Current Affairs, Islamophobia

Islamophobes are kept Islamophobic by their safe spaces

Muslim ‘no-go zones’ came up as a topic of conversation in my recent lecture to the Good Shepherd Episcopalian community in Kingwood, Texas, not far from Rice University, where I teach a course called ‘Muslims in American Society’. Early in my talk, an older white Christian man interrupted me. He claimed that “no-go zones,” or parts of a city where only Muslims can enter, are prevalent across the United States, and that these kinds of communities seek to install a harsh form of Sharia.

I asked the man where he heard about these zones, to which he responded: “the news.” Many of the 100 or so audience members chuckled. After all, ‘fake news’ is on the rise. I proceeded to ask the man, “Have you ever visited a mosque?” He hadn’t. Unfortunately, he didn’t appear to be very enthusiastic with the idea of ever visiting one.

There is a correlation between Islamophobic sentiment and a lack of exposure to Muslims. In 2015, HuffPost/YouGov conducted a poll to gauge Americans’ views of Muslims. The poll found that 55% of Americans had either a somewhat, or very, unfavorable view of Islam. Few seemed to base these judgments on relationships with Muslims, as only one in 10 respondents said they had been to a mosque. What explains these bleak numbers?

Safe space

Safe space is a term that is increasingly popping up in public discourse. Advocates for Youth, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, defines safe space as “a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unchallenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability.” On university campuses across the country, safe space is viewed as an area—whether real or imagined—where marginalized or underrepresented people can live without discrimination or fear. I hear this term pop-up frequently at my own campus.

Islamophobes, or people who denigrate Muslims and treat Islam as a monolithic entity hell-bent on destroying “Western civilization,” live in their own counterproductive safe spaces.

On the other hand, among so-called “cultural libertarians” and their sympathizers, a safe space is a destructive product of the “regressive left,” whereby young people can live in their own little bubbles, free from any ideas that differ from their progressive narratives. Urban Dictionary, an online dictionary of slang words and phrases, mockingly states that safe spaces allow young people “to recover from the trauma; free from any lasting damage resulting from exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”

Milo Yiannopoulos, a cultural libertarian and former editor of Breitbart News, once said that any student who needs a safe space should be expelled from their university. The opposition argues that safe spaces prevent people from interacting with their peers and that these spaces restrict freedom of expression, tolerance, and responsible citizenship.

Yet Islamophobes, or people who denigrate Muslims and treat Islam as a monolithic entity hell-bent on destroying “Western civilization,” live in their own counterproductive safe spaces. My own observations reveal that Islamophobes hide behind computer screens and refuse to enter real doors, like the man who confronted me during my talk in Kingwood. Hiding in isolation allows Islamophobes to free themselves from exposure to views that they disagree with, such as Islam being a religion of peace, or the Quran being a book that emphasizes mercy and justice.

The development of these safe spaces means Islamophobes can’t tolerate ideas that may be uncomfortable for them to digest. The rise of safe spaces for Islamophobia means these individuals can avoid unwanted exposure to knowledge or traditions outside of their own. They live in fear. They fear being marginalized, and then subsequently retreat into isolation. They opt for seclusion rather than engagement. That is not good for individuals or communities.

Safe spaces for Islamophobia are a lousy alternative to dialogue and civic engagement.

Social media appears to be a virtual safe space in which people can share anti-Muslim and anti-Islam content. The use of virtual safe spaces means that Islamophobes can count on supportive conversational partners who empathize with their views. Through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Islamophobes often reproduce stereotypes of Islam and exacerbate hatred of Muslims without the threat of either judgment or censure, although sometimes their accounts are frozen because of their posts.

I have always wondered if Islamophobes like Robert Spencer, who the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group leader, have ever stepped foot into a mosque or carried out actual field research in the Muslim communities they bash on a regular basis. Spencer operates in his own comfortable safe space, behind his computer screens and cameras. Islamophobes like him, who remain in their safe spaces, do not constructively engage with Islam through reasoned argument with Muslims or their allies. Instead, they view Islam through the prism of the media, which often depicts Islam in a violent and oppressive light. With all that said, it falls upon people of conscience to bring Islamophobes out of their safe spaces. Safe spaces only make Islamophobes more fragile.

In doing so, American society at large becomes more fragile. Safe spaces for Islamophobia are a lousy alternative to dialogue and civic engagement. I am confident that Islamophobes can learn to respect Muslims while maintaining their criticism of Islam, but the only way to achieve this feat is to convince Islamophobes to leave their safe spaces. Living in an echo chamber will only lead to more polarization, and that is certainly detrimental to the well-being of the US. Whether used by an Islamophobe or a college student, safe spaces are more harmful than beneficial. We must encourage constructive intellectual engagement. We must not stifle it or avoid it altogether.


This article by Craig Considine was originally posted here, over at The Islamic Monthly.

Craig Considine is a Catholic American of Irish and Italian descent. His forthcoming book, Islam, Race and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora (Routledge, July 2017), explores the language of “us” and “them” and how binaries continue to inform the political and social narratives around Irish, American, and Pakistani citizenship. Another of Craig's books – Muslims in America: Examining the Facts (ABC-CLIO; summer 2018) - tackles Islamophobia by dispelling myths about Islam and Muslims in the US. Craig currently serves as a faculty member of the Department of Sociology at Rice University in Houston. He holds a PhD from Trinity College Dublin, an MSc from the University of London, and a BA from American University in Washington, DC. He is a native of Needham, Massachusetts.

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  3. This is an excellent article and I can vouch for the concept of Islamophobic safe spaces, because that’s the world I inhabited for several years. I would spend much of each day on Facebook trading hate and hateful memes with other haters. I would attend anti-Islam protests. Eventually I grew sick of the ever increasing spiral of hatred and soon converted to Ahmadi Islam. Hate is addictive, and even more so when you have your own private cheerleaders/fellow Islamophobes reinforcing your attitude. These Islamophobes even cut themselves off from the mainstream news media, relying on a few biased and bigoted fake news outlets that share their views. They pore over Islamophobic websites full of cherry picked partial quotes from the Quran to justify their hate. Then they make signs with these quotes emblazoned on them. They go out and wave their hateful signs and shout hate against Muslims, then they can’t believe that passersby would have the audacity to curse them and call them racists – that’s how out of touch with reality they are.

    One important facet of “safe spaces” not mentioned here is the increased danger of crossing the line between online hate and in-person hate. Islamophobes insulated by their safe spaces become so caught up in the notion that their beliefs are the only correct ones and that they have the “patriotic duty” to spew hatred, that they lose sight of that line. Then they feel entitled to commit in person hate crimes against Muslims, in fact they view themselves as heroes for these actions. More disturbing is the fact that they fantasize endlessly about guns, forming street militias, and murdering Muslims. These ones call themselves “III%ers” and post pictures of their gun collections, guns they fantasize about, and scantily clad women carrying guns. It’s only a matter of time before one or more of these lunatics carries out another terrorist attack against Muslims. Recently in Quebec, Canada, one of these Islamophobes shot and killed 6 men who were praying in a mosque.

    One of my Islamophobic former protest friends encountered me by chance in a public washroom recently, and in front of others, called me a terrorist and commanded me to get down on my knees right there and ask Christ’s forgiveness. I hadn’t seen or spoken with her for months, and had done nothing to provoke her attack. I tried to explain that I had joined a peaceful Muslim sect but she cut me off with “I know everything there is to know about Islam, I don’t need to hear your lies!” She knows everything she needs to know… from her fellow Islamophobes and their biased media outlets and blogs. All of them share the same attitude: “I know all there is to know (from fellow haters, hate news, hate memes, and hate websites), so don’t even TRY to tell me anything different!!”

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