Dr. Maha Hilal Talks about the Anti-Muslim
Biases in American Culture and Institutions
Changing the Narrative on Muslim
Dr. Maha Hilal is writing a book, a book on islamophobia and the War on
Terror, which will be coming out around the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
After earning a degree in sociology with certificates in African studies and
criminal justice at UW-Madison, Dr. Maha Hilal embarked on an intellectual
journey that explored the real-life impacts of anti-Muslim bias in society,
especially after 9/11. While earning a Master’s degree in counseling, Hilal did an
internship with Amnesty International’s Denounce Torture Initiative. It opened her
eyes to the dehumanization of Muslims in the post-9/11 era.
While there has been some level of tension between the practitioners of
Christianity and Islam that dates back centuries — and fueled erroneous
perceptions — that tension erupted after 9/11 into overt and hostile actions
against Muslims and seemed to “justify” pre-existing stereotypes that many
Americans had about Muslims and were then used to justify sometimes illegal policies directed against Muslims and Muslim countries. And it was an American
response that was shared by Democrats and Republicans.
“If you compare the Trump Administration to the Obama Administration, obviously Obama’s rhetoric wasn’t demonizing for the most part,” Hilal said. “But that also
hid a lot of the counterterrorism tactics he was using. He was called the deporter-in-chief. He exponentially increased the use of drones as compared to Bush. Even
in his book, I got it to see what he was saying about counterterrorism. He basically justifies his drone policy. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that innocent
civilians were killed. And then there is Trump obviously over it with islamophobia. I think what happened is we got complacent under Obama. When Trump came
because he was so overtly expressing islamophobia, people kind of mobilized around the Muslim ban. That’s a good thing that people got more active and mobilized
to challenge some of the system’s policies. But at the same time, part of the challenge is understanding that this is something that didn’t just start under Trump.
Obviously he has aggravated certain things. If there wasn’t already an apparatus in place, he wouldn’t have been able to start where he started. And I think that gets
And even the atrocities that occurred against Muslim people — in the Middle East and America — do not really stick in the American consciousness.
“Bush has been able to be reformed essentially,” Hilal said. “You know how he paints portraits. There was an interesting art exhibit at John Jay in New York with
artwork by Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo. In the booklet, it was talking about how Bush paints as well. He does a lot of portraits. It was interesting because the
things he was painting were immigrants and veterans and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The really interesting thing is the way it was written about. Those two
situations that he was creating portraits on were the situations he caused. Obviously that is not a part of the discussion. ‘If you hadn’t implemented those policies,
you wouldn’t have inspiration to make these portraits.’ It’s just really depressing. And I think Obama has been reformed as well. I don’t think he was perceived
largely as the huge villain except by racist white people in the same way that Bush was.”
Hilal feels that things may not change under President-elect Joe Biden because he did, after all, have a hand in setting U.S. policy.
“Biden was vice-president when Obama was undertaking these drone strikes,” Hilal recalled. “He was vice-president when Obama did not successfully close
Guantanamo. Biden spoke at a Million Muslims Vote forum in July. I think it was very generic. I think going forward into the Biden Administration, we need to keep
the momentum up around combating and dismantling islamophobia, especially because I think Biden and Harris will preserve it in a more underhanded way. State
violence is part of the issue.”
One of the factors that prevent change as it relates to the treatment of and stereotypes about Muslims is the low expectations of the Muslim community due, in part,
to their historic villainization.
“A lot of times Muslims have a very low standard in engaging with politicians,” Hilal said. “The standard is, ‘Stay engaged with us.’ And that is the success as
opposed to with Biden, it’s like, ‘What are we going to demand from him if he is seeking out our vote?’ His policy platform even talks about restoring the civil rights
of Muslims and things like that. But there is no chronology that he played a role in why Muslim rights are the way they are right now. It’s just a really low threshold.
‘Oh my God, someone saw us as human.’ That’s the standard. And that is really depressing. I think a lot of people have said that they are worried about little people
basically being content. I think the challenge going forward is to make sure that Muslims stay motivated and that they understand the legacy of state violence that
runs through the War on Terror. Obviously there are centuries of violence towards Muslims before 9/11. It’s really just a reference point.”
In Hilal’s view the Muslim stereotypes have become so imbedded in American culture that everything violent that happens somehow drags Muslims into the
“Someone drove through a crowd of people in France,” Hilal said. “And then there was something similar here that happened although it was different. The similar
thing here that happened they thought it was an ISIS attack. Sometimes I think ISIS was invented. There is this constant reference back to again this gold standard.”
And so it is important to Hilal that the narrative about Muslims and the perception of violence needs to be changed so that the narrative doesn’t continuously
reinforce the negative stereotypes.
“When I talk about narrative shifting, it’s like through the lens of a counter narrative,” Hilal emphasized. “A lot of times, counter narrative is interpreted as a rebuttal
to the dominant narrative. But in reality, the goal of the counter narrative is to cut through the dominant narrative and sort of puncture all of the basic assumptions
that are imbedded into the dominant narrative. For example, a lot of the Muslim organizations will say when there is an act of terrorism that is committed by a
Muslim, they will say, ‘We condemn terrorism.’ But if you say that you condemn terrorism, then you are actually legitimizing the premise of the dominant narrative
that Muslims condone terrorism, that there is something legitimate in the dominant narrative that you have to respond to. So for me when I write op-eds and such,
the point to me is I try to write from a very critical perspective on how these issues should be talked about. I’ve written a couple of things about my own experience
— whether it is the Muslim ban — on my perceptions towards different issues that are affecting Muslims.”
Dr. Maha Hilal is facing a huge challenge in changing the narrative about Muslims due, in part, to the longstanding stereotypes and perceptions that are so imbedded
in the American psyche and culture. But through constant blogging, the writing of books and forming coalitions and partnerships, maybe, just maybe, Hilal and others
can move the needle to a more just depiction — and treatment — of Muslims in America.