697) to the IL Human Rights Act that bars an employer from violating or causing one to forgo “a sincerely held practice of his or her religion including the wearing of any attire, clothing, or facial hair in accordance with the requirements of his or her religion.” SB 1696 was signed into law on August 25, 2017. SB 1697 was signed by the Governor on Aug. 11, 2017. In this paper, I am going to focus on the MAAC, describing arguments for and against it, and the challenges facing it going forward. Before developing this exposition, I want to say a few things about the general phenomenon of Islamophobia.

What is Islamophobia?

Much has been written about the nature, causes, and consequences of Islamophobia. For example, Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry notes ”In its earliest historical usage, the term ‘Islamophobia’ described prejudice and hostility towards Muslims – not an irrational fear of Islam.” Consistent with this view, Robin Richardson traces first use of the term to French colonial attitudes toward West African cultures and societies. (“Islamophobia or anti-Muslim Racism – or what? at insted.co.uk). Well off of such views, Robert Spencer sees Islamophobia as a “tool” recently invented by certain intellectuals to “stigmatize, demonize, and criminalize” those who are critical of Islam. According to Spencer, Islam is a religion bent on implementing sharia law through a global caliphate. (see the Youtube video “The Basics of Islamophobia” by Robert Spencer).

So, Islamophobia is a complicated and rather politicized term, having many historical and more basic social-psychological determinants of significance. Today, Islamophobia in the US is fueled by a combination of right-wing culture warriors and religionists, American exceptionalists, commercial opportunists, and even some secular liberals. Secular ideologues attack Islam for its treatment of women while religious conservatives raise the hue and cry over imposition of “sharia law”. American exceptionalists and commercialists try to realize strategic and economic gains relating to the War on Terror. Meanwhile, the stalwarts of the “Islamophobia industry” cheer along the entire enterprise employing numerous instrumentalities including the Center for Social policy, the Middle East Forum, the Israeli lobby, JihadWatch.org, Islamist-watch.org, PamelaGeller.com, actforamerica.org, Stop Islamization of America, ipatriot.com, counterjihad.org, truthrevolt.org, Fox News, glennbeck.com and so many more.

As we know, fear, hatred, and violence against minority groups has a long, sordid world history, and is rooted in very basic social and psychological processes of group identification and shared experiences, compounded by pressures of kinship and material survival, and the deliberate manipulation and manufacturing of vulnerabilities to fear. To be sure, scapegoating and bigotry run long in the American experience targeting Native Americans, African Americans, Eastern Europeans, Catholics, Japanese Americans, Muslim Americans et al. I would argue that political manipulation is the most immediate determinant of fear of the other.

Islamophobia in Illinois

In Illinois, covert and overt efforts to bend public opinion against Muslim Americans is rampant. A few recent examples illustrate the point:  1) In a July 1, 2016 posting at creepingsharia.com, the author claims the MAAC would operate to hide “supremacist Islamic ideology…that frequently kills Americans.” Reader responses included references to Islam and Muslims in terms of “the Muslim cult”, “the enemy is, the Muslims”, and “stealth Jihadists.” 2) A source recently reported to me that the offices of certain state legislators supporting the MAAC bill received many calls reflecting “hateful views” relating to the creation of the MAAC and thought such responses were “emboldened because of Trump.” 3) On June 20, 2016 at foxnews.com, IL. State Representative Barbara Wheeler reportedly referred to the MAAC bill as “feel-good legislation”. On June 22, 2016, the online Illinois Review reported Rep. Wheeler as saying that “moderate Muslims should more clearly denounce Islamic radicals.”  4) During his 2004 and 2014 campaigns for US Senate, now IL State Senator Jim Oberweis, advocated harsh anti-immigrant views, blaming “job losses” and exploitation of “free health care” on illegal immigrants, and supporting deportation of the children of illegal immigrants (see Youtube videos: the “Helicopter” ad and the “Morning Commute” ad).

Harsh words relate to harsh actions. For the more active side of Islamophobia, see regular reporting of discriminatory and violent acts against Muslim Americans documented especially by the Council on American Islamic Relations- Chicago (CAIR-Chicago). CAIR-Chicago’s In the Media reports, press releases, Annual Reports, and documentaries make it clear that visible Muslims are continuous targets of harassment, discrimination, and violence in the State of Illinois.

Organized Muslim American responses to the sources and manifestations of Islamophobia generally take two forms: 1) Individual Islamic centers and societies (typically attached to particular masjids (mosques)) undertake extensive community outreach and service projects in an effort to support an open and welcoming stance toward non-Muslim communities. The payoff can be significant. My contacts at the Springfield, IL masjid (and the Islamic Society of Greater Springfield  – ISOGS), describe having “excellent relations with the Springfield community”, this is despite having been subjected to a suspicious arson attack back in 1995. The ISOGS, like most Islamic societies, promotes and participates in community engagement. For example, the Society maintains cooperative relations with the local Planning and Zoning boards, and law enforcement agencies. Very importantly, members support the St. John’s Breadline, deliver gifts to hospitals, and have discussed plans to deliver health services to some of Springfield’s poor. 2) Secular groups, especially CAIR-Chicago, focus primarily on protecting the civil rights of Muslim Americans, especially those who are victims of Islamophibc attacks, and sponsoring community outreach programs designed to educate and improve relationships with non-Muslim communities.

Illinois has experimented with a third variety of response to Islamophobia. Ms. Nia Odeoti-Hassan, long-time civil rights activist, State Senate Democrats staffer, and leader in statewide Muslim American civic engagement, has chronicled a list of accomplishments going back to 2001. These include passage of the Halal Food Act, legislative work on safe charitable organizations, implementation of Illinois Muslim Action Day and the annual Breaking of Ramadan fast celebration, and passage of the aforementioned Human Rights Act amendment, and the Act to create the MAAC.

For the most part, the terrain of Islamophobia across states takes the form of covert and overt Islamophic speech/acts and reactions to them by organized Muslim American groups (masjids, Islamic Societies and Centers and their networks, and broader political organizations such as regional CAIR offices).

The State of Illinois has distinguished itself by participating in a more public, institutionalized response to Islamophobia. This model is exemplary, albeit in an early and less than fully developed and effective stage. In the next section, I am going to set out the pros and cons of the MAAC and discuss challenges it may face in maturing into a more effective institutional response to Islamophobia.

The Institutionalized Response to Islamophobia in Illinois

The first iteration of the MAAC resulted through executive order in 2011 under former (Democratic) Governor Quinn. The MAAC published three annual reports before the current (Republican) Governor, Bruce Rauner, placed a “hold” on all public meetings of the MAAC in 2014. The stated purposes of the MAAC in 2011 included advancing the role and civic participation of Muslim Americans living in Illinois, enhancing trade and cooperation with Muslim majority countries, and building relationships with Muslim American communities across the state. SB 1696 retains these purposes and also includes ideas about “promoting diversity” and  “ensuring inclusion” of all groups. Governor Rauner signed SB 1696 into law on Aug. 25, 2017. The first task is to identify and nominate memberships. The responsibility and prerogative to identify specific members is divided up between various branches of government on a mainly partisan basis.

During 2016 and 2017, I spoke with former MAAC members, other past participants and supporters, and current legislative supporters and opponents of SB1696. In what follows, I outline the arguments I have observed on both sides of the question of the need for and legitimacy of the MAAC. I then set out a list of challenges facing this institution as the process goes forward.

The vast majority of arguments against the MAAC seem to amount to versions of the notion that such councils favor specific religious groups. To be charitable, I would assume that sometimes this reflects an underlying concern that constitutions and governments should not promote religion. But I do not hear that clearly stated. Perhaps that is a (unrecognized?) function of Christian religious conservatives wanting to avoid the irony of holding this position on their own? In any case, Illinois Republican Senators have suggested to me that it’s wrong to favor religion, and that the MAAC is problematic because it does so. Sen. Chapin Rose’s chief of staff told me “There are not any other religious based advisory boards.” (phone interview Aug. 12, 2016)  Sen. Rose had actively opposed the MAAC bill during the legislative process, but ultimately failed to cast a vote in August of 2017. Even if the MAAC was a “religious-based” group, the Senator’s comments are inaccurate. The State Treasurer’s office coordinates many advisory groups including but not limited to Hispanic, Asian, African American, and notably, Jewish advisory councils. More recently, in response to my inquiry to define his opposition to SB 1696, Sen. Jim Oberweis (who twice voted against the bill in 2017) wrote “If a Muslim advisory committee, why not a Jewish advisory committee? Why not a Catholic advisory committee? Why not a Protestant advisory committee” Why not a Buddhist advisory committee? Why not a Hindu advisory committee etc?” (email, Aug. 13, 2017) Again, the Senator’s comments seem to ignore the Jewish Advisory Council. In any case, all the candidates he mentioned are indeed, at one level, religious groups, suggesting support of the principle that government should not favor any religion. I asked Senator Oberweis to clarify his position in light of my concerns about pluralism, specific claims of injustice, and civility. He declined to respond.

In response to the Oberwieis/Rose-style opposition outlined above, I would argue, first, indeed, “why not?” Why not, from the principle of pluralism, give formal access to ANY group desiring to secure a place to formulate and represent legitimate views? What’s wrong with more democracy? Second, one could argue that NOT ALL claims are equal, and that claims involving palpable harm to particular groups are especially deserving of efforts to address such injustice. So, are there equivalents to Islamophobia out there? Yes, anti-Semitism qualifies…hence the defense of Jewish advisory councils everywhere. But are there any remaining substantial society-deep prejudices against Catholics? Have Protestants EVER been subject to deep and organized hate? Does anyone really hate Buddhists or Hindus (unless they are mistaken for Muslims)? Third, arguably, governments have very substantial obligations to promote civil order. If there are high levels of misunderstanding, incivility, and violence between or directed against particular groups, why shouldn’t governments work to mitigate such harm purely on the basis of maintaining public peace and order?

I asked Sen. Jacqueline Collins (the primary sponsor of SB 1696) if she had heard any reasonable or understandable arguments against the bill. Interestingly, she replied positively, noting that she thought some might hold the view that in general the Legislature should not fund any more panels or commissions. I suppose this view could rest on a principle of fiscal conservatism, or on generalized skepticism about the effectiveness of such entities. Sen. Collins told me “the costs of the MAAC are quite negligible in light of the potential for learning ways in which state government might help, support, and nurture the Muslim community at a time when that is vitally important.” (email Sept. 13, 2017) Sen. Collins’ view seems consistent with my arguments above.

Some conservatives in Illinois (and across the country) say that Muslims generally want to impose “Sharia law” on non-Muslims. Such a view is ignorant of the mainstream of Islamic values. In any case, none of the past recommendations of the MAAC remotely suggest undue concern for or promotion of religion. The bulk of the recommendations made between 2011 and 2014 advocated benefits that would improve the lives of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This, too, is the main counterargument to claims that the MAAC represents Muslims as a primarily religious group.

Many supporters of the MAAC, including past members, emphasized the MAAC’s education mandate. Notably, many people identified the importance of educating non-Muslim groups, as well as promoting learning and understanding within Muslim communities. It is an abstraction to assume there is one Muslim American community. Likewise, it’s an abstraction to suppose this about Protestants. Both Dr. Bambade Shakoor-Abdullah (former MAAC member) and Nia Odeoti-Hassan emphasized the importance of intra-Muslim education and learning. (phone interview Aug. 14, 2017, and personal interview Aug. 1, 2017 respectively) The MAAC has the potential to contribute positively to the self-esteem and self-image of Muslim youth, and to relieve tensions between some organized Muslim groups.

Theoretically, the MAAC could face any number of challenges to its effectiveness. The government could fail to provide it with adequate material support or fail to show adequate care and commitment to its purposes. Organized opposition to its organizational purposes and future recommendations could hamper progress. Likewise internal incoherence, perhaps the result of deliberate efforts failing to appoint credible members, could stall the going forward. Additionally, some of the leaders I spoke with at both regional and national offices of CAIR voiced concerns about the potential for cooptation (e.g., turning such entities into national security concerns), lack of government commitment, and ineffective representativeness of the council membership. These views are pragmatic, based on years of working in the trenches litigating and lobbying in support of Muslim American civil rights. On the other hand, Mr. Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of CAIR Chicago and former MAAC member, did confirm that there is value in “needed gestures” and in promoting a greater “sense of belonging.” (phone interview, Aug. 13, 2017) Sen. Collins anticipated that adequate material support would be had, and that all groups would take seriously their duty to appoint credible members to the MAAC.

My view is that much of the challenge ahead relates to the difficulty of forging and maintaining commitment from legislators and the Governor. Politicians, certainly including governors of large states, are subject to electoral contingencies and pressures, and lobbying by conservative (and other) interest groups. This can result in a dilution of principle, and demands what I would refer to as a mustering up of a will to lead. This entails assuming risk in ways that many politicians loathe to undertake.

I spoke with Senator Pamela Althoff, Caucus Chair for the Il. Senate Republicans. Senator Althoff (and three of her Republican colleagues) voted in support of SB 1696. Nine Republican Senators voted no, while eight cast no vote at all. The bill passed 40-9 with zero abstentions. I was impressed with her integrity and theory of leadership. While standing on conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and small government, Senator Althoff advocated the idea that politicians have opportunities and obligations to educate their constituencies and wider publics when they are wrong or lacking in complete information, and that entails standing on clear principles. In her view, the MAAC is consistent with the need to “promote understanding between different people.” (phone interview, Aug. 12, 2017) Interestingly, this reminds me of the Quranic passage that explains God’s decision to create different kinds of people so that they could get to know each other.

Going Forward

The MAAC (or any advisory group) will be as effective and valuable as it is permitted to be. Yet even with lots of material support representative and caring board members, and committed politicians, this is a singular and limited tool, unlikely to replace other strategies countering Islamophobia.

Next to litigation and pressure politics, advisory functions seem weak and idealistic. From a realist perspective, hate is a fact, and is not readily reasoned with, and must be met by the hard force of the law and counter protest. On the one hand, litigation is well understood, and financially costly, though capable of high yield. On the other hand, it is seriously flawed in capacity to promote understanding between different peoples. Indeed, it presupposes divisiveness, conflict, ego extension, and sometimes goes to the bank on the prospect of hardening of positions into the future. But if politicians avoid the easy temptation to ignore this new institution, it may have a good chance to mitigate some of the misunderstanding and ignorance that can contribute to Islamophobia. Senator Collins noted that the MAAC is worth the risk and costs given the prevalence of “sentiments which are so ugly and antithetical to our nation’s founding principles [that] are of daily, grave concern to a small, underrepresented population.”

Generally speaking, litigation is reactive (except perhaps in the event of test cases). Advisory councils offer more in the way of proactive opportunities, much like the community outreach efforts practiced regularly by Islamic centers and larger organizations such as CAIR-Chicago. Advisory councils offer chances to get ahead of problems by encouraging good will and trust between relevant inside and outside groups. Trust and good will are the most important infrastructural components to successful policy making. Success depends on several factors. Members need to be representative of and committed to the needs of their communities, and the politicians who come to engage these members must do so with integrity. Such councils must be materially supported, and more importantly allowed to function sui generis, without risk of tokenism or cooptation from outside actors. Politicians must take seriously the recommendations made by such advisers and at least occasionally use them as the basis for substantial policy development and changes. Perhaps most importantly, politicians should be energized by principle. In this particular case, that involves recognition of the gravity of the problem of Islamophobia, and a commitment to enhancing the equality, effectiveness, and civility of democratic processes. Politicians really should try to negotiate comfortable public paths through the jaggedness and darkness of fear, hate, and violence between diverse groups of people.

Advisory councils along the lines of the MAAC offer new ways of countering Islamophobia consistent with pluralistic models of democracy. Notably, the phenomenon seems to be expanding. In New York, SB 2187, a bill to establish the New York Muslim American Advisory Council, is being debated in committee. Other states with large Muslim populations may take up the idea. It’s also the case, that “advisory” groups have been organized in other states. But these entities lack officially recognized functionality in policy processes. For example, in Tennessee, the American Muslim Advisory Council formed in 2012 in reaction to anti-Sharia legislation destructive of Muslim American civil rights being considered by the Tennessee legislature. It is the contention of this paper that state governments and Muslim American groups should take the risks involved in moving more closely to a collaborative model, assuming the importance of enhancing civility and understanding.

Michael P. Bradley teaches political science and philosophy classes at Blackburn College in Illinois, and is an occasional contributor to CounterPunch.

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