Session III: Unpacking and Resisting State-Sponsored Islamophobia

Muslims and non-Muslim activists and civil liberties groups are concerned about the security framework for Muslim engagement with the government. Local and Federal law enforcement agencies often do not approach the Muslim American community outside of issues of national security or foreign policy. In essence, Muslims are criminalized and deemed foreign. Such approach also marginalizes the Black Muslim community and creates a dichotomy, which was applied during the colonial period: the good Muslim versus the Bad Muslim.

Margari Hill, Muslim Matters, “Lessons from Our Past: CVE, Black American Muslims, and Social Justice.” Hill is the co-founder and co-director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), A Love Resists partner.

President Trump’s calls for a “Muslim Ban” on the campaign trail and his administration’s repeated attempts to implement such a ban are particularly high-profile examples of recent Islamophobic policies at the federal level. State-sponsored Islamophobia in the U.S. has a much longer history, however, much of which has unfolded in individual states and localities.

This session will introduce what advocates and hate group monitors refer to as the “grassroots Islamophobia movement” in the United States. It also illustrates the ways state and local governments often support the federal Islamophobic agenda and shows how these policies can be reversed.

As in previous sessions, multiple readings and resources are spotlighted below. In order to save time during the session, larger groups can divide into pairs who each complete one of the readings and report back key take-aways to the larger group.

Advance Preparation:

Take a listen to this episode of the NPR series This American Life. This segment offers a close look at how Islamophobia took root in one small town in Minnesota through a local “ACT for America” chapter. ACT for America is currently the most influential player in the grassroots Islamophobia movement. Please listen to the segment before gathering for this session. (44 minutes).

Tech Needs:
Laptops or other devices with internet connection. Projector and hook-up to show a video.

Please read aloud the following personality traits and experiences. Ask participants to raise their hands in order to identify as you go which of these traits or experiences apply to them. Do not provide context or further explanation. If anyone asks for the purpose of the exercise, explain that you will return to look at the answers at the end of the session.

Have You Ever…

  • Felt isolated and alienated?
  • Felt frustrated at U.S. policy and events around the globe?
  • Had a sense of grievance and injustice?
  • Experienced a desire for political or moral change?
  • Traveled to a country where you belonged to the majority religious group?
  • Been at a transitional time of life?
  • Experienced disaffection or an identity crisis?
  • Felt a personal need for excitement, power, purpose, importance, and achievement?
  • Felt outrage over U.S. or Western foreign policy?
  • Had political grievances related to human rights abuses, lack of political rights and civil liberties, corruption, conflict and foreign occupation?
  • Become involved in social activism or community issues?
  • Displayed unusual maturity and seriousness for your age?
  • Worn clothing from your cultural tradition and background?
  • Grown facial hair?
  • Frequently attended services at a religious community?
  • Experienced concern over racial, religious, and/or ethnic discrimination?[1]

[1] Source: Faiza Patel and Meghan Koushik, Brennan Center, “Countering Violent Extremism,” 2017, p. 15.


The attacks on September 11, 2001 precipitated a wave of state-sponsored Islamophobia that continues to this day. Understanding that event and its aftermath is critical to grasping the roots of the present crisis of U.S. Islamophobia. Please read this powerful poem from Palestinian-American writer Suheir Hammah, written shortly after 9/11. (6 min.)


This report breaks down the growth of the “grassroots Islamophobia movement” in the United States over the past decade that is driving the growth of so-called “anti-Sharia” laws and other state-level initiatives that stigmatize Muslims and threaten constitutional rights. (10 min.)


Federal-State Joint Terrorism Task Forces:


Ending participation in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) is one way that local governments can resist federal initiatives that profile and stigmatize Muslim communities. Feel free to skim this piece quickly. (4 min.)


Muslim communities aren’t the only ones with a long history of being profiled and surveilled by federal law enforcement. FBI terrorism task forces have also been monitoring Indigenous activists in Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter leaders in Minnesota. This is reminiscent not only of the role FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces played in monitoring peace activists in Denver after 9/11, but of the long and ugly history of FBI surveillance of Black civil rights activists and Indigenous movements. (5 min.)


“Countering Violent Extremism”:


This report from the Brennan Center provides a comprehensive examination of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, started under the previous administration and carried over into the Trump presidency. The authors show how the program relies on flawed theories of “radicalization” and enables policies that monitor and profile Muslim communities. (10 min.)


This footage from a community forum about the CVE program in Minneapolis features stories from youth who have been impacted by the program and other forms of criminalization. (10 mins)


After events in Charlottesville, VA in August, 2017, many progressives expressed support for the “Countering Violent Extremism” program and asked that it be broadened to focus on white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, and other far-right groups. This article argues that this approach is counterproductive and will undermine its stated goals of protecting the rights and civil liberties of Muslim Americans and communities of color. (10 min.)

Fatema Ahmad, Deputy Director for the Muslim Justice League, told In These Times that “trying to equ[ate] those two communities—white supremacists and all Muslims, because that’s how it’s applied to us—won’t redistribute the damage that’s being done to the entire Muslim community through these grants.” 

 “A lot of what people generally think of as dangerous about CVE is that it disproportionately targets Muslims,” Ahmad continued. “But that’s not the only reason it’s dangerous—that’s why it’s racist. Why it’s dangerous is that it’s really based on debunked theories of radicalization that end up criminalizing First-Amendment-protected rights.” 

Questions for Discussion and Reflection:

Turn back to the traits and experiences in the opening activity. As you saw from reading p. 15 of the Brennan Center Report above, these are all traits and experiences that have been used by government programs like CVE to identify warning signs of “radicalization.”

  • Thinking back to your answers to this activity, how many members of the group would be at risk for “radicalization,” according to this criteria?
  • What feelings and reflections come up for you in thinking back to these questions, in light of the information that these criteria are used in surveillance operations, largely targeting Muslims?
  • What was most surprising to you about the readings for this session? Which pieces were new information? What was already familiar to you?

(15 min.)

Photo thanks to Rev. Amy Freedman, used with permission.

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