A few years ago, my uncle visited the U.S. for the first time. When I met him in Brooklyn, though, he was far from excited. Of all the things he could have started our conversation with, it was this: “Is the subway under construction?”
“Which station?” I wondered.
He paused. “...All of them?”
I burst out laughing, because I understood.
Each time I land at JFK, I am amazed. Shortly after you exit, the manicured lawns vanish, the smooth surfaces become potholed and cratered—New York begins. Heaven forbid you fly to LaGuardia, where there’s only a creaking bus service. It is almost impossible to go via mass transit between most of Brooklyn and Queens, which are over four million people. Many of the city’s rail tunnels still haven’t recovered from Hurricane Sandy, and nobody knows what’ll happen if there’s another big storm. The Second Avenue subway was conceived before we could conceive of a black President, and it’s still not done. This is America’s alpha city and, with London, one of the two most important. In the world. But New York isn’t an American outlier.
Your smartphone is more advanced than nearly every air-traffic control system. Our sewage pipes, bridges and highways are falling apart. The residents of Flint, Michigan, just found their water is the opposite of potable. We are still the world’s most powerful country, one of the most secure, and one of the most stable. But our country has been crumbling apart for years now, and we’ve done next to nothing about it.
You can blame Islamophobia for that.
Islamophobia is like racism not because Islam is a race, but because, for the Islamophobe, “Islam” plays the same role “race” did for racists. It’s all about broad, sweeping, malicious judgments. Has any other demographic had to suffer the indignity of being declared insufficiently loyal to be President, or hear proposals to be banned from the country? When Trump and Cruz argue over who will impose more war crimes, do you think they mean to waterboard Dylann Storm Roof, or kill his family members?
There are a lot of explanations for where this hateful language comes from; a report for the Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc., outlined the deliberate and calculated inflammation of anti-Muslim sentiment on the right. But Islamophobia was also the vehicle by which the Bush administration was able to sell its policies. Most Americans know very little about Islam. Most, as President Obama recently pointed out, don’t know a Muslim, or don’t know they know a Muslim. (Knowing a Muslim is the best inoculant against anti-Muslim bigotry.) Which is why the Bush administration could sell the Iraq war to a fearful and unknowing public.
So the Bush administration transformed a fringe terrorist movement with the support of the backwater Taliban into an existential threat to Western civilization, which, if true, demanded we respond accordingly. And that’s one of the major reasons why Americans could be persuaded to go to war with a country that didn’t attack us. So while I could tell you why anti-Muslim sentiment is bad for Muslims, maybe it’ll be more impactful if we consider why it’s bad for Americans generally.
The Iraq war, which was an easier sell given our tendency to conflate Arabs, Muslims and everything about the Middle East, cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers, and injured thousands more. By circumventing the U.N., we lost much of our moral capital, and created a precedent for aggression by regional powers worldwide. Hundreds of thousands Iraqis died, and many in the Muslim world still only see America through this lens. By focusing on Iraq, which rapidly spun out of control, we abandoned Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now resurgent there. If all this was not horrible enough, the Iraq war also led to the rise of ISIS, which has dragged us back in. Even if we wanted to walk away, we can’t; ISIS is far too dangerous for us to ignore.
Some three years ago, the Iraq war was estimated to have cost us $2 trillion dollars. Researchers have suggested that amount could rapidly increase over coming years, never mind the rise of ISIS and the deployment of American forces anew. As a comparison, free public college for all Americans would cost $70 billion a year. Not only is that much cheaper, but the latter is an investment that would pay dividends for years to come. The Iraq war didn’t make America safer and, if we’re really lucky, the war will be wound down and ISIS defeated and the region returns back to the status quo. And all the while, many other countries, like China, invested in their own economies. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia has been making huge investments in energy, public transportation and green initiatives. You’d think, after a decade of this, that we would have caught on. Instead Islamophobia is still used to score cheap points, and avoid real problems.
Jeb Bush was one of the rare Republican candidates who wasn’t an anti-Muslim bigot, but he still described ISIS as an “existential threat.” Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, maybe, and in any case, Jeb’s out. But I hardly think Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can destroy the world’s most powerful nation. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tweeted that “Islam pure” (sic) leads to “mass murder,” has a position at Harvard—indicating that her insights are taken seriously. While Ali was warning of the non-existent threat of “Shari’ah” in Michigan, actual Michiganders were literally being poisoned by their water supply.
When we continue to conflate mainstream Islam with radicals, vastly exaggerating the threat we face, we make it harder to make good choices. All of the things our global peers are preparing for--climate change, for example—go by the wayside. While it might be important to tackle income inequality, crumbling infrastructure, student debt, childhood poverty, systemic and structural racism, the idea that our greatest threat is Islamic extremism, and that Muslims everywhere are all potential or possible terrorists, makes it harder to address these problems. Though Trump now questions the Iraq war, he continues to indulge in the kind of language that enabled the Iraq war.
Any real stocktaking would demand we do both.
To look at the damage Islamophobia does to all Americans, for years to come.
Had we been able to see the Muslim world as diverse and complicated, with nuances and differences, if we saw Muslims as human beings—and not as we do today, as “apes or worse”—do you think we would’ve invaded Baghdad? Hundreds of billions of dollars later, hundreds of thousands dead, a haven for one of the most brutal movements in modern history, there’s no end in sight, but Muslims here and abroad get blamed for the outcomes.
Moghul is speaking at the Feb. 29 event "Muslim in America" with PEN America and the Greene Space at WNYC.