Islamophobia in the Mainstream: Legislating Against Muslims

Safya Khan-Ruf - 09 11 18

“Donald J Trump is calling for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” – Donald Trump, now the President of the United States

The so-called leader of the free world has proven his racist credentials throughout his presidency, spouting clearly racist views, calling Muslims dangerous and affirming that “Islam hates us” in a 2016 interview.

The political establishment has mainstreamed Islamophobic rhetoric. While many politicians use coded language to flirt with hate speech, others are blatantly overt with their actions, assured there will be little consequence within the current political climate.

John Bennett (Wikimedia Commons)

Republican state representative John Bennett from Oklahoma refused to meet with Muslim student constituents, unless they replied to a questionnaire asking if they beat their wives, while Elaine Morgan, a Rhode Island senator, called for herding Syrian refugees into a camp, writing in an email that Muslims seek “to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone who is a non-Muslim.” Morgan later said she’d sent the email before having the time to edit it.

Trump’s Islamophobic views and rhetoric have also easily translated into action, with the latest iteration of the Muslim travel ban being approved by the Supreme Court in June 2017.

Trump and Travel

The US Supreme Court handed Trump a major victory, upholding the President’s efforts to ban certain nationalities from entering the country. Trump issued the first executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, in January 2017.  The ban overwhelmingly targeted Muslim-majority countries, suspending travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days, blocking refugees for 120 days and suspending travel from Syria indefinitely.

Over the next 18 months, the courts struck down three different versions of the ban but the Supreme Court overruled and became the only federal court to rule in favor of it.

While the judgement refers to the deference given to the President on national security matters, critics claim it undermines the long tradition of religious tolerance in the country.

Judge Watson in Hawaii, who had blocked the third iteration (which is now in full effect), wrote that the ban “suffers from precisely the same maladies as its predecessor” and “plainly discriminates based on nationality.”

However, organised Islamophobic action in America was not invented during the Trump presidency and its groundwork has been seeping into policies and laws at both federal and state level for years. A clear marker to track its progress is anti-sharia legislation.

Striking Sharia

“Anti-sharia bills didn’t come from a vacuum. It came out of the contemporary Islamophobia movement in the US; it rode the wave of shifting public sentiment and animosity towards Muslims in the US since 9/11 and the War on Terror,” says Basima Sisemore, a researcher for the Global Justice Program at the Haas institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and co-writer of Legalizing Othering: The United States of Islamophobia.

The anti-sharia movement gained traction in 2010, creating furor over the plan to open a Muslim community centre in downtown Manhattan. A key figure to the movement is lawyer David Yerushalmi, dubbed the “father of the anti-sharia movement” who is co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center and General Counsel for the Center for Security Policy. His draft legislation dubbed American Laws for American Courts has been used as a template for the majority of anti-sharia bills.

Research by the Haas institute shows that between 2010 and 2016, 194 anti-sharia bills were introduced in 39 states. Of these, 18 were enacted, 176 did not pass and 1 bill was struck down in Oklahoma.  

Towards the end of 2017, only seven states – California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and Rhode Island – had no anti-sharia bills proposed.

Legalizing Othering report p 10

The number of introduced bills has continued to increase in 2017 and 2018. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 14 states introduced anti-sharia bills in 2017 alone, with Texas and Arkansas enacting the legislation.

The bills usually do not refer overtly to sharia or Muslims as this could then be challenged on grounds of religious discrimination. Instead, the wording refers more generally to “foreign laws” being banned in US jurisdictions.

Greg Abbott, Texas governor, signed into law House Bill 45 in June 2017, preventing the use of “foreign laws” in state courts, in cases of marriage or issues regarding parents and their children.

Republican State Representative Jeff Leach and Representative Dan Flynn, who authored the bill, had introduced several earlier versions of the bill before this one was enacted.  Both told media outlets that the law was not designed to single out Muslims.

Earlier this year, another anti-sharia bill – House Bill 419 – was approved by the Idaho House, and was only rejected after it passed before the State Senate. It was the third attempt by State Representative Eric Redman to pass an anti-sharia law, and the furthest the bill had ever gone forward.

The law aimed to “prohibit the application of foreign laws in Idaho courts” and did not specifically mention sharia.

However, the first version of Redman’s bill, introduced in 2016, included pictures of a severed hand and a man about to be decapitated. Redman also communicated with several Islamophobic groups before the bill was proposed and said in an interview with Spokesman-Review in 2017, “We have freedom of religion here, but they don’t have the right to bring their sharia law overreach on our constitutional laws.”

Several legal experts such as the American Bar Association (ABA) have pointed out that the bills are redundant as foreign laws are already subservient to the US constitution – the supreme law of the land. The ABA in fact published an open letter stating, “The American Bar Association opposes federal or state laws that impose blanket prohibitions on consideration or use by courts or arbitral tribunals of the entire body of law or doctrine of a particular religion.”

The anti-sharia laws are not only redundant but can also negatively impact American Muslims in court. The ‘Legalizing Othering’ report, which explores Islamophobia in the United States, gives the example of a Muslim couple who are married and possess an Islamic marriage contract and seek to divorce. There is usually a clause in the contract of a dowry the wife would receive if she and her husband were to divorce. But in a state that has enacted anti-sharia laws, the judge would not be able to honor the contract because it applies sharia, despite it not contradicting US law. This would infringe on the Muslim woman’s “freedom to contract, free exercise of religion and her right to equal protection”.  

The intent is clear with the American Public Policy Alliance (APPA) – listed as an anti-Muslim hate group by the SPLC – stating they seek “to protect American citizens’ constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic sharia Law.”

Yerushalmi in fact says, “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would have not served its purpose. The purpose was heuristic — to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah’.”

Calling sharia a law or legal code is however inaccurate, as it refers to a set of guiding principles to living a moral life set out in the Quran. Incidentally, this includes requiring Muslims to be law-abiding according to the rules of whichever country they find themselves.

“Every practicing Muslim — whether traditional or conservative or progressive — in some way follows sharia,” said Wajahat Ali, a Virginia-based writer and creative director of Affinis Labs. “There’s no book called sharia. You can’t rent it. It’s subject to human interpretation and is malleable, thus explaining how Muslims have existed for 1,400 years in nearly every society.”

ACT for America

The hysteria around the threat of “sharia law” in America is mostly coordinated by anti-Muslim groups such as the American Freedom Law Center and ACT for America – as well as politicians who spread fear and misunderstanding around sharia.

ACT for America has been labelled a hate group by the Center for American Progress, the Anti-Defamation League and the SPLC. It describes itself as “the NRA of national security” and an organisation dedicated to fighting terrorism, claiming to have over a million members worldwide in over 1000 local chapters.

ACT organizes annual national conferences to which ACT chapter activists, national politicians and ideologues in the ‘counter-jihad’ movement are invited. Last year, they spearheaded a national march against sharia in at least 28 cities across the US.

Brigitte Gabriel (Wikipedia)

Founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel – originally Hanan Qahwaji – a Christian Lebanese immigrant to the US, it has grown exponentially as a grassroots movement. Ironically, her organisation seeks to halt refugees entering the US, especially those from the Middle East through federal, state and local legislation. It has multiple high profile bills pending in the U.S. Congress.

Gabriel wrote that “the Arab Muslim world, because of its religion and culture, is a natural threat to civilized people of the world”, claimed in a New York Times article that “America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America… They have infiltrated us at the CIA, at the FBI, at the Pentagon, at the State Department”, and suggested that any woman wearing a hijab – a headscarf – must be an extremist.

ACT for America’s anti-Muslim agenda spreads beyond anti-sharia laws, lobbying federal, state and local government for measures that portray Muslims as a threat to America. It also targets American Muslim educators, claiming them to be affiliated with terrorist groups and sought to replace textbooks it asserts have bias towards Islam.

One bill ACT for America is lobbying across the country for is Andy’s law, a bill that has passed in states such as Arkansas, North Carolina and Florida.

The law is named for Private First-Class Andy Long who was killed at a Little Rock Army recruiting center by a self-proclaimed terrorist allegedly inspired by Al Qaeda. It allows a civil cause of action against those directly or indirectly involved in a terrorist act.

In essence, victims or families of victims of a terrorist act can sue in a civil court for damages against those who provided material support for the act. So if an imam committed an act of terrorism, the mosque that employed him could potentially be sued.

The model legislation was drafted by the Islamophobic group American Public Policy Alliance (APPA), which also pushes for anti-sharia laws.

ACT for America’s projects can also dangerously overlap with the government such as the Thin Blue Line Project – a website officially intended to assist federal and local law enforcement with finding and targeting radicalized Muslims.

John Guandolo (Southern Povery Law Center)

The brainchild of disgraced former FBI agent and Islamophobic conspiracy theorist John Guandolo, it offers an interactive national map that geolocates Muslim targets. These include Muslim student associations, mosques, organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and even the personal homes of Muslim community leaders.

According to the press release, the website is being used by members of the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Border Patrol.

Guandolo has stated that American Muslims ‘do not have a First Amendment right to do anything’.

Dangerous overlaps

Groups with Islamophobic agendas have gained increasing influence over legislation and government institutions since the 2016 presidential elections. Brigitte Gabriel has met with administration officials at the White House and ACT for America has boasted of having a “direct line” to the Trump administration. As explored further by HOPE not hate researcher Charlie Prentice in Inside America’s Largest Anti-Muslim Organisation, Gabriel has alleged she is close to “65 to 70” members of Congress, that visiting Washington D.C. was like a “family reunion” and that she considers President Trump supportive of her organisation.

Meanwhile, former national security adviser Michael Flynn is an adviser to the ACT board of directors and former CIA director and acting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has addressed and sponsored ACT national conferences in the past as well as having a long history of making Islamophobic statements. In 2013, Pompeo (falsely) accused American Islamic leaders of “silence” in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, saying it made them “potentially complicit” in terrorism.

Donald Trump’s national security adviser – John Bolton – served as chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a New York-based group that described itself as an “international policy council…dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting”.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, told NBC News that Gatestone is “a key part of the whole Islamophobic cottage industry on the internet,” adding that it is “very disturbing” that Mr Bolton is now in such a position of power within the White House. Bolton also has links to the ‘counter-jihad’ movement which includes Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney.

Organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations have attempted to challenge certain bills but overall, there has been little effective resistance.

“A lot has changed in ten years. We’re seeing people – average citizens – organizing against sharia coming to the United States. [ACT for America] knows the bills will not pass easily but they encourage people to keep trying,” says Sisemore.  


While not all supporters of these legislations and projects are Islamophobes, there is a clear well-thought out agenda behind the movement by figures with long histories of Islamophobic views.

The overlap between career Islamophobes and legislators of federal and state laws only heighten the othering of American Muslims. This community already faces increasing levels of hate crimes as anti-Muslim hatred becomes normalized. Researchers of ‘Legalizing Othering’ argue anti-sharia rhetoric is an attempt to spread distortion and demonize Muslims by identifying Islam with violence and repression while arguing the “infiltration of sharia in US courts represents the Islamization of the West”.

Anti-sharia laws have become a popular political tactic. “The push for anti-Sharia legislation by lawmakers in a year prior to midterm and presidential election cycles provides a mechanism to normalize, legalize, and proliferate Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment among the American public,” the report reads.

As Islamophobic sentiment and hatred becomes mainstream around the country, there is a kind of holy war for American hearts and minds between groups determined to reshape the Islamic religion as a radical threat and those trying to protect to right to be Muslim in America. The hateful rhetoric has already indoctrinated some minds with “lone wolves” committing hate crimes against American Muslims in the name of protecting the country. When Jeremy Joseph Christian was convicted in court of killing two men as they shielded a woman from his anti-Muslim abuse, he shouted, “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!”

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi famously said Islamophobia has “passed the dinner table test” and become widely socially acceptable in Great Britain.

But in the US, it has moved beyond an acceptable dinner conversation and become enshrined in both the administration’s mind and into the laws of the United States of America. History has repeatedly shown what occurs if it is left unchecked.


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