10 Lessons Learned From 10 Years of RTF Grantmaking

Lesson 5: Islamophobia is an Intersectional Phenomenon, and We Must Tackle It with Our Partners Across All Racial Justice Movements

Lesson 5: Islamophobia is an Intersectional Phenomenon, and We Must Tackle It with Our Partners Across All Racial Justice Movements - Proteus Fund

Although the term Islamophobia* has crept into the vernacular post-9/11, the roots of the concept are tied to historical forms of oppression and racism, including anti-Black racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and homophobia. As the first and only national donor collaborative dedicated to serving Black/African, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (BAMEMSA) communities in the U.S., the RISE Together Fund (RTF) has learned and shared some critical lessons about the history and depth of Islamophobia since our founding in 2008. Read on to explore some of our lessons learned:

What Islamophobia Is:

  • Islamophobia is both structural and societal.

Over the years, Islamophobia has manifested in both structural (involving the state, systemic, political) and societal elements. Structural Islamophobia includes policies and efforts such as the War on Terror; the continued use of Guantánamo Bay to house Muslim prisoners, some of whom have never been charged with a crime; and the now-dismantled NSEERS program. Societal Islamophobia includes negative or overly simplistic references to Islam, Muslims, Arabs, and others, in the media and in popular culture. RTF grantee the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and partner organization Bridge Initiative found that Islamophobia increased between 2018 and 2019; this is unsurprising given the intersection of Islamophobic policy and rhetoric.

  • Islamophobia is linked to racism and gendered oppression.

Islamophobia in its current form continues to intersect with race and gender. At least 25-30 percent of American Muslims identify as Black or African, and Black Muslims face not only intra-community racism from fellow Muslims, but are also disproportionately affected by police violence and surveillance models like countering violent extremism (CVE); consider, for example, that two out of three of the Department of Homeland Security’s CVE “pilot city” programs targeted the Somali American community (in Boston and Minneapolis, respectively). Muslims writ large are surveilled by police, and Arab Americans (regardless of faith) are often singled out for their political views or language. Muslim women of all races are continually targeted, particularly those who display visible markers of the faith such as hijab. As a result of both Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, Black Muslim women face higher rates of attack.  

  • Islamophobia is well-funded.

A recent report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demonstrates that Islamophobic actors, as well as philanthropic entities, funneled $1.5 billion into the so-called Islamophobia industry just between 2014 and 2016. Contrast this with the RTF’s average grant size of $30,000-$70,000. Islamophobic actors are also appointed to high-ranking cabinet positions and provide training for law enforcement

What Islamophobia Isn’t:

  • Islamophobia isn’t a post-9/11 phenomenon.

While policies such as the Muslim ban necessarily grab headlines, it is important to remember that the oppression of Muslim and BAMEMSA communities more broadly started neither with the ban nor after 9/11. “Beyond the Ban,” a recent event featuring RTF grantees ISPU, Justice for Muslims Collective (JMC), and MuslimARC, and others, explored how the groundwork for the Muslim ban was laid through centuries of oppressing communities of color, starting in the U.S. with enslaved Black Africans, many of whom were Muslim and who were forced to convert or hide their religious identities. Continuing the legacy of Black oppression, U.S. government programs like COINTELPRO have influenced modern-day surveillance programs targeting Muslims such as CVE.

  • Islamophobia isn’t limited to Muslims.

The first hate crime victim after 9/11 was a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodi, whose murderer mistook him for a Muslim. Sikh men, who traditionally wear a turban, non-Muslim Arabs, and other people perceived to be Muslim are frequently victims of Islamophobic rhetoric and attacks. This is why RTF intentionally funds Black/African, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities because we recognize that a spectrum of communities are affected by Islamophobia. 

  • Islamophobia isn’t only perpetuated by right-wing actors.

As Namira Islam, Community Engagement Director of Community Engagement for RTF grantee organization the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) explains, liberal or progressive actors can knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate Islamophobic tropes. This includes, in some cases, progressives’ embrace of anti-Muslim actors under the guise of feminism. 


*A definition from Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (via Justice for Muslims Collective’s website): “Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.”

Check out more resources on Islamophobia from our grantees below:

MuslimARC’s website

MuslimARC address intracommunity racism and racism/Islamophobia targeting Muslims and Muslims of color

ISPU’s Islamophobia resources

Resources include community briefs and reports central to understanding Islamophobia and its impacts

The Action Center on Race and the Economy's (ACRE) United States of Islamophobia project

Learn more about how corporations are contributing to the spread of Islamophobia

Justice for Muslims Collective's Partnership to End Gendered Islamophobia Community Report

Learn from individuals across the nation about the impacts of the War on Terror with a gendered lens in the wake of 9/11

Learn more about the RISE Together Fund