Islamophobia and Natural Language Processing (August 2019)

I’ve been doing more background reading, while also collecting Tweets and carrying out some preliminary analyses of the same. Topics discussed in this update are Ilhan Omar, Malcolm X, a book by Deepa Kumar, a short interview on Voice of Islam UK, and mentions of other things I’ve watched or read. As you can tell I’m all over the map in these early days (which is great fun). Comments, directions, suggestions, etc. are most gratefully received.

Ilhan Omar

I’ve been collecting tweets pertaining to Ilhan Omar since sometime in April. She is the Representative to the US Congress from Minneapolis. She is also black, Muslim, female, and a refugee / immigrant. As such she represents a seemingly irresistible target for Islamophobia and various forms of hate speech.

Preliminary analysis of tweets about Ilhan Omar show that the Islamophobia and hate speech directed against her is highly intersectional, and combines hatred for Muslims, women, Somalis, refugees, progressive ideas, … and on and on. This intersectionality is (one thing) that makes manual annotation / coding of these tweets very challenging — there is often a combination of different triggers for hate in a single tweet and it’s important not to simply combine that all into one label that indicates hate speech or Islamophobia.

This suggests needing to annotate for degrees of racism, sexism, etc. It is also apparent that the combination of different kinds of hate yields a result that is often more toxic than just the simple summing or combination of individual attack vectors would suggest. There is a kind of multiplying effect when you have hate directed against multiple axes of a person’s identity or beliefs.

In any case, Ilhan Omar has been the focus of a remarkable amount of media attention (for a very junior representative in Congress). I’ve read at least some of that, and found the following profiles to be particularly interesting.

Somali. Black. Muslim. Woman. Refugree. American: The making of Ilhan Omar. June 10, 2019, Azad Essa.

Ilhan Omar is unlike anyone who has served in Congress. This is her complicated American story. July 8, 2019, Washington Post.

There are many examples of fake news that target Ilhan Omar. The following article describes how a story created on a hyperpartisan news site reached mainstream news and was repeated by President Trump.

Trump’s Latest Ilhan Omar Smear Shows How Unfounded Right-Wing Claims go Mainstream, Mother Jones, July 19, 2019

Malcolm X : A life of Re-invention

Last month I read a biography of Malcolm X (by Manning Marable, published 2011). I haven’t read much about Malcolm X over the years, although I remember his autobiography (as told to Alex Haley) quite vividly. I read that as a teenager, somewhat by accident. I remember when I first saw the title I expected it would be the story of a slave because at that time Alex Haley was best known as the author of Roots (a multi-generational story of slave life that became a very popular television mini-series). Anyway.

The Marable biography goes into the history and doctrine of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in some detail, and also draws parallels to other separatist ideologies, particularly those of Marcus Garvey. The general message of NOI was that white people and black people should not mix, and that one part of the solution to the problems of race and racism was to create separate countries for the different races.

These ideas are not inconsistent with those of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and in fact one of the intriguing yet under-developed aspects of Marable’s biography is a very brief description of a meeting between Malcolm X and the KKK that suggests some kind of unrealized partnership was in the works. It seems that Malcolm X was intending to negotiate a land purchase from the KKK on behalf of NOI leader Elijah Mohammad to create a separate territory for black people.

Malcolm X was a member of the NOI and became one its leading evangelists. While Malcolm X offered an empowering message of self-determination for Black people that still resonates today, he also advocated racial separation, and is perhaps most famously known for referring to white people as “devils”. This message of racial separation was central to NOI but is not particularly consistent with more classical forms of Islam. This is something that Malcolm X came to appreciate towards the end of his life, and was among the factors that led to his eventual break with the NOI.

Thereafter he turned away from racism and sought to form an organization (Muslim Mosque, Inc) that was more consistent with classical Islam and was quite public in his criticisms of the NOI and its leader at the time Elijah Mohammad. Marable suggests that this is what made him a marked man, and that the NOI was responsible for his assassination in 1965.

What then is the connection between Malcolm X and Islamophobia? For those who are not Muslim (especially in the USA), the Nation of Islam may be one of their main exposures to Islam. NOI continues to be in the news and remains controversial (most recently forming links to the Church of Scientology). In general NOI has staked out territory that is racist, separatist, and anti-Semitic, and these beliefs have I think been unfairly assigned to all Muslims (by those who have limited exposure to Islam).

This is not to say NOI is not without positive impacts. And certainly Malcolm X’s message of Black Liberation transcends religion and continues to resonate today. But for those looking in from the outside who are not familiar with Islam, some of the negative ideas of the NOI may be what are first noticed and remembered, and then applied to Muslims in general. In particular, the racist and separatist views of NOI may contribute to the unfair perceptions that Muslims are not loyal to their own countries and have some other mysterious allegiance.

What is unfortunate is that Malcolm X’s transformation (or re-invention, as Marable refers to these transitions) from a NOI leader to a more traditional Sunni Muslim is often overlooked. It’s not clear why this is so, certainly it features in his autobiography so it is not that it is unknown. Perhaps it has been convenient to cast Malcolm X as a representative of a form of Islam that more closely corresponds to stereotypes and prejudices than what he actually believed at the end of his life.

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

In this book Deepa Kumar provides a survey of Islamophobia and traces many prevailing misconceptions or biases against Muslims to beliefs that were promoted among academics in Oriental Studies or Area Studies. These beliefs began to circulate in these circles in the 1800’s and have continued up until today. A central tenet of such Orientalism is that the Islamic (East) and Christian (West) worlds are engaged in a “clash of civilizations”.

Kumar introduces five myths and then shows how these have informed foreign and domestic policy in the West (in particular the USA). These myths include 1) Islam is a monolithic religion, 2) Islam is a uniquely sexist religion, 3) The “Muslim Mind” is incapable of reason and rational thought, 4) Islam is inherently violent, and 5) Muslims are incapable of democracy and self rule.

This book shows that US policy towards Muslims remained remarkably consistent both before and after 9/11. While seen as more socially liberal, in fact the Obama administration continued and strengthened anti-Muslim policies of George W. Bush, who inherited some of these ideas from Bill Clinton. The book ends in 2012 so of course does not discuss the presidency of Donald Trump. However, it should be clear to the reader that the Trump administration represents the continuation and amplification of attitudes and policies that have long been held by the US government (and beyond).

Articles with a Minnesota Connection

‘These People aren’t Coming from Norway’ : Refugees in a Minnesota City Face a Backlash, New York Times, June 20, 2019

Discussion of the reaction of St. Cloud community to Somali refugees / immigrants. Focuses on an anti-Muslim group known as C-Cubed. St. Cloud is a city of 70,000 that is about 65 miles north west of Minneapolis.

Big Donors Fuel Racist Islamophobic Agenda in Small Town Minnesota, Little Sis, June 21, 2019

Follow up on NYT article of June 20 making connection between St. Cloud MN group C-Cubed and national network of Islamophobic donors.

Voice of Islam UK

I had a 10 minute interview on the Voice of Islam UK at the end of July on the topic of Islamophobia and NLP. I’m the first guest, but I thought the whole program was quite interesting.


Islamophobia, Inc. Al Jazeera, 2018.

Documentary from 2018 profiling hate and Islamophobic groups in the USA. Has a distinct Minnesota angle and includes a 2016 attack on five Somali men near the University of Minnesota, and the 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington (a near suburb of Minneapolis).

In Search of Monsters to Destroy: Racism, Empire and the Endless War on Terror. Deepa Kumar, 2016 at Harvey Mudd College.

Video lecture that summarizes many of the ideas found in her book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, 2012, Haymarket Books (see above).

In the Queue

Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes : The Representation of Islam in the British Press. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Expansionist Christianity and Peaceful Islam. Dominic Widdows, July 2017.

Finding Jesus Among Muslims. Jordan Denari Duffner, December 2017. (Author also included in the Voice of Islam UK podcast mentioned above)

Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam. Sylvia Chan-Malik, 2018.

[other suggestions welcome!]

Previous Posts

Introducing the Project (July 23, 2019)

Computer Science professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics.

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