American Muslims and others concerned about intolerance face a daunting challenge countering the growing negative sentiments toward Islam in the country, according to a roundtable at Harvard on Monday.
With attitudes toward Islam a focus of contention in the highly charged national political season, speakers highlighted how hostility toward the religion has spread and what effects it is having on young Muslims trying to find their way in American society. The rising anti-Muslim sentiment reflects a “deep polarization” between some Muslims and non-Muslims, one that is rooted in religious illiteracy, said Ali Asani, who moderated the discussion and is professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures, as well as director of Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.
“This religious illiteracy has created a breeding ground for fear, prejudice, and hatred that have been exploited for political gain by unscrupulous politicians and terrorist organizations both in Western and Muslim countries,” Asani said. “It threatens not only democratic processes within countries but also relationships between nations and people.”
Asani said afterward that hostility to Islam “is not just about religion — it’s another manifestation of racism, because racism and religion become conflated.”
The discussion at the Barker Center was presented by the Alwaleed Program, the Harvard Foundation, the Harvard College Office of Student Life, and the Harvard Islamic Society.
Christopher Bail, Ph.D. ’11, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University who studies how groups shape public discourse, discussed the findings of his recent book on how anti-Muslim sentiment became widespread in American society after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
“This was the result of a very well-coordinated effort by a small network of anti-Muslim organizations that have succeeded not only in captivating the mass media but also increasingly influencing our counterterrorism policy,” he said.
Using data to track references to Islam in newspapers, television broadcasts, and social media, Bail documented how the groups obtained extensive media attention for their narrative that “Muslims are secretly a fifth column that is trying to subvert the U.S. Constitution under the guise of political correctness.”
“This is a pretty straightforward story about the media playing on people’s fears, gravitating towards the most emotional voices in the aftermath of … a major tragedy,” he said, adding that that “emotional energy creates a really interesting ripple effect within the public sphere.”