Entrapped, alienated and under siege: Islamophobia and the 9/11 generation

Entrapped, alienated and under siege: Islamophobia and the 9/11 generation
8 min read
11 January, 2023
Book Club: 9/11, the day the world came crashing down. For a generation of Muslims, the impact of 9/11 cannot be overstated. The New Arab spoke to Professor Jasmin Zine about the sustained state-led suspicion and surveillance since the fateful event.
Under Siege explores the lives of Canadian Muslim youth belonging to the 9/11 generation as they navigate these fraught times of global war and terror [McGill-Queens University Press]

Jasmin Zine is a Professor of Sociology, Religion and Culture and the Muslim Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.

She has authored numerous publications and her books include Canadian Islamic Schools: Unravelling the Politics of Faith, Gender, Knowledge and Identity, and Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada.

Her latest work, Under Siege: Islamophobia and the 9/11 Generation, examined the Canadian Muslim young people’s experiences in the aftermath of the global 'War on Terror', particularly their feelings of alienation, identity conflicts, self-censorship and resistance and expressing agency.

It is the most comprehensive study to date of Canadian Muslim youth and Islamophobia over the last two decades and is on Canada's Hill Times List of Top 100 Books of 2022. 

"Heightened Islamophobia and the securitisation and surveillance of Muslims became normalised for the 9/11 generation, so they weren’t immediately cognisant of how it was affecting their lives, even though they were aware of how they were regarded as 'suspicious'"

How did you begin the journey to becoming an academic and what do you enjoy the most about it? 

I had an unconventional pathway into academia because I dropped out of high school at 16 years of age.

As a racialised student growing up in a white suburban community in Ontario, the pressures I faced conspired to push me out of school. I went on to have a career as a hairstylist in the 80s and eventually made my way into university as a mature student through an academic bridging program.

My own experiences of marginality and estrangement from schooling inspired my academic trajectory. I pursued graduate studies in antiracism education and anti-colonial studies. I was motivated by the idea of scholarly activism and that our research could be a site of social, cultural, and political resistance and transformation.

Hundreds of Canadians marched during a rally against White Supremacy and Islamophobia at Queen's Park in Toronto, Canada [Getty Images]
Hundreds of Canadians marched during a rally against White Supremacy and Islamophobia at Queen's Park in Toronto, Canada [Getty Images]

Which other scholars have influenced your work? 

The work of Edward Said, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Chandra Mohanty, Paulo Freire, Linda Tuhwai Smith, Stuart Hall, Ella Shohat, David Theo Goldberg, Anne McClintock were all early academic influences.

I learned a great deal about anti-racism education and decolonial approaches to a scholarship from George J. Sefa Dei (Nana) and Sherene Razack who were my teachers and inspired my work as a scholar-activist.

What motivated you to write Under Siege: Islamophobia and the 9/11 Generation and what has been the reception so far? 

In the preface of the book, I describe three key drivers that inspired me to write this book.  The first impetus was my son’s experiences growing up as part of the 9/11 generation and how it impacted them.

My older son’s name is Usama which was not an easy name to have after 9/11 and he was subject to harassment because of it. My younger son Yusuf was an actor since age 13 and found himself always being called to read for the role of “terrorist number 2.”

Comparing my son’s experiences with my own as a Muslim university student in the late 1980 and 90s, I recalled how some of the community events we held as part of our Muslim Student Association back then would have set us up for surveillance by Canada’s security agencies if we tried to do them in the current Islamophobia climate.

For example, we held a fundraiser for an international aid organisation (later wrongly placed on a terror watch list) and invited Afghan Mujahidin fighters undergoing physical rehab in Canada to serve as our traffic security detail at this event which was held in a Catholic school gym.

The Afghan brothers were dressed in long tunics and shalwar pants with long beards and turbans and circled the school with walkie-talkies. In the post-9/11 context, this scenario would have all of Canada’s security agencies swarming the building!

The third driver for this study was when one of my Muslim students wanted to join a non-violent Islamist group because they were using Islamophobia in the west as a call for followers to join in their efforts to enact a return to the Caliphate system.

Together these experiences inspired me to dig deeper into the complex social, cultural, and political issues that shaped the experiences of the 9/11 generation and their response to them.

Perspectives

Are there connections between Canada’s long history of racism as a colonial settler state and the rise of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era? 

White settler colonialism laid the historical foundations for Canada’s racial formation. While this negatively impacted Indigenous and Black communities most directly, its vestiges have affected racialised immigrant communities, including Muslims, through immigration policies based on racial exclusion and the discrimination of diasporic immigrant and refugee communities.

However, I would caution against overstating the saliency of White settler colonialism’s impact on contemporary Muslims.

My book examines the post-911 context of Islamophobia in Canada and while we can say that white settler colonialism historically shaped the racial contours of Canadian society and has lasting implications, there are many other social, political, and discursive factors that are more relevant to understanding the contemporary context of Islamophobia in Canada.

You mention that many Canadian Muslim youth today cannot relate to the events of 9/11, yet they have lived through political and social policy changes that resulted from it. What could be done to increase their literacy in this subject? 

The youth I interviewed knew little of the world prior to 9/11.

Heightened Islamophobia and the securitisation and surveillance of Muslims became normalised for the 9/11 generation, so they weren’t immediately cognisant of how it was affecting their lives, even though they were aware of how they were regarded as suspicious.

Woman holding a placard at a vigil held to remember those killed in the Quebec City mosque to condemn Islamophobia, hate, and racism [Getty Images]
Woman holding a placard at a vigil held to remember those killed in the 2017 Quebec City Mosque attack. The rally condemned Islamophobia, hate, and racism [Getty Images]

“Flying while Muslim” and being viewed as potential radicals and extremists became a way of life.

More public scholarship on the impact of Islamophobia is necessary to highlight the way marginalised Muslim communities have had to navigate anti-Muslim racism. Ethnography as a method of storytelling /counter-storytelling provides an important window into these experiences.

Under Siege addresses the issue of securitisation of the Muslim subject and the government programs that have been influenced by the UK and US experience. What advice would you give to people who want to challenge these policies and enlarge “Muslim Counterpublics”? 

Muslim communities need more effective lobby groups to bring community interests and concerns to the table for government and policymakers to address.

Islamophobia is a global scourge that involves genocide in Myanmar, ethnic cleansing in China, ethno-nationalist state violence and repression in India and Palestine, and yet we have yet to see any social movements galvanise around addressing anti-Muslim racism in the way that we have with Black Lives Matter or Indigenous movements like ‘Idle No More’.

Perspectives

We need to question why such movements dedicated to combatting anti-Muslim racism have not coalesced and consider ways to develop and support such efforts. Working with allies and building wider coalitions that align anti-Islamophobia campaigns among other global justice struggles are important ways forward.

You and your team have recently produced an important report on the Islamophobia Industry in Canada. What findings have been the most surprising? 

Studies on the Islamophobia industry (the networks and players that promote and purvey Islamophobia) have been conducted primarily in the United States. My study is the first to examine how Islamophobia is orchestrated, organised, networked, and monetised in Canada.

Through mapping Islamophobia’s ecosystem in Canada, we identified more players to add to the list of anti-Muslim actors than in previous studies.

These include White nationalist groups, far-right media outlets, think tanks and their designated security experts, who engage in campaigns that demonise and vilify Islam and Muslims along with Muslim dissidents and pro-Israel fringe right groups. We also identified several key Islamophobic discourses and conspiracy theories and demonstrated how they are echoed and amplified within anti-Muslim subcultures.

"Because Islamophobia operates at the individual, ideological and systemic levels in all societies, strategies to address Islamophobia must also address these interrelated dimensions"

Given that Islamophobia is a global problem -how does its manifestation in Canada compare with other countries in the West? 

Canada has faced two terror attacks against Muslim Canadians, unlike most other western nations.

On Jan. 29, 2017, six men were gunned down after evening prayers at a Quebec City Mosque and then on June 6, 2021, four members of a Pakistani Canadian Muslim family in London, Ontario were intentionally mowed down and killed by a truck. Both attacks occurred at the hands of White nationalists.

In addition to hate crimes, there are also ideological and systemic manifestations of anti-Muslim racism in Canada, like Quebec’s Bill 21 or secularism law which bars people who wear religious symbols like the hijab or niqab from holding jobs as public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other civil service positions. This discriminatory law is currently being challenged as a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

What outreach strategies and policy recommendations did you arrive at? 

Because Islamophobia operates at the individual, ideological and systemic levels in all societies, strategies to address Islamophobia must also address these interrelated dimensions.

A national summit on Islamophobia took place in 2021 and Canadian Muslims put forward hundreds of recommendations to the federal government to consider.

A special envoy for combating Islamophobia is being appointed by the federal government but this must come with dedicated funding that can go toward education, research centres, community outreach and programs to address the trauma of anti-Muslim racism.

The government must also examine its policies and practices that reproduce systemic forms of Islamophobia like racial and religious profiling and targeting Muslim individuals and organisations for surveillance and undue scrutiny.

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Do you have new research projects in the pipeline? 

In future research, I will be focusing my attention on the global context of Islamophobia.

This is work I am engaging in with my colleagues in the newly formed International Islamophobia Studies Research Association (IISRA) of which I am co-founder, along with Hatem Bazian and Salman Sayyid.

IIRSA’s mandate involves developing the global architecture for the field of Islamophobia studies and creating a ‘global caravan’ of academic forums, conferences, and research collaborations to address Islamophobia on a planetary scale.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid