Whether you are managing a team in your company, a committee in a non-profit organization, a classroom, or an online space, we have all heard about how important it is to have safe spaces. There is, however, a common misconception that spaces are safe, just because we say that they are. While it is crucial that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in any given space are announced, it is not enough to state the safety of a space alone to warrant it as such.

Safe spaces are, in fact, carefully and ruthlessly curated.

It might surprise some folks to hear this but I learned this fairly recently from a community member in a space I had built as part of an interfaith circle I co-facilitate. I think it is important for us to mark these turning points because too much of community organizing rhetoric is immersed in people just “needing to know” rather than reflecting the actual (often challenging) process of learning as we go.

At the beginning of the event, I proclaimed that this was a safe space for everyone to feel free to share their experiences, speak their minds, and be vulnerable – and I meant that. What I naively hadn’t taken into consideration was the other people in the space (it was a public event) and that they might not share my acceptance of others or the parameters of what I feel constitutes safety.

In fact, the community member who pointed this out to me made it very clear that her non-binary child would be unlikely to feel safe in a space dominated by members of conservative and orthodox religious communities who were fairly likely to shun them or worse. And she was right. Her kid would not have been safe there, because as soon as she said that, I looked around the room and I did note people who I remembered to be openly discriminatory and hateful towards such folks.

I was in a compassion bubble.

And it was, mercifully, popped. I suspect it has something to do with me never really having good boundaries as a kid and a tendency I have had my whole life to project myself and my worldview onto people around me. I thought I had gotten better at dealing with that but I was wrong.

Since that time, I have paid more attention to spaces I know are also considered “safe” and have taken note of how such a label came to be placed there. Several feminist groups on Facebook, in particular, have a long list of rules to follow and hurtful terms that are prohibited – and every new member of the group is supposed to read through this pinned post and then comment on it as acknowledgment of their having read and understood its terms. It is a social contract that is put front and center. When respected, the rules allow for authentic and vulnerable interactions to take place in a way that might otherwise be challenging or impossible.

It made me realize that not only was I assuming that everyone is as willing to accept other ways of being in the world as I do,  but I also had no safety plan in the event that something went wrong.

A safety plan is essentially a series of actions based on hazardous “what ifs” in any given scenario. This, of course, is based on what we deem to be unacceptable words or behaviours in a space, whether that be in person or online. And ultimately, the plan is in place in order to prescribe our reactions and, I would think, in order to overcome any fear paralysis or inability to act in the event that something very disturbing occurs.

I remember at the first Black Lives Matter – Edmonton town hall meeting, a young Black woman was voicing her opinion about the topic at hand and an old white man from the back of the room started yelling in a degrading manner that she ought to raise her voice and speak up when she’s talking to us. Everyone froze. You could feel how uncomfortable the room was. And without skipping a beat or a moment’s hesitation, one of the co-founders of what would become Black Women United YEG stood up and told that man to keep quiet or get out. She interrupted his very abusive tone and manner with such a fierceness, my mouth literally hung open. She then called out the folks who began apologizing for him, even as he showed zero remorse.

She knew what to do when the contract of the room was violated.

Why?

She had seen it countless times before. She could guess where this might be going and she knew that if she didn’t interrupt it, it might escalate. She knew that the first trespass is a violation of the sacred safety of a space. And she had zero tolerance for that.

I was in awe because I had grown up in a state of bewilderment that had gotten me into some pretty scary scenarios. I, like many others, had been socialized to diminish my intuitive voice, to ignore blatant red flags, and other such concerning self-permeability in the name of not making things awkward. The result was consent and boundary violations to my personhood, again and again. And I was never taught why this was happening or how to defend myself against it. I was confused and let down every time it happened.

Later, I was fortunate enough to take violence de-escalation training with the same amazing woman and one exercise in particular jumped out at me as memorable for the same reasons. We were instructed to put our hand on the leg of the person next to us and they were supposed to tell us to take it off in an assertive and vocal tone. As we went around the circle, all of us were laughing awkwardly and weren’t exactly as assertive as we should have been.

It was our social conditioning showing – the kind of conditioning that doesn’t keep people safe.

Rather than just doing the exercise as we were taught that it can be effective in stopping unwanted behaviour, we shrugged things off, unable to assert autonomy over our own bodies. That is, until it came to her turn. I put my hand on her knee and, again, without skipping a beat, she put the fear of God in me, growling for me to take my damn hand off her knee.

I wanted to applaud. I was in awe again.

But honestly, it just made me realize how let down we all are by what we have been taught and what has been deemed more important for the public school curriculum or for our households. Why isn’t it mandatory to teach folks about behavioural patterns of narcissistic predators and how they groom vulnerable people? Why aren’t we taught the typical behaviours of people with implicit bias or who are overtly racist? Why isn’t economic or labour exploitation taught in school so we can recognize it when it happens? Why aren’t we taught that our safety and that of our children and our colleagues and our community members is more important than anything else? More important than the customer always being right or the benefit of the doubt being awarded to one who just rubs us the wrong way. More important than the reputation of an organization in the event that it needs to cancel a meeting to keep its personnel safe. More important than the feelings of a sorry abuser whose behaviour never changes.

Why have we been taught to put our safety last? Everything comes before it: money, love, the feelings of the ones who harm us – even if they lack basic human empathy.

The answer to these questions is simple: systems that exploit are designed to be exploitative and they are upheld by those who benefit from them.

I have noticed, since drawing up rules and safety plans for the business I run and the committees I chair, that people tend to breathe a sigh of collective relief when the plans are brought out. They know how important these things are preemptively.

And the ones who huff and puff about them? I have my eye on you.

Next time, we will discuss practical steps to creating social safety plans, particularly in community organizing settings.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

This talk was given by Nakita Valerio at the University of Alberta for a panel discussion on Islamophobia: Intersections & Cross Currents in honour of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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Peace be upon all of you

First of all, a huge thank you to Professor Janice Williamson for making the time and necessary efforts to create space for this kind of dialogue here at the University. I am honoured to speak among so many talented colleagues and recognize that there are many brilliant thinkers who could be up here instead of myself, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Islamophobia and its intersections based on my community work and personal experiences.

We have to be brief so I want only to touch on a few points about Islamophobia as it relates to feminism. Before I do that though, since we primarily have well-intentioned allies in the room and since the theme for today is the intersectionality of Islamophobia, I need scarcely point out that literally anyone on earth can be a Muslim – regardless of gender, orientation, origin, race, ability, economic status or any other social variable. Islamophobia is therefore related to and can permeate all other forms of discrimination. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim that didn’t have some kind of compounded discrimination by virtue of their intersectionality. Even a rich, white, heterosexual cis-male convert to Islam, experiences marginality from the greater non-Muslim global community due to Islamophobia, and also endures the hardship of being a largely ignored or even resented minority within a minority of the Muslim community, not to mention being highly socially isolated. While the discrimination he faces is (undeniably) significantly different than, say a veiled indigenous female convert to Islam or African, African-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean Muslims, it still holds that intersectionality and Islamophobia have to be understood as always going hand-in-hand. And that these will take different forms for different people.

We have to remember that human beings are complex and particular in their social groupings, and that they must not be rigidly compartmentalized according to one discriminatory signifier over another, nor does one necessarily have primacy over the other (particularly visible ones). We know that both oppression and privilege compound through race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability and economy, and that if people are to be understood in their entirety, we have to actually take the time to know them. There is too much shoot-from-the-hip activism these days based on a rigid understanding of an oppressed/privileged dichotomy and, the disturbing part to me, is that even with the best of intentions, people are regularly  being dehumanized in the process.  So some subtlety and patience is in order when dealing with these delicate intersections.

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So that’s the first thing to note. The second thing, following from this, is that Islamophobia is therefore a feminist issue. What do I mean by this?

At the superficial level, Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobic words, actions and rhetoric. Part of the reason for this can be our visibility and this is, in large part, due to the veil if it is worn. Veiled Muslim women are verbally and physically harassed and assaulted with increasing regularity and are also the targets of racial hatred, and I want to stress, regardless of their ethnicity. Even for “white” converts, the veil acts as a second skin which automatically signifies “colour” to prejudiced people uninterested in the nuances of what constitutes complex Muslim identities. And this is important to note this because within the Muslim discourse and within groups speaking about racial justice there is a tendency to dismiss the racialization that the veil automatically entails, whatever intra-community privilege we hold.

But Muslim women are not only disproportionately targeted by Islamophobia because they might veil. No, non-veiled Muslim women are also the excessive subject of xenophobic words, actions and rhetoric for a much deeper reason.

The Muslim woman represents the vehicle by which the people who hate us, call for the eradication of Islam. The Muslim woman who is pious and stubborn in her piety is declared subconsciously oppressed regardless of how loud she declares her piety to be her choice. The Muslim woman is seen as indoctrinated in Islam, a barbaric way of life that exists only to exact patriarchy in its highest form.

Muslim women, who practice the Deen, are regularly accused by those outside of Islam, of being in need of liberation not recognizing that we view Islam as our liberator. That the antidote to patriarchy for us, is a deeper understanding of Islamic philosophy and law, and not anything less than that. In fact, these accusations are not even limited to non-Muslims. There are countless “scholars” within the Muslim purview who reiterate these bunk theories that the more a woman practices Islam, the less liberated she is.

At this very university, I met with a prominent scholar of Islamic law and was shocked when he stated to other unveiled women in the room that I might be oppressed or duped because I choose to cover my hair for the sake of God, or I say Insha Allah, or I unapologetically leave the room to pray on time. And this stuff was said right in front of me, as though I was not even in the room. Muslims can be as colonized by Islamophobia as anyone and we have to view that, at least in part, as the trace of a colonial project that has spanned centuries.

The declared solution to the issue of Islam for both Islamophobic non-Muslims and Muslims with internalized hatred of Islam is to either eliminate it from the face of the earth or to temper it and secularize it so it is palatable enough to so-called Western sensibilities, as though Islam does not and cannot have similar desires, goals and expressions as other cultural systems around the world, particularly in Western Europe and North America where we have a rich shared history.

If a pious Muslim woman seeks to resist through submission, her intelligence is insulted and her agency is called into question. Islamophobia, in this sense, is merely one strong arm of patriarchy (even its synonym) crushing the right of a woman to choose how she lives her life. And going forward, that needs to change.

Thank you.


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Intersectionality is a critical concept that has grown out of individuals’ lived experiences of how complex privilege and discrimination can be and how different strains of discrimination and oppression interact and compound each other. Intersectionality is often cited as a necessary tool to combat racism (overt and implicit) in feminism, or transphobia/exclusion in LGBTQ activism, for example. But it is not just about improving and bringing justice (or ideological purity) within activist and progressive circles, it’s more importantly about gaining a clearer understanding of how power operates in real life – which is at the intersections of misogyny, white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism etc –  in order to more effectively dismantle oppression and inequality. No person’s identity is just their gender, or just their race – so it makes sense that social activism cannot be so single-minded either.

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Black Muslim women in North America and Europe provide an example of how intersected, plural identities are impacted by intersected, compounded discrimination. Black Muslim women report experiencing anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and misogyny both in society at large and within their own communities, whether Black or Muslim. Although one third of American Muslims are Black, anti-Black racism and erasure of Black Muslims exists within Muslim communities. Similarly, Islamophobia and failure to recognize Islam as a presence in African American history, culture, and communities occurs among Black folks.

Within White and mainstream discourse about Islam and Muslims in the West (including progressive conversations), Muslims are often imagined mainly as Middle Eastern, and often as relatively recent immigrants – not as African American, or as African or Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Mainstream discourse on Black issues and anti-racism similarly gets grouped under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter or anti-racism. This isn’t to criticize activism which focuses on Islamophobia or on racism so much as it is to point out that Black Muslims make up a large population who are simultaneously affected by both anti-Black and Islamophobic violence and discrimination. It makes sense to look at how the two forces interact and how resistance to one can and should be united with resistance to the other. It is in fact, a powerful opportunity for unity against multiple oppressions.

Misogynoir is the term coined by Moya Bailey to describe the specific strain of racist-sexism/sexist-racism experienced by Black women as the result of various racist constructions of Black womanhood, such as hypersexualization, exoticism, and the “Angry Black Woman” trope. It is also no surprise that misogyny and Islamophobia have a complex relationship. Spontaneous Islamophobic attacks in the West frequently seem to victimize hijabi women, probably because of their visibility as Muslims. Sikh men have been victim to similar attacks by Islamophobes who equate “bearded man with turban” with “Muslim.” Muslim women who veil are thus vulnerable as women and as Muslims, and the two vulnerabilities are brought together by their outward expression of these joined identities with the hijab. While Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic harassment, of course, they are also the subject of liberal-Islamophobic trolling about how Muslims treat “their women”…. No wonder Muslim women are growing as voices against both Islamophobia and patriarchy!


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Liz Hill came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Liz received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Liz works at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

While the problem of Islamophobia might seem like a relatively recent media buzzword, it actually describes a phenomenon that goes back to the beginning of revelation and one that has been dealt with by each of Allah’s prophets in different ways from Adam (a.s.) to Muhammad (saw). In times of increasing insecurity about our positions as Muslims in the West and the world at large, as well as increasing instances of divisive political rhetoric and verbal and physical assault against Muslims, members of our Ummah are uncertain about the most appropriate course of action when dealing with discrimination. Many feel angry, fearful or helpless. What better example do we have for dealing with these difficulties than the last messenger of Allah himself, Muhammad (saw), and the one who endured the worst abuses hurled at himself, at Islam and at Muslims in the history of our Deen?

Firstly, Muhammad (saw) was commanded personally and along with all other Muslims, to be patient with the abusers and forgive them. Allah tells us, “You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah – indeed that is of the matters [worthy] of determination.” (Qur’an 3:186) Further, among many other instances, Allah adds, “And do not obey the disbelievers and the hypocrites; and disregard their hurt and put your trust in Allah; and sufficient is Allah as a Disposer of Affairs.” (33:48)

Further, by being exemplary practitioners of the Deen and refusing to respond to provocations in a manner that is ignorant, we are also embodying the methods of the Prophet (saw) in enduring and rising above abuse. He sought refuge in Allah as he was commanded to and, in doing so, gained the respect of his perpetrators, caring for them even in the face of their abuse. One excellent example of this as recorded in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim recounts an incident that occurred when the Prophet (saw) travelled to a neighbouring town of Taif. Contained within is a beautiful supplication that creates peace in the heart when recited in emulation of him.

In Taif, the elders of the town planned an organized campaign to ridicule the Prophet (saw). To escalate their disapproval of the Prophet and prevent him from preaching Islam, they set a group of children and vagabonds behind him who then pestered and threw stones at him. Tired, forsaken and wounded, he sought refuge in a nearby garden which belonged to Atabah and Shaibah, two wealthy chiefs of the Quraish. They were both there when Prophet Muhammad entered and sat under a distant tree. The Prophet raised his face towards heaven and prayed:

“O Almighty! I raise unto you my complaint for my weakness, my helplessness, and for the ridicule to which I have been subjected. O Merciful! You are the Master of all oppressed people, You are my God! So to whom would You consign me? To the strangers who would ill-treat me, or to the enemies who have an upper hand over me? If whatever has befallen me is not because of Your wrath, then I fear not. No doubt, the field of Your security and care is wide enough for me. I seek refuge in Your light which illuminates darkness and straightens the affairs of this world and hereafter, that Your displeasure and wrath may not descend upon me. For the sake of Your pleasure, I remain pleased and resigned to my fate. No change in this world occurs without Your Will.”

Atabah and Shaibah were watching. They sent for their servant named Adaas and gave him a plate full of grapes. “Take this to that man under the tree,” they ordered, which he did. As the Prophet (saw) picked the grapes he said: “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate”. Adaas had never heard this before and was impressed by it, because the Prophet was invoking mercy and compassion of Almighty in spite of all his hardship.

“Who are you?” Adaas asked. Muhammad replied, “I am the Prophet of God. Where do you come from?” The servant said: “I am Adaas, a Christian. I come from Nainava.”

“Nainava? You come from a place where my brother Yunus bin Mati (Jonah son of Mati) lived,” the Prophet said. Adaas was surprised to hear the name. “What do you know of Yunus? Here no one seems to know him. Even in Nainava there were hardly ten people who knew his father’s name.” The Prophet said: “Yes, I know him because just like me, he was a Prophet of Almighty God.” Adaas fell on his knees before the Prophet, kissed his hand and embraced him.

It is further reported that after the Prophet took refuge from the stone throwing mob, Angel Jibreel came to the Prophet and asked him if he so wished Jibreel would give the command to bury the city between two mountains. Although the Prophet had suffered a great deal at the hands of these people, he replied that he did not wish destruction for the people of Taif because maybe their offspring would proclaim the religion of truth. Even in his moment of earthly suffering, he still maintained righteous behaviour and compassion – an example we can all benefit from witnessing through our learning.

This article was originally written for Islam 101, a monthly publication in Edmonton, Alberta.

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

We are living in a time of great unrest. While there are many causes worthy of our attention, today I need to talk to you about something very important: Islamophobia.

You might think this subject does not have much to do with you other than outraging you every time you hear about xenophobes spinning gravel at me with their pick-up truck wheels or some intolerant old man at the mall telling me to go back where I came from. You might think that your outrage is enough.

It is critical to realize that Islamophobia is not just about hijabi women being called out in the street or even violently attacked. It is not just about people calling us sand n*ggers. It is not just about the implicit bias we are up against daily, every time we apply for schools, for jobs, for positions we are overqualified for and rejected from because we are named after our beloved Prophets (peace be upon them) or their companions. Islamophobia is also about mass Muslim death going unnoticed and uncared for. About unspoken genocides, about massacres of Muslim children, about destroying our right to self-determination and life, about artificial famines that starve our people, about 1.2 million Iraqis dead without an apology, without the world batting an eyelash never mind shedding a tear.

In The Other America, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

Islamophobia might not be the “new” racism to some but it follows a similar distorted logic. It is not only about the micro and macroaggressions Muslims face daily. It is about the end logic of what those aggressions mean– that the people who hate us ultimately believe we do not deserve to exist. That we are collateral damage on their way to homogenizing the world as they see fit. Can you imagine this being your daily reality? That someone hates you enough to think you don’t deserve another breath of air on this earth?

I, for one, try not to live in fear, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss what I know to be truer than most: Islamophobia exists in its most subtle and most violent forms. It is pervasive and it is far more common than people realize (or want to realize). Dear ally, step one is to recognize this. Don’t dismiss this. Don’t tell me it is all in my head. Don’t tell me I am being overly cautious. Or dramatic.

Step two is to reject Islamophobia with all your heart. Recognize that, despite your best efforts at acceptance and understanding, you are immersed in a culture that creates negative associations with me and my religion at every possible opportunity. Even Muslims suffer from the internalization of these oft-repeated and relentless messages. Many of us have come to stereotype ourselves and even reject our religion for the lies told about it. Recognize that you likely have implicit bias. Recognize it when it rears its ugly head: when something I do “pleasantly” surprises you, when you have to overcome your shock at seeing my hair for the first time, when you find yourself wondering just what I keep under that headscarf, when you think of our men and women as over-sexualized, when you think of Islam as a monolith and fail to see our incredible diversity, when you don’t think of me as a capable resource first, or second, or ever. De-bias yourself consciously, daily, feverishly.

Step three is action. No, dear ally, outrage is not enough. Returning to your life after glimpsing our reality is simply not enough. Waiting for Muslims to liberate themselves, to demand their freedom, to take their rightful space back is not enough. Waiting for us to explain ourselves, to educate the ignorant masses, to change the minds of non-Muslim non-allies is not enough. We are doing everything we can but we need your cooperation. You occupy a unique space of privilege. You exist in a space where audiences will listen to what you have to say about Islam because they perceive you as having no vested interests in the outcome of your teaching. You exist in a space where people will listen. I know, because I used to exist there too, before I converted.

Some of the greatest allies have not been those people who occupy the highest levels of privilege. The greatest non-Muslim allies have typically been those who too experience prejudice: people of colour, Sikhs, Jews, LGBTQ people and women. The minorities who also get spit on, who get discriminated against, who are abused, who are killed are often the first to stand with us. And it does not go unnoticed. We see you standing there with us. We thank you.

But if you occupy a socio-economic space of dominance, your outrage is not enough. Your introspection is not enough. Your personal de-biasing is not enough. You need to create spaces to centralize our voices. You need to #makeitawkward wherever you can. You need to speak out against injustice and celebrate our difference. You need to check out all the things you can do right now to combat Islamophobia. You need to initiate projects and plans that do these things. You need to be at the forefront of education on these subjects, engaging as stakeholders. You have something at stake here, in all of this: how you choose to stand up for a people marginalized, your integrity.

Does this seem like too much of a burden to bear? Am I asking too much from you? Are other marginalized peoples calling on you too? Are you tired? I understand your concern. I feel it when I am called on to stand up for others too. I feel exhausted by the weight of my own circumstance combined with the need to alleviate the suffering of others.

But I take solace in the collective. Take solace in knowing that you might not be able to save the world but you can join forces with other people who are trying to repair it, in their corners of this crazy place with the tools and talents they have their disposal. No small effort in the way of compassion is ever wasted.

Anas Ibn Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “If the Hour (of the End of Time) were established upon one of you while he had in his hand a tree sapling, then let him plant it.”*

In solidarity,

Nakita

*(Musnad Imam Ahmad 12491)


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

 

Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. Normally spoken about in the context of sexism and racism, one underexplored area that implicit bias manifests strongly in is interactions with and among Muslims.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity points out the following:

  • Implicit associations harboured in our subconscious develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messaging.
  • Biases associated with these subconscious associations are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even if we are dealing with individuals who have taken a vow of impartiality
  • Implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our consciously declared beliefs and can often contradict them
  • Our implicit biases favour our own group
  • Biases are malleable – associations we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of purposeful de-biasing techniques

So what kinds of associations are we talking about here?

There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

The following associations are quite common and actually have a historical lineage in terms of being connected with anti-Muslim propaganda all the way back to the Middle Ages:

Muslims are naturally inclined to violence. This one has been around since the beginning and goes hand in hand with lies that Islam was spread by the sword (ask any credible historian: it wasn’t.) and that Muslims are inclined to be terrorists. The idea of the terminology “moderate Muslims” plays into this stereotype because it implies that the deeper one goes into Islam, the more violent one becomes. This simply isn’t true. Violence is a practice adopted by people who are part of many different cultural systems around the world – it is an unfortunate political tool for some and a symptom of trauma for others. The choice to engage with violence is justified differently by all cultural systems around the world from Judaism to secularism, and is not unique to one system over another. If anything, violence is a universal human trait that is either used or resisted by interpreters of particular cultural groups, sometimes identifying as the same thing but understanding and using (or not using) violence differently. Since, contrary to what many bigots think, Muslims are humans too, it is no surprise that some of them are violent. However, to state that violence is intrinsic to Islam or even condoned by its laws is categorically false.

Muslim women are oppressed and have no rights. It seems that ever since Christian women started de-veiling and the secularists took over, the veil itself (which is often associated with the stereotype of the non-liberated, oppressed Muslim woman) has come to be the symbol of the perceived oppression of Muslim women. Even when Muslim women are not veiled, they can still be seen as cloistered away in their homes, at the behest of their man’s will, without rights and even weak. While it is true that in many countries, the rights of women are limited and that these sometimes happen to be Muslim countries, it is also true that they are often not Muslim countries. Misogyny has no religious or geographical boundaries and remains a global problem. Interestingly, those who hinge this stereotype on Muslim women are usually ignorant of the incredible rights afforded to them in Islam (even over and above the rights held by modern Western, non-Muslim women) and the fact that many, if not most, Muslim women choose to obey Islamic laws including around veiling. The right to choose and to practice one’s religious way of life as one chooses never seems to factor into the Western savior complex though.

Muslim men are sex-crazed. This stereotype goes all the way back to the insults hurled at Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself by his contemporaries and has continued to be associated with Muslim men to this day. While street harassment remains a pervasive issue in many Muslim countries, problems related to sexual assault and harassment are not limited to Muslims if global numbers are any indication. Additionally, even in the confines of a consensual sexual relationship, there is no indication that Muslim men are more aroused or arousable than any other demographic.

How do these associations manifest as behavioural outcomes of implicit bias?

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. For example, a doctor with implicit racial bias will be less likely to recommend black patients to specialists or may recommend surgery rather than a less invasive treatment. Managers will be less likely to invite a black candidate in for a job interview or to provide a positive performance evaluation. Judges have been found to grant darker-skinned defendants sentences up to 8 months longer for identical offenses.

Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people. They will sit further away, and their facial expressions will be cold and withdrawn. These same implicitly biased white people are also are more apt to view black people as angry or threatening and to predict that a black partner would perform poorly on a joint academic task. White people with stronger implicit bias against black people actually do perform poorly on a difficult task after interacting with a black person—suggesting that, without knowing it, they were challenged mentally by the effort of appearing non-biased. While the studies on implicit bias and Islamophobia are still an emerging research area, it should be noted that often the findings with implicit bias and racial associations overlaps with Islamophobia, particularly when Muslims subscribe to certain racial identities such as being black or Arab. Compounded biases have yet to be explored in any real depth.

So now that you know these unconscious cognitive processes are happening, the next question of any regular, concerned individual should be:

How can I de-bias myself?

This sounds a bit strange but there are processes and programs developed for people to consciously decouple certain associations in their mind. Such programs tend to be based on the principles of Behavioural Conditioning Therapy but not always.

In a booklet put out by the National Center for State Courts (American) and Race & Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Organization, the following steps can be taken by individuals and organizations to reduce implicit bias:

  • Raise awareness of it: Individuals can only work to correct for sources of bias that they are aware exist (Wilson & Brekke, 1994). Simply knowing about implicit bias and its potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior may prompt individuals to pursue corrective action (cf. Green, Carney, Pallin, Ngo, Raymond, Iezzoni, & Banaji, 2007). Although awareness of implicit bias in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that effective debiasing efforts take place (Kim, 2003), it is a crucial starting point that may prompt individuals to seek out and implement the types of strategies listed throughout this document.
  • Identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences (and know that that is OK!): The popular “color blind” approach to egalitarianism (i.e., avoiding or ignoring race; lack of awareness of and sensitivity to differences between social groups) fails as an implicit bias intervention strategy. “Color blindness” actually produces greater implicit bias than strategies that acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). Cultivating greater awareness of and sensitivity to group and individual differences appears to be a more effective tactic: Training seminars that acknowledge and promote an appreciation of group differences and multi-cultural viewpoints can help reduce implicit bias (Rudman, Ashmore, & Gary, 2001; Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004). In addition to considering and acknowledging group differences, individuals should purposely compare and individuate stigmatized group members. By defining individuals in multiple ways other than in terms of race, implicit bias may be reduced (e.g., Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lebrecht, Pierce, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009; Corcoran, Hundhammer, & Mussweiler, 2009).
  • Routinely check thought processes and decisions for possible bias: Individuals interested in minimizing the impact of implicit bias on their own judgment and behaviors should actively engage in more thoughtful, deliberative information processing. When sufficient effort is exerted to limit the effects of implicit biases on judgment, attempts to consciously control implicit bias can be successful (Payne, 2005; Stewart & Payne, 2008). To do this, however, individuals must possess a certain degree of self-awareness. They must be mindful of their decision-making processes rather than just the results of decision making (Seamone, 2006) to eliminate distractions, to minimize emotional decision making, and to objectively and deliberatively consider the facts at hand instead of relying on schemas, stereotypes, and/or intuition. Instructions on how to correct for implicit bias may be effective at mitigating the influence of implicit bias on judgment if the instructions implement research-based techniques. Instructions should detail a clear, specific, concrete strategy that individuals can use to debias judgment or action instead of, for example, simply warning individuals to protect their decisions from implicit bias (e.g., Mendoza, Gollwitzer, & Amodio, 2010; Kim, 2003). It should be noted (as it was above) that some seemingly intuitive strategies for counteracting bias can, in actuality, produce some unintended negative consequences. Instructions to simply suppress existing stereotypes (e.g., adopt the “color blindness” approach) have been known to produce a “rebound effect” that may increase implicit bias (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994). Others also perceive individuals instructed to implement the “color blindness” approach as more biased (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). For these reasons, decision makers should apply tested intervention techniques that are supported by empirical research rather than relying on intuitive guesses about how to mitigate implicit bias.
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment and remove or reduce them: If one is distracted or particularly stressed in one’s environment when interacting with people from different groups, including Muslims, their tendency is to revert back to typical associations and therefore behavioural tendencies. The reduction of both distractions and stress can contribute to clarity and consciousness of one’s thoughts and rationale process in governing your own behaviour.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms: Actively seeking feedback from others and articulating one’s reasoning process with regards to behavioural decisions made with and among Muslims is crucial. This involves a willingness to improve and be vulnerable to others – something that will likely be much appreciated. Pick people you feel safe with but who will also provide you with honest feedback.

Finally, if you are interested in kick-starting your journey in eliminating implicit racial or gender bias or Islamophobia, you might want to consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.