Is the City of San Jose Islamophobic?

Maha Elgenaidi [Bio]

June 17, 2022

The question I ask in the title of this editorial is one which leaders of every city in the country should ask of its residents, not just regarding Islamophobia but towards all other forms of bigotry and racism because as leaders you set the tone and trends for your city on racial and religious equity and inclusion.

Those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region whose residents hail from every nation in the world, which is also famous for its innovation and progressive ideals, would like to think that we’re immune from the problems of racism and bigotry that afflict most of the rest of the United States. But recent events suggest that we are not as enlightened as we’d like to think.

Islamophobia (aptly described by the Runnymede Trust as “anti-Muslim racism”) has recently surfaced in a few places where we might least expect it. I will only discuss one example of this concerning San Jose City Council.

Islamophobia Background

To provide some background, Islamophobia is deeply engrained in the Western psyche. We can trace it all the way back to the Christian Crusades that started in the eleventh century. To justify its religious wars to capture Jerusalem, Western Christendom depicted Muslims as warring infidels who needed to be driven out of Jerusalem and militarily defeated elsewhere, including in Spain.

Later, in the period of European colonialism that stretched from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries, Muslims were categorized as “non-White” and hence as inferior and needing European “tutelage,” while the older stereotypes of Muslims as violent and heretics continued to flourish in the Christian and, later, in the secular Western mindset.

The tropes these historical realities generated about Islam and its adherents continue to be recycled in present-day Islamophobia, now transnational, that depicts Muslims in disparaging ways, which are then reinforced by one-dimensional media stories about them; a recent study found that 84% of stories about Muslims in major media in the US and other western nations were negative in tone or content, when compared with stories about other religious groups.

Also reinforcing Islamophobia are inadequate or inaccurate teaching about Islam in public schools, movies and video games that cast Muslim characters as the “bad guys,” anti-Muslim hate group websites and social media posts, and government foreign and domestic policies, such as the 2017 travel ban, which mainly excluded visitors from Muslim-majority nations, thereby reinforcing the image of Muslims as a national security threat.

So, believing that any region of the US is immune to Islamophobia (or other forms of racism) is illusory. And these perceptions have real life consequences. Negative perceptions about an entire group of people based on their religion and/or skin color, which are reinforced daily in American popular culture, lead to discrimination in every sector of society, bullying of our children in schools, and hate crimes against people and properties.

For women like myself who wear the hijab, gendered Islamophobia is all too real. We are impacted by our gender, religion, skin color, and national origin as immigrants. Below I share recent surveys on the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim Americans.

San Jose City Council Discussion on Qatar – A Teachable Moment

As previously mentioned, the San Francisco Bay Area is not immune to this prejudice. Islamophobic attitudes came to light recently in San Jose at a City Council meeting on June 7, 2022, when the mayor of San Jose asked the Council to authorize his trip to Qatar, where he had been invited along with other US mayors to discuss water issues, a topic in which the mayor is vitally interested in, and which has critical importance for the city of San Jose.

Immediately challenged by a council member who pointed out Qatar’s negative human rights record, which was fair criticism, the mayor attributed Qatar’s human rights violations to “elements of Sharia law” that Qatar allegedly followed. During the discussion, he again pointed to “Islamic law” as the reason Qatar could not be expected to uphold the rights of women and of LGBTQ people.

In the ensuing discussion, no one challenged the mayor’s stereotypical assumptions about “Sharia” and “Islamic law,” which as I pointed out to San Jose Spotlight, was full of stereotypical Islamophobic views of women’s lack of rights in Islam, with one city council member stating that, as a woman, she would be “scared” to travel to Qatar. The Council went on to vote against authorizing his trip to Qatar.

What was incredibly disappointing was that no one on the Council contested the mayor’s clearly biased remarks against an entire religion. No one stood up to say for example, “Mr. Mayor, you’re out of line for suggesting that Sharia clashes with our values. Our Muslim neighbors in our city are Americans who practice Sharia, which includes basic religious practices such as praying, fasting, diet and other common religious observances. What do we think of them?” Ironically and in the same discussion, only what was bad or negative about Qatar was attributed to Islam or Sharia, while everything “good” about the country was attributed to Western influences.

Could the mayor or the Council have gotten away with promoting such bigoted stereotypes of any other group’s religion? Or attributing human rights violations to the religion of the people of a nation? I highly doubt it. This only goes to show how deeply rooted Islamophobia is in our society, and how natural it seemed to council members to hold this conversation without anyone questioning its appropriateness.

And, unlike in many other parts of the country, San Jose City Council is diverse in its racial and ethnic composition which makes this incident instructive in that racism was never just a White-Black issue; it’s an American problem that all of us must address about groups we’re not familiar with. My organization for example held a series of educational webinars on intra-Muslim racism because even Muslim Americans are not immune from being racist themselves.

To their credit, the City of San Jose through their San Jose Office of Racial Equity held several educational programs with us only last year for their staff on the topics of Islamophobia, religious literacy, and anti-racism. The programs were all well attended and well received based on comments and evaluations. Additionally, the same office just launched an extensive plan towards inclusion.

However, regardless of these positive steps, if people hold stereotypes about another group of people, no number of policies or even laws will overcome bias and achieve inclusion for marginalized communities because we have been conditioned for centuries as to how we view one another. Studies have shown that people’s subconscious biases can override their stated values. So even if you don’t believe that you are biased or racist, your subconscious can make you behave in biased or racist ways. This is especially true in times of fear or stress.

While good intentioned, since I know some of the people on the San Jose City Council and what they’re striving to do to promote racial equity, what they expressed about Sharia demonstrated deep-seated stereotypes about the religion of Islam, which in turn harms the safety and security of my community in this city. I have never felt more vulnerable as a resident of the South Bay because of what I witnessed in that discussion, or more confused about my relationship with many of the people in government in this city. What do they think of me when they see me on Zoom calls, or when I walk into a meeting with my hijab? Am I an oppressed woman to them, who belongs to a religion that discriminates against women?

San Jose City Council is not alone in their Islamophobic remarks. There have been other similar instances concerning claims made by Johnny Khamis, an Arab American who is a former San Jose City council member now running for Santa Clara County Supervisor, against the South Bay Labor Council regarding recently issued mailers that play into Islamophobic and anti-immigrant stereotypes and prejudices, and the San Jose Police Department concerning derogatory comments officers made about Muslim women and other minorities which came to light a couple of years ago. Since these comments came to public light, the San Jose Police Department has made every effort to counter Islamophobia through training, which we’ve really appreciated.

Public leaders and the institutions they represent hold positions of public trust; they set the tone for racial and religious equity in our city. While I am not asking for a public apology, I think they should apologize to the Muslim American residents of San Jose who contribute in many ways to the city through their entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and non-profit work. They should also conduct educational seminars on anti-racism, with a special emphasis on Sharia, Islam, and Muslims which we are happy to deliver.

In the meantime, here’s a quick overview on Sharia.

The need is urgent, precisely in these times of polarization and open and deliberate racism and bigotry, for people to get the education that will inoculate them against the Islamophobia and all the other forms of racism and bigotry that we so easily and unthinkingly express and act upon. This is the only way out of the dangerous divisiveness that we are falling into as a nation. Organizations like the Islamic Networks Group (ING) are needed now perhaps more than ever. Reach out to us at [email protected].

Surveys on the Impact of Islamophobia on Muslim Americans

A 2020 Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) poll found that 60% of Muslims report religious discrimination:

  • Compared with 58% of Jews, 26% of Catholics, and 29% of Protestants

Muslims are also more likely than other groups to experience religious discrimination in institutional settings:

  • 44% of Muslims vs. 5% of public at an airport
  • 33% of Muslims vs. 8% of public when applying for a job
  • 31% of Muslims vs. 8% public when interacting with law enforcement
  • 25% of Muslims vs. 5% of public when receiving healthcare

A 2020 Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) survey found that 51% of Muslim families say their child was bullied for their faith, nearly double the level of families in the public (27%)

A 2021 Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) report in California found that 47% of respondents report being bullied for being Muslim:

  • Verbal bullying often associates Muslims with terrorism using common insults such as “bomber,” killer,” or comments such as, “Hey, gonna bomb the school?”
  • 30% of girls who wear hijab report having their scarves pulled or offensively touched
  • 35% report that other students made offensive comments or posts about Islam or Muslims on social media