Human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar

The human rights lawyer and author joins us in a conversation about the modern day consequences of Islamophobia.

Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, global media commentator, and founder of Iftikhar also serves as Senior Editor for The Islamic Monthly. He is the author of Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms (2016) and Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era (2011). Iftikhar graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1999 and received his law doctorate from Washington University School of Law in 2003.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Just days after the Orlando massacre, a conversation tonight about the urgent need to address the issue of Islamophobia with Arsalan Iftikhar, author of “Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms”.

Then a conversation with Grammy-nominated musician, Moby, about his new memoir, “Porcelain”, and its companion CD.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All that coming up right now.

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Tavis: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer and author of the new text, “Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms”. He joins us tonight from Washington. Arsalan, good to have you on this program, sir.

Arsalan Iftikhar: Thank you for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: I want to start with a powerful, powerful quote on the back of your new text, and I quote: “My life really began at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on September 11, 2001 because that was the exact moment in time when my country was attacked by people who simultaneously also hijacked my religion.” Was your religion hijacked once again in Orlando the other day?

Iftikhar: It was. You know, obviously, the horrific tragedy that we saw transpire at the Pulse nightclub which, you know, has become the worst mass shooting in American history, I think cannot be underscored enough, was a clear act of homophobic mass murder.

It’s something that is also tarnished by the fact that the perpetrator of this horrific homophobic mass murder was somebody whose name was Omar Mateen and who claimed that he supported ISIS in his 911 call. So there are a lot of things to unpack here.

You know, it’s just one of those things that, if this was a white Christian dude who had committed this act of homophobic mass murder, we kind of would have probably just brushed it off of our collective shoulders as just another mass murder in America.

But, you know, with the fact that this was an olive-skinned man with a foreign sounding name, it’s going to add a lot of different layers to the ongoing conversations that we’re going to have as a country.

Tavis: So it’s not just, respectfully–and I take your point now. I agree with you. But it’s not just the things you just mentioned. It is also that 911 call, so I hear your point that we might not be focusing in on the religion of the killer were he not Muslim, but he in fact did put his religion in play, did he not?

Iftikhar: He did in this case. But, again, we have to understand that, you know, acts against the LGBTQ community in the United States’ acts of violence predominantly and historically have been committed by self-proclaimed Christian zealots.

You know, whether it’s Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympic bomber who bombed a gay and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta, whether it was the 1973 upstairs lounge arson attack in New Orleans which killed 32 people. I mean, the list goes on and on. It’s important for people to keep in mind that homophobia was not started in Orlando, Florida a couple of nights ago. It’s been going on.

It’s something that our country has to tackle and address, regardless of what our own backgrounds are. And it’s something that we need to speak out against forcefully. You know, when we see a horrific mass murder of homophobia occur at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, regardless of your background, you have to speak out against that.

Tavis: To those who might say that the answer you just gave now is about trying to shift and to shape and to reframe the narrative to one of homophobia versus one of terrorism, you respond with what?

Iftikhar: Well, I respond with the fact that this was a gay nightclub that he targeted. I mean, as a civil rights lawyer, I know what bias motivated crimes are. He didn’t just go to some random nightclub, you know, on his block. He targeted these people, these innocent people, based on their minority status.

What makes it even more troubling was the fact that, you know, the vast majority of these people who were murdered were also people of color. So there were minorities within minorities.

You know, as a civil rights lawyer, it breaks my heart even more to have to unpack that. But, I mean, this was an act of homophobia. This was an act of homophobic mass murder because this nightclub was targeted because it was a gay nightclub.

Tavis: And yet, I still want to ask what, to your mind–and you write about it in the text, obviously–but what are the consequences today of Islamophobia in our country?

Iftikhar: Well, I think that, you know, Tavis, we all know America has always needed a proverbial boogeyman, whether it was in the 1980s during the Red Scare, you had the red Soviet communist threat. Obviously, Jim Crow America that we lived through in the better part of the 20th century, anti-Semitism, even anti-Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century.

In this post-9/11 world that we live in now, you know, it’s now become Islamophobia and Muslims as the scapegoats where, if a Muslim person commits an act of terror, that is very quickly labeled as terrorism.

But if a white man like Dylann Roof, for example, a 21-year-old white supremacist who walked into a predominantly African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat in bible study with them for one hour with a race war ideology, then proceeded to execute nine innocent African Americans, including one state senator for whom he had asked for by name, that was never referred to as an act of domestic terrorism.

I promise you, Tavis, if that was a Muslim man who had done that, we would have called it terrorism in about five seconds.

Tavis: So what is–I raised this issue on our program actually for the last two nights, and I’m not naïve in asking, but I want to get your take as a civil rights lawyer. What is it then about our penchant about this itch we have to jump so quickly and so forthrightly into a debate about ISIS and about international terrorism?

But we shy away from these conversations about homegrown terrorism, although the data is very clear for the last decade, certainly, we’ve been hit many more times by domestic terrorism than by foreign terrorism.

Iftikhar: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head there, Tavis. You know, something important to keep in mind is whether we’re dealing with the Orlando nightclub shooting, whether we’re dealing with the Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, whether we’re dealing with the Aurora “Dark Knight” movie theater massacre, the one thing that they all had in common was the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

You know, God forbid that a mass murderer should have to reload before they are able to kill 100 people. You know, this is just a part and parcel of zealous gun culture that we have in the United States. We’ve had 170 mass murders here in the United States in the year 2016 alone, and we’re only halfway done, Tavis.

Last year before the San Bernardino attack in California in December of 1015, there were over 350 mass shootings that occurred in the United States and I promise you 99% of them were not committed by Muslims. But, sadly, whenever we see a brown Muslim man commit an act of mass murder, that is put in the limelight.

You know, I think that terrorism needs to be called out. I think all acts of mass shootings are terrorism. I think that they all try to instill fear in the general public and we need to really revisit the way that we have a double standard in the way that the term terrorism is applied in our United States today.

Tavis: Speaking of shifting and reframing, Arsalan, the debate about what happened in Orlando, how do we push back against the NRA and others who want to frame this as a conversation about ISIS, as a conversation about terrorism, I think, in part because they don’t want to talk about guns?

You just made a powerful point now that the thing they all had in common, the list of sites that you mentioned a moment ago, we’ve seen these mass murderers have the same weapon common amongst them. But what do we do about the effort to change the narrative from what we really ought to be talking about?

Iftikhar: Well, I think it comes down to political will, Tavis. I think it’s high time that our politicians both on the Democratic and the Republican side of the issue basically say to hell with partisanship and say that, you know, we should not have semiautomatic rifles which allows one person to kill over 100 people without having to reload.

There’s something wrong with that. That is antithetical to the Second Amendment of the United States. I don’t think the founding fathers envisioned, you know, 200 to 300 mass murders every year in the United States of America.

So to have the political will to be able to say that we already have 300 million guns in circulation, one for every man, woman and child, in the United States today if we stop producing guns today. You know, I think that to have the moral clarity to be able to say that, regardless of whether it’s a brown Muslim man who’s committing an act of mass murder or a white Christian man committing an act of mass murder.

Mass murder is mass murder and the one thing that they all have in common are these semiautomatic rifles that allow one person to basically not even have to reload before they can kill 100 people.

Tavis: I’ve got less than 30 seconds here, but as a Black man asking this question of a Brown man, it is interesting, but I’ll ask it anyway, I think. That is, how you intend, how your people will survive your turn being America’s scapegoats?

Iftikhar: You know, that’s a really good question, Tavis. As you know, as a civil rights lawyer myself, I know that what we’re dealing with is just the next chapter in the civil rights history of the United States because tomorrow it’ll be somebody else, Tavis.

Tomorrow somebody else will be the scapegoats, and we have scapegoats right now. Obviously, we saw with the Orlando nightclub shooting that homophobia in the LGBTQ community are still scapegoats in their society.

Scapegoats are not exclusive to one demographic group and it’s important for us to speak out as allies towards people of other faiths, traditions, sexual orientations, ethnicities, nationalities and races to ensure that we can actually embrace the diversity and inclusion that our country was founded upon.

Tavis: Arsalan Iftikhar’s new text is called “Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms”. Thanks for your insights. Good to have you on the program.

Iftikhar: My pleasure, Tavis. Anytime.

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Last modified: June 16, 2016 at 1:33 pm