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.

In case you missed it, France’s recent ban of the Burkini or modest Islamic swimwear for women has caused massive outrage online from those opposed to secular extremism and anti-feminism. Critics, rightfully, argue that social homogeneity always leads to oppression (particularly of vulnerable minority groups) and that the policing of womens’ bodies (whether it be in how much or how little they are wearing) has deep roots in oppressive patriarchy.

The Burkini ban has sparked economic backlash, with sales for the item soaring online among Muslims and non-Muslims alike – because frankly, who doesn’t love SPF 50 fabric that prevents skin cancers, helps you avoid slathering on chemical-laden sunscreens all while dressing as modestly as you feel because people can do whatever they want with their bodies?

Now plenty of rich businesspeople have kindly stepped up and said that they will pay the fines of whichever women decide to wear the Burkini and get caught by the French police officers who are now being sent to the beach to literally check and make sure women are wearing as little clothing as the law now dictates. That’s great but the laws which treat Muslim women as second class citizens remain unaddressed. Maybe France should have thought about how much they don’t like seeing the hijab while they were busy fetishizing it at the height of colonialism. And don’t be telling me #notallFrenchpeople because I don’t see anyone shouting #jesuisMuslimah in the streets at this atrocious affront to civil liberties.

I feel like this entire blog should be in italics or caps lock because I just.cannot.control.my.rage.today.

Not only is it horrific that the reasons cited for the Burkini ban are concerns around the womens’ “hygiene”, but the fact that this is being celebrated by French secular so-called feminists is atrocious. This is not a win for oppression against women because: IT IS OPPRESSION AGAINST WOMEN.

I know this because I see some sexist men online celebrating the ban because they claim that the Burkini isn’t modest enough anyway. And even more insanely, when a Muslim woman was forced to disrobe under the threat of being pepper-sprayed by armed police officers in public on a beach in Nice, these extremist fools had the audacity to question why that woman was even on the beach, asking sarcastically if swimming is obligatory in Islam.

Are you people kidding me?

As my dear friend and colleague, Liz, pointed out, we also need to look at whom these laws serve. Do these laws serve the minority of women who may be forced to veil, or worse, women who are kept at home (banned from the beach) by abusive husbands or male relatives who are then free to go where they like? Do they allow women freedom of movement or restrict it? The answers are clear.

Why is it that extremists obsessively unite around women’s bodies to either clothe or disrobe them?

Muslim women are at the apex of extremism on all sides: the anti-religionists, the Wahhabists, the anti-Feminists and unsympathetic Muslim women who fail to realize that violent assault is the next step in this program.

Secular and religious extremists share the target of the female body, maiming her together by tearing at her clothes, one stretching them to make them longer, the other ripping them to take them off. And these misogynists are cheered on by women who believe themselves to be both liberated and liberators. The same women who bare their breasts (which they are free to do but #notinmyname) and claim that veiled Muslim feminists might think they are free but they don’t know just how oppressed they are. God forbid that a Muslim woman should also be a person of colour and have white supremacists on her back too.

Seriously, people.

Back off.

And what is it with other Muslim women shaming the woman forced to disrobe? This woman was assaulted by armed police officers with the force of the law behind them in broad daylight on a crowded public beach. She was forced to undress under duress. We don’t even know if she was given the option to leave. Would it be different if she was wearing a bikini to begin with and they made her remove it entirely? Why the sudden lack of empathy and strong judgment for your coreligionist?

Empathetic, feminist women (you know who you are): this is a trying time for all of us.

Stay strong and know that whatever happens, as long as you get home safe in the face of assault from all sides, you did the right the thing. And if you don’t, you do not have yourself to blame. It is not in your head and it will only get worse as long as this behaviour is permitted to continue.

I believe you are a victim of many perpetrators.

I believe it is getting increasingly difficult for you.

I believe that you feel suffocated and overwhelmed sometimes

and that those times are multiplying in number.

I know just how angry you are.

I will say this as long as I can,

even if my voice quivers from fear or from rage.

I will stand with you,

even if my covered knees shake.

I believe you.

We will fight for justice together, insha Allah.

This past summer, a lot of music festivals chose to ban the wearing of Native American and First Nations headdresses because of their use by people who were neither qualified to wear them, nor were they aware of the cultural meaning of that particular article of clothing. Most recently, Miley Cyrus’ wearing of dreadlocks at the VMAs, sparked outrage online at her poor practice of taking from cultures without giving credit where it is due– something Cyrus is not unfamiliar with. According to one source, “cultural appropriation is when white media [or people] trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” As one of the latest buzzwords in the current deluge of social media advocacy, netizens everywhere are calling out cultural appropriation as they see it. However, there are a few points about cultural appropriation that are worth talking about and make this well-meaning category more problematic then it would first seem.

hijab artFirstly, cultural appropriation is disproportionately applied to white women. While cultural micro-aggressions by way of adopted cultural practices without reference to their source are never appropriate, regardless of the gender propagating them, it seems that these days, accusations of cultural appropriation not-so-subtlely act as a front for patriarchal tendencies. It seems like almost every cultural appropriation story from headdresses to cornrows and twerking is focused on the women that appropriate these practices inappropriately. However, with only the occasional mention of a horribly stereotypical tribal tattoo, men rarely make the cut as those criticized by cultural appropriation watchdogs. If you’re going to call people out for these acts, you better make your call-out gender-neutral and fluid.

Secondly, how can people display the correct level of cultural recognition and respect to certain practices while still enjoying their aesthetic and practical appeal? This is an honest question. Is Miley supposed to have a billboard on her head that says “Dreadlocks have long been associated with rasta culture and while I recognize that, I also recognize that for many people –white or otherwise – dreads have become a legitimate hairstyle and I just like the way it looks right now so I hope that is alright with everyone”? I should probably stay away from the Cyrus issue but this point is important for something I want to discuss below: is abstinence from cultural appreciation the best option, lest you be accused of appropriation? How can one be respectful without pissing anyone off?

street art hijab

Thirdly, the notion of cultural appropriation marginalizes people who embody liminal positions between cultures. This is directly related to point number two. For people who straddle cultures socially (and especially those who do not appear to physically), the wearing of cultural garments or doing cultural practices to which one does not appear to belong can lead to harsh, external criticism that leads to social isolation and self-esteem issues.

One such group that I want to discuss with regards to this point are white converts to Islam who choose to adopt the hijab. In these cases, I am not distinguishing among typical –cis genders of male and female, as both men and women have specific parameters for maintaining modesty in Islam. These things can include the wearing of a head veil, the wearing of loose clothing, the wearing of a beard and other such stipulations. Historically, the various manifestations of hijab have evolved to mean different things in different cultures across the world. Even within the same society, one version of hijab (such as a longer veil) carries social currency that varies from other versions of it. In the case of a longer hijab in most Arab countries, the implication is that the wearer of that veil is more pious and engages in the practice of the rituals of Islam more rigorously. Further, the showing of hair and provocative clothing sends a message that is the opposite (an excuse to perpetuate rape culture, in my opinion). Ultimately, however, these definitions are part of intracultural communication – the nuances of which can be lost on outsiders. If we are to continue with the example of the head veil, there is really only one binding stipulation scripturally speaking, which is that the hair, neck and bosom must be covered. However that is achieved is usually acceptable, and given the widespread nature of Islam, cultural variations were/are bound to arise.

So what happens when you convert to Islam, accepting the tenets of a religious faith, but having little to no knowledge of the various cultural morphologies and historical evolutions of the practice of those tenets?* You tend to be accused of cultural appropriation from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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Non-Muslims often question your adoption of visible religious practices like the head scarf or even prayer rituals as mere “interest in Arab culture” or “likely because you married a born-Muslim”. These microaggressions tell the convert two things: you couldn’t possibly believe in Islam (demonstrating a pervasive xenophobia evident in much of Western society) and you only make aesthetic decisions based on the whims of your spouse (demonstrating a lack of faith in your intelligence and level of feminism). This is not even to mention the poor conflation of Islamic practices with Arabness – which, to be honest, might be understandable if the non-Muslim lacks adequate knowledge of the Islamic world and its history.

Perhaps more surprising are accusations of cultural appropriation that emerge from within the Muslim community and are directed towards converts. One area this happens is with language. Whether converts translate common Islamic terms from Arabic into their mother tongue, or they opt to use the Arabic instead, there is always an aunty or an uncle waiting to criticize you for using or not using the appropriate terminology. Perhaps more often converts are the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny from their Muslim brothers and sisters mainly with regard to dress. If a new sister chooses to wear abaya one day, and jeans with ballerina slippers and a boyfriend sweater the next, her modesty is called into question and she is accused of giving “mixed signals”. If I had to count amount of times I have been told that if I wear abaya or a long hijab, I have to wear it for forever, I’d be counting for awhile. Same goes for the length and tightness of skirts, the colour of headscarves and the age-old question of whether or not to wear make-up. Even further, the same goes for brothers who adopt the Sunnah beard and waffle between various styles and lengths, not realizing the various cultural signals they are giving off in the meantime. I am not even going to get into the amount of times that so-called Muslim progressive-reformist “feminists” have accused me of being culturally backward without realizing I’m not Arab, or culturally appropriative (see: lack of faith in my intelligence above). Finally, if we do create inventive hijab styles, we are accused of cultural contamination, or worse, biddah (innovation), even though it is likely that at some point, most hijab fashions were inventive in the first place – riffing off each other like battling saxophones at a jazz improv session. The point is this: are converts culturally appropriating because they lack the understanding of what their interpretation of Islamic practices mean to other cultures in which they might be found? Or are they forging their own traditions based on a shared religious past? Where is the line between appropriation and adoption or adaptation?

I don’t have exact answers to those questions but I will say this. The consequences of appearing to appropriate Islamic culture in the eyes of non-Muslims and born-Muslims alike are highly disturbing. Converts are the most likely to feel alienated and isolated in every community they inhabit – whether amongst their pre-conversion friends and family, or heavily-criticized by the Muslim groups they find themselves in now. Unsure of where they fit in, if at all, converts tend to have a heightened sense of “feeling strange” which (positively) can contribute to awareness of the temporary nature of this life but, (negatively) can lead to poor lifestyle choices in order to fit in (including comprising their interpretations of Islamic texts, seeking solace in forbidden activities and, at the very worst, leaving Islam completely).

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This article raises more questions than it answers but what remains to be said is this: cultural appropriation, while a noble cause, threatens to contrast the nuances of society too heavily, and in doing so, leaves the grey areas silenced for fear of harsh criticism and isolation. Far more appropriate would be to communicate with a person who appears to be appropriating cultural practices “not their own” to discover their reasons for doing so, rather than making rash, misogynistic and even xenophobic assumptions.

 

*Please note that I am not referring to religious tenets as anything more than cultural manifestations in the end anyway; however, for lay purposes only, I have made a distinction here between superficial, “anthropologically-visible” culture and religion.