Poor and Muslim in “War on Terror” America

American Islamophobia is rising at a staggering rate. Societal and state-sponsored violence toward Muslim American communities, while embedded, is taking on new lay and legal forms.

Private citizens are exacting their hatred toward Islam through “Prophet Muhammad cartoon drawing” spectacles and hate-inspired executions, while the state’s counter-radicalization (CVE) program is poised to infiltrate the most concentrated Muslim American communities.

Attention on the victimization of Muslim American bodies and communities is not scarce. However, little, if any, analysis has been dedicated to the disparate impact American Islamophobia – in both private and public form – has on poor and working class Muslim American communities. A population that, according to recent research, accounts for nearly half of Muslim America.


Profiling Poverty in Muslim America

The Pew Research Group found that 45 percent of the Muslim American population earns less than $30,000 per annum. This figure, hinging on family size, corresponds with or is very close to the legal poverty line in the United States. Therefore, indicating that nearly half of Muslim Americans are living below, at, or dangerously close to the poverty line.

Beyond the numbers, these statistics demystify a range of stereotypes attributed to Muslim Americans. First, the fact that 45 percent of Muslim Americans are either poor or working class conflicts with the trope that the population is an upwardly mobile, socioeconomically well-situated demographic. This misnomer is rooted, in part, in the conflation of Muslim with Arab identity, which caricatures the latter as opulently wealthy.

Second, the statistic exposes another stereotype that mainly pervades liberal or progressive circles. Namely, that although profiled as “terrorists” or “radicals,” that Muslim Americans are a “model minority” when compared to the Muslim diasporas in Europe. This case for Muslim American exceptionalism touts the economic and academic achievement of select strands of the population as representative of the whole, which in turn, perpetuates the erasure of segments of the population living at the racial, legal and economic margins.

Third, both scholarly and public discourses following September 11th, 2001 through today have constructed a “Muslim American victim” caricature. The Muslim American victim, a counterpoint to the “Muslim-American villain,” imagines victimhood in very flat, monolithic terms. Instead of closely examining how gender, racial and economic circumstance impacts how Islamaphobic animus and violence is experienced, the “Muslim American victim” caricature projects the myth that it is experienced uniformly.

These stereotypes – deployed from the outside and also from within – function to conceal the distinct experiences and existence of indigent Muslim Americans today.  This is an effect that is made even more dangerous with the rapidly expanding and extending reach of Islamophobia, which disproportionately inflicts injury in the very spaces poor and indigent Muslim Americans call home.

Countering Radicalization, Targeting the Poor

Counter radicalization (CVE) law enforcement programs associate Islamic piety and political dissent with a propensity for terrorism. While the Department of Homeland Security frames CVE as being concerned with radicalism of every sort and stripe, the emergent program disproportionately targets Muslim – and given its scope – indigent and working class Muslim Americans.

The pilot CVE programs were launched in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Each city is home to sizeable Muslim American populations, and concentrated poor and working class subsets of the community. For instance, 82 percent of the estimated 80,000 Somalis living in Minneapolis are “near or below the poverty line”, exposing this community to the intersecting trappings of racialized poverty and anti-terror policing.

Furthermore, since conspicuous religiosity tends to be more pronounced among indigent and immigrant Muslim communities, CVE disparately endangers indigent Muslim Americans across the country. According to Professor Amna Akbar of Ohio State University, CVE, “Mark[s] religious and political activities as the indicators of radicalization, [and] the discourse links religious and political practices in Muslim communities with the likelihood of terrorism.” Therefore, donning a beard, a headscarf, or espousing support for Palestinian self-determination, for instance, are far more dangerous propositions when demonstrated from the South Side of Chicago versus Orange County, where police are more prone to react more hastily and violently to individuals perceived to be national security threats, or per CVE parlance, “radicals.”

CVE is also considering expanding into Detroit, New York and other metropolises with large Muslim American numbers. Close scrutiny of CVE tactics reveals that the program is hardly deployed in suburbs, but rather, urban spaces densely populated with recent immigrants, and indigent and working class Muslims. Spaces where access to legal representation is minimal, Muslim American advocacy efforts hardly penetrate, and mainstream imagining of Muslim American victimhood fail to encompass.

Vilifying the Poor, From Within and Without

In fact, mainstream Muslim American organizations have done more to vilify the poor than to address their distinct concerns. A press release issued by the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA), which cited its “disturb[ance] over the escalation and rioting,” in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray on April 19th, highlights the distance between mainstream Muslim American institutions and indigent communities.

ISNA’s press release made no mention of the structural racism or poverty that seeded the protests. But rather, instantly vilified black men and women for their “destructive behavior.” This corrosive dissonance exposes how mainstream Muslim American organizations will vehemently support civil rights protests in Arab or Muslim nations, but remain silent or stand against similarly spirited struggles stateside. In addition, it also exposes the rift between mainstream Muslim American organizations and the distinct plight of indigent Americans at large – including indigent Muslim Americans confronting the brunt of structural and societal Islamophobia.

Millions of Muslim Americans remain interlocked between indigence and Islamophobia. Yet, much like poor people at large, their existence and experiences are largely unheard, ignored, and unaddressed. “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois, words that speak to the soul of poor Muslim folks, and expose that the mainstream understanding of Muslim American victimhood amid the escalating War on Terror is still impoverished.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor
    Khaled A. Beydoun

    Khaled A. Beydoun is an Associate Law Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is also Senior Affiliated Faculty at the University of California-Berkeley Islamophobia & Research Documentation Project. He tweets @khaledbeydoun.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on