On November 30, we published a short letter in The Daily Tar Heel calling on administrators to take concrete steps to combat Islamophobia. Since public discussions of structural and institutional racism quieted during winter break, we share this longer statement to contribute to renewed efforts to combat racism at UNC.
We want to specifically highlight the entanglement of Islamophobia with histories of anti-Black racism in the United States. Although Islamophobia involves denigration of a religion, we bear witness to the racial aspects of Islamophobic discourse. This racism is reflected in the fact that hate crimes, hate speech, and state profiling and surveillance practices have unequally impacted communities of color, regardless of whether individual victims identify as Muslims. Although it is possible to explore the legacies of slavery, anti-Black racism, Orientalist stereotypes against Muslims, and United States imperialism in South and West Asia as independent historical phenomena, we argue that they have been intertwined in significant ways since the 1960s as the surveillance of American Muslims became a justification for the expansion of military and police violence.
Following the November 13 mass murders in Paris, the UNC Department of Public Safety sent an Alert Carolina message proclaiming, “the University wants to underscore the need for increased vigilance” and encouraging the campus community to “always… operate with a heightened awareness of personal safety and report any unusual activity.” Although interpersonal violence is a real concern following recent campus shootings, security alerts failed to name South Asian American, Arab American, and visibly Muslim students including African Americans as particularly vulnerable to such violence after the Paris murders. Instead, by highlighting a generic threat of terrorism, security alerts affirm the persistent racial profiling to which our communities have been subjected since the 9/11 attacks. Our conversations with students from these communities reflect a commonplace sense of exhaustion over the suspicion and social pressure to publicly perform rejections of extremism. Such feelings have intensified with recent local events — the Chapel Hill shootings in February; the attacks on the course Literature of 9/11 in August; and legislative actions to bar Syrian refugees.
There is a direct link between post-9/11 forms of racial suspicion and the longstanding forms of surveillance and profiling that African Americans have experienced at the hands of the police and federal law enforcement agencies. In the 1970s, Congress had placed limits on racially targeted FBI surveillance programs of the civil rights era, including COINTELPRO and its precursor, RACON (a program that focused on black Muslims).
After 9/11, the PATRIOT Act was rushed through the legislative process and we have since witnessed a rapid expansion and militarization of the domestic security state. For example, the NYPD spied on Muslim communities within a 100 mile radius of New York for almost ten years after 9/11. The NYPD acted far outside its jurisdiction by extending into neighboring states, functioning more like a federal agency than a city-wide police department. They used tactics like deploying informants and mapping entire neighborhoods to target 28 “ancestries of interest,” including “American Black Muslims.” Islamophobic security policies have also intensified anti-Black state violence. The post-9/11 creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its hefty budget has beefed up U.S. border patrol and funded the riot gear and assault weapons that ordinary local police departments now possess.
Following the disastrous Iraq War, surplus military equipment was returned to domestic police departments, including firearms used by the Durham PD and military vehicles used by departments across the Triangle. The consequences of the national military transfer program have included the increased use of deadly force in police-civilian encounters and the use of military tactics to suppress public protest. These trends have unequally impacted black and other minority communities, intimately linking anti-blackness and Islamophobia in ways we must understand to effectively challenge both.
Despite widespread criticism of the recent wars and policies expanding police powers among both major political parties, politicians continue to use Islamophobic rhetoric for political gain. After the Paris attacks, Governor Pat McCrory and members of the state legislature quickly passed opportunistic legislation discriminating against refugees from Syria and 33 additional countries.
Ten months earlier, McCrory had offered public condolences to the families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, three students who were murdered at their apartment complex in Chapel Hill. The Department of Justice launched a federal hate crimes investigation into the murders. Barakat, a Syrian American dental student at UNC, had been widely praised for his charity work for Syrian refugees- -a population that will now likely be denied resettlement opportunities locally.
Given the entanglement of Islamophobia with broader currents of racism and state violence, it is necessary for UNC administrators to facilitate a change in the campus environment. Administrators should publicly contest Islamophobic speech on campus and directed at the institution by outside groups. They should explore developing additional resources to serve Muslim, South Asian, Arab American, and black students and their organizations, especially during moments of international crisis that further entrench Islamophobia; expand service opportunities to extend the benefits of research to minority communities locally; study the specific challenges faced by graduate students of color, especially those researching issues of Islamophobia, anti-blackness and other forms of structural racism; and conduct a review of university connections to security and defense agencies that intensify racial profiling and police militarization. The university should cancel and prohibit contracts that contribute to illegal activities of state and federal security agencies such as the NSA’s domestic spying operations and the CIA’s assassination programs. Finally, the university should make strong commitments to establishing new curricular and hiring commitments in the neglected fields of Asian American and Arab American Studies and should defend and expand related programs such as Latina/o Studies, American Indian Studies, and African, African American, and Diaspora Studies.
Students and faculty must also do the difficult work of studying, debating, and challenging the complex political, social, and economic bases of racism on campus and beyond.