Last night, the J-school hosted a panel organized by the British literary journal Granta, whose latest issue is 9/11-themed, on the rise of Islamophobia. The audience was full of Journalism students tweeting about the panel. The speakers on the panel included star Columbia sociology professor (and former president of Students for a Democratic Society) Todd Gitlin, lawyer/journalist Alia Malek, and law professor/poet Lawrence Joseph. Peter Sterne reports from Bwog’s J-school bureau.

An example of improving US-Islam relations.

We all know Islamophobia exists, but where does it come from, and how can it be stopped? That was the question discussed at last night’s panel on Islamophobia. There was disagreement on whether the American government or American people were more Islamophobic, but the panelists pretty much agreed that Islamophobia was a result of xenophobia, not anything relating to the religion of Islam itself. It was an enjoyable panel, even if none of the panelists’ arguments were especially compelling.

Alia, a lawyer who once worked for the Justice Department, seemed to have the clearest idea of how American Islamophobia grew from individual hate crimes against people who seemed Arab or Muslim (though the first hate crime victim was actually a Sikh) into institutionalized discrimination when the government began treating Muslims differently as part of the War on Terror. “Different legal processes and types of incarceration for Arabs and Muslims,” she said, “send a signal to society that [Muslims] are ‘sub-American.’” Incidentally, Alia just wrote a book (which Bwog was convinced enough to purchase after the discussion) about the experiences of Muslim and Arab-Americans after 9/11.

Todd seemed less concerned about government-sponsored Islamophobia. He even praised Bush’s statement immediately after 9/11 that “Islam is a religion of peace” as “profound,” before Alia explained that Bush’s speech was the result of “a lot of people behind the scenes” (like her) who suggested he didn’t say anything inflammatory. Todd’s concern was that ordinary Americans were becoming Islamophobic. He mentioned that the United States had treated “enemy” Americans harshly before—banning the teaching of German during WWI and interning Japanese-Americans during WWII—and also tried to make a distinction between these government policies and the grassroots anti-Islamic movement in the U.S. Alia wasn’t convinced, and neither were we. The same thing being said about Muslims now was said about Italians and Irish at the turn of the 20th century.

But according to Alia, Arabs started to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers around the same time as many European immigrants. Most people don’t realize this, she said, because Arab-Americans have been almost “erased from history” and were not considered “white” (and therefore American) when they first immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. At the time, one group of Syrians argued they should be considered white because Jesus was from their country, and obviously he was a white American! The audience laughed at the joke, but quickly sobered up when the panelists mentioned that the modern movement to forbid Shari’a law, like the anti-immigration and anti-gay movements, was a similar attempt to limit who can be considered an American.

Halfway through the panel, Granta editor John Freeman encouraged Lawrence, a law professor and poet who neatly fit the “grizzled artist” stereotype, to read one of his poems, but was reluctant to pronouce its title. Lawrence left the stage to find a copy of the poem and performed a reading of ”Sand Nigger”,” a piece inspired by his experiences as a Lebanese-American, to great applause. John reminded the audience that Lawrence’s latest poem appears in the most recent issue of Granta (which Bwog also dutifully purchased).

Kiss via Jafria News