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Diversity Initiatives Are Failing the U.S. Muslim Community

6 minute read
Alsultany is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC’s Dornsife College and the author of Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion

Over the past decade, the Muslim community has become included in diversity initiatives in the United States. Hollywood is finally producing shows that feature Muslim characters, such as Hulu’s Ramy, Netflix’s Mo, and Disney+’s Ms. Marvel. Universities are adjusting dining hall hours to accommodate Muslim students who fast during Ramadan, and they are increasing the number of reflection spaces on campus to facilitate Muslim ritual prayer. Nike launched its Pro Hijab, a headscarf for Muslim women athletes, and Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad became its model. Muhammad also served as the inspiration for the first Muslim Barbie doll.

These initiatives enhance our sense of belonging as Muslims in the U.S.—but they are not enough to actually challenge Islamophobia.

How did Muslims come to be included in diversity plans in the U.S.? My research shows that this happened in the wake of crises, or moments that made it clear that Islamophobia was a problem. Diversity initiatives born out of crisis can produce important social change, but responding to a momentary flare up as opposed to longstanding structural inequality limits the extent of possible change. Social change requires addressing the root of the problem primarily located in a history of U.S. foreign policies that dehumanize Muslims.

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Islamophobia, itself, is far from new. Scholars trace forms of it as far back as the 7th century, with the emergence of Islam as a religion. But the term found new popularity in the late 20th century. Many point to the 1997 report published by the Runnymede Trust in the UK as the first influential use of the word Islamophobia, since it was the first to highlight it as a social problem. But the term did not enter the U.S. lexicon until about a decade after 9/11.

Muslims have long been constructed as threats to U.S. national security, but this intensified after 9/11. Think of the USA PATRIOT Act, Special Registration, U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as prime examples of this.

But in the 2010’s, as the nation grappled with a history of racism and inequality, a new rubric of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” created an opening for Muslims to be seen as a beleaguered minority. Muslims became included in conceptions of diversity and social justice through a series of crises, such as the 2010 “ground zero mosque” controversy, the establishment of the Islamophobia Industry, and Donald Trump’s 2015 announcement to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

These moments led to widespread recognition that Muslims are demonized and targets of individual hate and repressive state policies. This phenomenon is a prime example of crisis diversity—where a precipitating event leads to the recognition of racism or discrimination and an ensuing flurry of concerted action.

Crisis diversity produces a domino effect of responses: The general public becomes aware of a long-standing problem (Islamophobia); people of that particular identity group (Muslims and experts on Islam) are called upon to urgently educate the public and advise leaders on how to make changes; media conglomerates, corporations, universities, and other organizations respond by issuing statements or embarking on new diversity initiatives. The crisis moment then passes, and little attention is paid to the issue until the next crisis emerges, restarting the cycle.

Crisis diversity is not solely a response to Islamophobia. One need only look at how the police killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 led to nationwide protests, reigniting public debate about police brutality and putting anti-Black racism firmly on the agenda of the criminal justice system, as well as universities and a wide array of corporations and industries. That same year, the football team the Washington Redskins was finally renamed the Washington Commanders after decades of refusing to change the name, despite protests from American Indian communities. NASCAR finally banned use of the Confederate flag, and Quaker Oats finally retired its brand based on the Aunt Jemima racial stereotype. At the same time, the number of Black people killed by police has not decreased.

In similar, yet distinct ways, Islamophobia is discovered anew each time an instance of it manages to capture public attention. How much social change is accomplished through these crises-responses is varied and debatable.

For Muslims, crisis gave us Mo and Ms. Marvel. It gave us prayer rooms on college campuses. It gave us Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women in Congress. These progress markers are an important start; however, the crisis-response approach is limiting. While Hollywood sticks it to Trump by finally including Muslims in roles that have nothing to do with terrorism, it does so without acknowledging how the industry itself has demonized Muslims for over a century.

Perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims are given life sentences, without addressing how the same criminal justice system subjects Muslims to surveillance, deportation, and detention, that fuel hate crime violence. Racial and religious stereotypes are also used to criminalize Muslim men. Prosecutors used Adnan Syed’s identity as Pakistani and Muslim to argue that his religion and culture influenced him to murder his 18-year-old girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and be prone to violence. In Sept. 2022, after spending over two decades of a life-in-prison sentence for murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment, the charges were dropped, and Syed was released.

Crisis diversity focuses our attention on only the most overt, public, and often seemingly sudden expressions of racism, obscuring its longevity and reach well beyond crisis moments. In doing so, it obscures the enduring causes of Islamophobia, rooted in national security policies that demonize Muslims.

Real change requires understanding and approaching the problem as part of longstanding practices that will not evaporate with quick fixes during momentary crises. It requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of the problem and its magnitude. If leaders in Hollywood, corporations, universities, and the government consistently considered the long history of inequality in the U.S. when devising solutions (rather than responding to a momentary crisis), a more just and inclusive future would be possible.

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