Historical Perspectives on Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the United States and Lessons for Today

Monday, November 20, 2023
Joshua Lott/Getty

Resident Senior Fellow, Networks and Outreach, Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; @Farah_Pandith

Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Anti-Defamation League


Ferris Professor of Journalism, Princeton University; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the history of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice in the United States, including how events such as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and the 9/11 terrorist attacks shaped public perception, the effects of these biases on American Muslim and Arab communities, the role of technology in spreading hate speech, and the implications for U.S. democracy.

AMOS: Thank you and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting on the “Historical Perspectives of Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the U.S. and the Lessons for Today.” I’m Deb Amos. I am a journalism professor at Princeton University, and I will be the moderator for today’s discussion. 

And I’m going to start out by introducing our respondents today. I’m going to start with Zahed Amanullah. He is a resident senior fellow, networks and outreach, Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. And George Selim, senior vice president of public affairs, the Anti-Defamation League.  

We are talking about anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Preparing for this talk, I googled anti-Muslim sentiment. And what do I get? Every news story has anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. My sense is that these are two different things. And I wonder if we can’t start with Zahed to talk about what’s the difference between these two antis? 

AMANULLAH: Well, thanks for having me. And these two forms of targeted hate, targeted religious hate, are being spoken of concurrently now. But they have very different histories, as you can imagine. And the anti-Muslim hate evolution has been one that’s largely been over the past three or four decades, even though it’s preceded by anti-Black and anti-Arab racism which, you know, goes back into the Civil Rights Movement and before. But for the purposes of this dialogue, we’re talking about the way that these two forms of targeted hate have infused themselves within the political and cultural discourse of the United States and, well, Western countries in general. 

I will—I can speak more to anti-Muslim hate for now, because we have George as well joining us. And I wanted to probably fix this with my own personal experiences growing up in the United States. My first experience with the othering that comes with anti-Muslim hate came with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. And even at the time, as a young child, I still wasn’t aware of, you know, the literacy that people had, for example, in the United States with regards to Islam. I understood the basics of Sunni-Shia differences, the geopolitics of the region, and the way that my peers were reacting to that. And it showed that, you know, we were just beginning to sort of see people define these geopolitical events with a Muslim lens, and trying to understand and define for themselves what those Muslim attributes were and who were the Muslims among us.  

The one the one thing that sort of protected us a little bit, if you will, is that Muslims, of course, we’re a very diverse community in the United States. You had, you know, myself a South Asian background, but we had Arabs, African Americans, and so forth. And I think that people, you know, as much as they started to fear Muslims at the time, they weren’t sure exactly where to point. So I would have people, for example, talking about the beginning of anti-Muslim, you know, tropes and what have you, not realizing I was a Muslim or not knowing where these communities gathered, or where the nearest mosque was. This evolved, I think, in roughly ten-year stages in a very kind of interesting way. 

Ten years later, you had the Satanic Verses. And that that was—of course, you know, came out of the U.K. But I experienced that as a university student at Berkeley in California, when bookstores were firebombed there. And that started a new dynamic where, you know, whether you wanted to be involved or not, you know, Muslims had to sort of start to think about where they fit in the landscape, and what the—you know, whether this issue was going to define them. You know, and so that was the beginning of a lot of Muslim, you know, attempts at organizing, you know, from the policy organizations that some of us know today, like MPAC and CAIR, to Muslim students associations across the United States as a means of trying to figure out response. 

And, of course, then the religious aspect that came with that, the Salafi storm in the mid-’90s, where people were starting to figure out where the ideological perspective came. But even with all that, you know, the anti-Muslim prejudice was not pervasive until, of course, 9/11. And 9/11 then was a shock to everyone. You know, our generation of Muslims and, of course, everyone who said, OK, whatever I heard about Muslims in the past, now I’ve got to pay attention, and I’ve got to start deciding. And so, you know, you had my generation of Muslims, even though we weren’t—you know, those who weren’t scholars. Remember, before this point the scholars were sort of the gatekeepers. You know, now, from 9/11, you had a generation of Muslims who were deciding that they had to sort of take a part in that definitional role.  

And then you had government responses in the way that the U.S. government responded to 9/11. There’s the geopolitical aspect, but there’s also the aspect about how they related to Muslims in the United States. You know, looking back now from the Trump years—(laughs)—you know, we see actually that there was a very positive, you know, efforts to sort of ensure that Muslims were not ostracized or othered. And so we hopefully thought that that was the beginning of actually a normalization of Muslims to the American landscape. 

AMOS: So let me ask—let me ask Farah this question. So I was in—I was on vacation relief in 2021. I was in Jerusalem for the end of that Gaza war. I came back. I don’t remember overt anti-Islamic sentiment in ’21. Why is this one so different? 

PANDITH: Well, I can—I’ll answer that, but I just want to pick up one piece that Zahed talked about, and I think it’s very important. We are talking about anti-Muslim hate here in the United States, and how its evolution has made us become the society we are today. And in the context of that, I think it is very important what Zahed said about the Civil Rights Movement and Americans who experienced that who are black and Muslim. And to remind those of us who are talking about this that when we talk about Muslims in America we understand the evolution of Islam in America that came with the enslaved people. And so the layers, Deb, on this issue are multifaceted. This isn’t only about people that might look like Zahed, or me, or anybody in between. It is also really important that we give agency and give respect to the experience of Black Americans who’ve had sort of a double whammy, if you will, as we’ve dealt with this. 

So I want to—I want to pull the thread that you talked about, about what is different today. Let’s just take away the obvious. And some of the obvious is obviously how technology connects us, and what that does, and how the algorithms move us and move our emotions so that it’s sort of a rage quotient that we’re looking at. But also really importantly, that this moment has allowed us, as Zahed said, to look back over the many decades and to say, hey, what’s been missing in the infrastructure of America that allows us to be at a place where most Americans who are not Muslim have no idea about what a Muslim is? They don’t understand how diverse they are. They don’t understand what the religion stands for. They don’t know that America is the most diverse group of Muslims anywhere on planet Earth.  

And if you start with sort of that basic piece, where there’s nothing in the system that educates about Islam or Muslims, where we were calling for a representation of Muslims in government in a bigger way, where you didn’t see Muslims in any fields that were cultural. You saw them in medicine, and you saw them in engineering. And so you weren’t seeing them in the kinds of fields that they’re in today. The Gen X experience, you know, the Zahed that I went through is very different from how Gen Z is experiencing being Muslim in America today, because of all these other things. Not just technology, but the lack of understanding and awareness. 

And the last thing I’d say is, you know, I think that there is a component here that has to do—that is connected to the education piece. So what we really know about the religion of Islam and how diverse it is, it is one thing to say those words: It’s diverse. It’s another to really know the inner of the inner. And I think for those people who have had leadership positions, they’ve been staffed to understand sort of the most basic components of what they need to say. But they haven’t spent time in American Muslim communities across America to really see the kind of nuance that you really need to be able to understand who are American Muslims? So all of that ignorance, and all of that sort of shallow understanding, adds to the complexity of watching what we see happen on our TV screens or our phone screens today.  

And it messes people up, because they cannot put it in context of who are we talking about, and also that sort of underlying thing—which I know you’ll get to—but can American Muslims be loyal? Can they be loyal to America first? And that, to me, is sort of the undercurrent that pushes us into sort of these other places that people are asking deeper questions about. 

AMOS: Farah, I know that question. And it’s not just asked of Muslims. So, George, let me ask you, I’m going to go back to the difference between now and 2021. In 2021, there wasn’t an event, like a six-year-old boy in Chicago who gets stabbed to death by someone he knows. It was his landlord who, in a moment of insanity, you know, attacks a young boy and his mother for no good reason. I mean, it’s at a level that I haven’t seen. And if you have, if you can make some connections to when it was this bad, please tell me. 

SELIM: Thank you for that question, Deborah. And thank you to my colleagues who I’m on this panel with, and to the great folks at CFR for convening this really important conversation. You know, the title of this—of this conversation today, the last three words, “lessons for today.” Deborah, I take your question as in the spirit of the title of this, lessons for today and kind of what the three of us have learned post-9/11. I’ll offer three quick thoughts specifically to your question. 

The first is that what—the incident that you’re referring to, the horrific and very sad murder of this young boy in the American Midwest—happened in the wake of what has often been referred to as the most egregious assault on Jews since the Holocaust, that happened on October 7, led by the Hamas terrorist organization. So what’s happening today is in a context of what has often been referred to as Israel’s 9/11. So as we think about the United States’ 9/11 and what happened afterwards, we have some comparing and contrasting to do. The first is that the statistics that have often been quoted are something like a 1,5(00) or 1,600 percent increase in anti-Arab Muslim hate crimes and bias-based crimes in the post-9/11 period. That’s in the days, weeks, and months post-9/11.  

And when we talk about that instance and we talk about that period of time, it’s really important to remember that one of the first reported hate crimes in the post-9/11 period was actually not someone—was against not someone who was actually Arab or Muslim. It was against someone who was Sikh, or of Indian descent, that had a beard and wore a turban. The general consensus among many advocacy organizations is that the individual who was horrifically murdered in a gas station where he worked was because the perpetrator thought, I see a beard and a head covering I think this person is Muslim, and they’re the ones who killed 3,000 Americans in New York on 9/11. 

And so what we have here is a period of a terroristic attack, whether that’s October 7 in Israel or whether that’s 9/11 in the American homeland in Washington, New York, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And then we have the backlash and bias that comes as a result of it. The focus of the conversation here today is on anti-Muslim, but I just want to expand the frame, Deborah, if I may, just a little bit broadly because the post-9/11 affected communities aren’t just Muslim. They’re my own community that I come from, the Arab Christian community, South Asian, Sikh, or communities that have a funny last name, a little bit darker-complected skin, or could be perceived to be members of those communities. 

And we see that happening again today with communities across the country where we see a proliferation of hate and bigotry that’s largely anti-Semitic, but just biased and bigoted across the board. And I think part of the lessons learned that the three of us can talk about is how we can use these experiences historically to apply to potentially solutions today. 

AMOS: One more question about the problem, and then we’ll go to solutions. And that is, we have a presidential candidate who was talking about banning Muslims if he’s elected, about migrants of whatever stripe being put in camps. I wondered how much that—it’s in the background. I mean, it should be frontpage news every day, but it’s not. And so how—what lesson do you take from that? Zahed, should the yelling be louder? Should people be calling this out more? The fact that it’s happening at this moment is part of the noise of this anti campaign. 

AMANULLAH: Well, one of the things that I was surprised about—I flew in—I remember flying into Washington, D.C. a week after Trump was inaugurated, and seeing a sea of people protesting the Muslim ban that were of every background—Jewish, Christian, atheist. Every group that themselves were marginalized and victimized, who understood what it meant to have, you know, this kind of blanket sort of attack on you. And seeing that solidarity was a big bright spot for me. I realized that—you know, I spoke a little bit about literacy, people not understanding who Muslims were, I felt like at that point there were people who understood who Muslims were and what they were going through.  

And not just that—they didn’t just understand who they were, they understand what they had to do. And I think that that is a lesson for us to amplify, to continue our work across different backgrounds for justice and common causes that we can all agree to. That’s a curve, by the way that, Muslims themselves have had to sort of—a path that they’ve had to navigate. And it’s not been without bumps. You know, when we look at other targeted communities, you know, Muslims have come out, for example, when the Tree of Life Synagogue was attacked and people were murdered, came out to support them. These kind of things have to continue, because if Muslims want to continue to enlighten other people about who they are and why they’re important to the American fabric, they also need to care about others who are victimized. This is, to me, the biggest lesson and the biggest example that can prevent a potential Muslim ban in the future taking root. 

AMOS: Farah, is that a lesson? You know, sometimes in New York you will see both Muslims and Jews have been protesting together. And is that the lesson here? 

PANDITH: One of the lessons. So I think when I think about this evolution of where and how we must march, we know the best thing we can do is join hands with those who want to fight hate of any kind. It isn’t just about Muslims or Jews. It is not just about Black or white. We all know that. But today—especially today, when things are so unbelievably toxic and so dangerous—I mean, we’re at a different, you know, threat posture—completely different threat posture. When far-right supremacists in the United States with guns are organizing and finding affinity with the terrorist organization Hamas, because they want to go after Jews together and they have a common enemy. I mean, where are we? What is happening to our nation? 

So it is everybody that needs to stand up and fight against hate. We’ve been lazy on hate. I’ve said that repeatedly. Both policymakers and regular citizens just sort of stand up at times and then come back down again. So one—so to answer your question, yes, it is one of the lessons. But I would also say that it is not just the responsibility of those people who have been victimized to stand up. It is also the responsibility of those people who are in the majority to do better, and to help those who are in the minority.  

And finally, you brought up President Trump, so I want to take it a step further in thinking about the role of an American president. And President Trump is the first president in all of the presidents we have had in America—and we know, because George and Zahed and I worked on this together because we were trying to change the narrative. We were trying to understand from an American history point of view, hey, what have American presidents said about Islam and Muslims? Is it just recent? Are we just talking about this with Reagan and Carter because of the hostages, or if we go back can we do this?  

So even though we can say things like every single president, starting with George Washington, all the way to Barack Obama had very graceful, respectful, wonderful things to say about Islam and Muslims. And Trump comes in and disrupts everything and sets us off in a different path. Even though you can talk about Muslim majority nations, like Morocco, being the first country to recognize the United States of America, it’s going over everybody’s head because it’s just—they’re not absorbing it. But when Trump comes in, and has something hateful to say, and really can set things off, all of those things that we thought we had built in the system just sort of disappear. 

So when you ask about this political cycle we’re in and people lifting up what Trump is saying, he isn’t just saying about—saying it about Muslims. He is repeating what Hitler has said about Jews. He has talked about countries in Africa as, I won’t use that word, but something-hole countries. He has done it to many kinds of minority groups. And I think what we have to be asking ourselves is, what is the country we want? How important is pluralism and democracy to us? And how do we—how are we there for our neighbors? 

AMOS: George, I wanted to ask, so my sense is that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are different things. But one seems to follow the other. I mean, we’ve had just an extraordinary rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. So have institutions been slow to say something about it? I mean, it’s only now that universities are beginning to think about what’s our position. And I just wondered if you thought it took everybody by surprise at this astronomical rise in an anti sentiments. 

SELIM: So I think it did take many people by surprise, but it should not have. University presidents, administrators, and leaders should have been more on guard on this. You know, the freedom of speech is not the freedom to incite. It’s also not the freedom to intimidate and sow fear on other groups or persons on college and university campuses. And that’s a line that we’ve seen be crossed very recently. And in my own personal experience, talking to dozens and dozens of young people who identify as Jewish on a college or university campus who say that they’re in fear or they’ve been threatened in some way. On the other side of that spectrum, students who want to advocate for Palestinian rights or who want to advocate for a ceasefire, they have every right to do that. And I wouldn’t—that’s the America, as Farah was referring to, that I want to live in, where both groups that believe in different issues can advocate vigorously and engage in that expression, but not at the expense of the other group being targeted, or harassed, or fear of violence. 

And that’s the America that I want to live in. That’s the college and university setting that I want to send my children to. And I think overall, to answer your specific question, Deborah, I think we’ve known about it. I think leaders have been slow to react to it. And to your broader question on a presidential candidate, my short answer is that leaders need to lead. Leaders need to speak to what they are and what they stand for. In the case of the candidate you referenced, the policies have been made clear by that candidate and lots of the other candidates. And the American voter needs to decide what type of republic that they want to live in. Is it one that espouses division, bias, and bigotry? Or is it one that cherishes and prioritizes unity, pluralism, and community cohesion? And I think that’s a little bit of the impasse that we’re in at this point, at least as an American electorate. 

AMOS: I have a question about how this works and sort of what should have happened on college campuses. A lot of people complain that it’s social media. I just read a statistic that says most young Americans get their news from TikTok. And there’s plenty to read, if you want to—plenty. Both sides, interesting articles, ways to look at narratives, you know, it’s endless what you can read and learn these days. And I wondered if you thought that there was a way to tackle the social media problem of this, where people retweet stuff that they don’t understand is either anti-Islamic or anti-Semitism, because they don’t really understand what these terms mean. And I wondered if—I’ll start with you, Zahed—if there’s any way to address the social media piece of this? 

AMANULLAH: Well, that’s, you know, what people have been trying to, you know, influence—you know, guide, whatever, what have you, the way social media is used for the past ten years. And it is a beast. You know, we’ve all heard about the Letter to America that was being—you know, going viral on TikTok, and people scratching their heads and thinking, you know, those of our generation, like, Farah and my generation, thinking, how on Earth could this be interpreted that way? And we’ve done studies and we’ve done a briefing to show, you know, this is—these aren’t—you know, there’s some organic, you know, ways that social media is being used in ways that are surprising to the platforms themselves. Those of us, like, who research the platforms. And, you know, it is a challenge. It is a real—it is a real challenge. 

I mean, I think part of it has to come from, you know, those of us who have some influence in that space in terms of educating and bringing people together, who can—you know, who can sort of share their knowledge with the next generation in a way that’s compelling. You know, we already see—I mean, one of the things I was going to bring up in terms of what can be done in the future, you know, for Muslims, we’ve seen Muslims invest a lot more in the cultural entertainment and journalism space. You know, look at America. You’ve got mainstream journalists who have Muslim backgrounds, mainstream entertainers who have Muslim backgrounds.  

And this has had an impact in both, A, perceptions of Muslims, but also how you coax the narrative in a more productive direction. You know, and maybe some of that has to filter down on social media. Maybe there is, of course, an element of content moderation that has to be applied. But that’s an ongoing debate, you know, and especially with legislation and so forth. It’s a very difficult challenge. But we need to keep trying. 

AMOS: Farah, in my classes, my students were not born, when 9/11 happened. And so—not that any of them, you know, endorsed that that letter. But it made me think about it when I saw that there were young people who were. What do we do about social media? 

PANDITH: You know, Deb, students in my class did the same thing. I mean, I teach a class on countering violent extremism at Georgetown. And it’s absolutely fascinating. I play the videos of Brokaw talking about—when 9/11 was happening. And you’re listening to the words, you’re watching these things, they’ve never seen it. It’s history for them, of course. But they’re—but the problem is, when you look at things twenty-two years later, you see things that didn’t exist then, but you think that they make sense. You know, everybody is looking at that and thinking, oh my gosh, we see where the dots are that connect to the Iraq invasion, we see where the dots are. And there weren’t—I mean, you know, it’s somewhat conspiracy theory, it’s somewhat, you know, hindsight is—I mean, all of these things that come together. 

One of the things that is most basic—and Zahed is absolutely right. You know, it is a beast. But we have examples today of places on planet Earth that have taken this forward in a way that America hasn’t. And I think it is time for the United States to get real about digital literacy, about digital hygiene, with both parents and kids, and stop making it a wouldn’t it be nice if. But we need to figure out how to do it. We need to make sure that all of the efforts that are out there to really make social media platforms do more, and not just talk about it and do hearings and lie to Congress, but actually do things that are real. Look at the EU’s approach with the Digital Services Act. It’s not perfect, but it is moving in the direction of the harms that can happen not just to you as a human and your mental health, but to society at large as well. 

And I think that’s been the missing piece, Deb, as we think about how we talk about it in America. It is the general harms that are happening to America. And I think, to George’s point, we’ve got to decide who we are as Americans and what we want to do. You know, I mean, it’s sort of—it is connected, but there’s sort of a shrugging moment, where everybody’s like, well, it’s too hard and too difficult, can’t do, and cats out of the bag, you can’t make it happen. Well, then where does that lead us if we keep allowing hate to rise? In the last two years, how many statistics—whether it’s anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim hate or whatever it is—it’s off the charts. 

So these things are connected. And I think the responsible answer is there are three particular communities that I think can actually make a gigantic difference in in the way in which we look at this. Obviously, the legislative branch has got to get up to speed on what they need to do. But I would argue that so too with the executive branch of government, to really—to push hard and do it differently. But also, I would also say that that regular citizens have to really wake up to the harms that are happening. It seems to me that with other things, drug addiction, alcohol use, anything like that, eventually, when things are at such a crisis moment we start thinking why didn’t we do things when things were weren’t that bad? And that’s a lesson to learn right now. Things are on that path to become even worse than we are today. This is the time to act. 

AMOS: So, George, is it that bad? Do you hear—you’re in Washington. Do you hear people in Washington say we have to do something? 

SELIM: So the way that I’d answer the question, is it that bad, since October 7 through this past Friday, give or take, the seventeenth, there’s been roughly—and I think the ADL is getting ready to issue this this statistic today—there’s been roughly just over a thousand anti-Semitic incidents reported in about a forty-day period. So without answering your question, kind of based on how I feel about a particular, you know, period in time, let me kind of answer it statistically with calendar year ’22, which is the highest reported year on record of anti-Semitic incidents, there were about 3,600-3,700. There were a thousand and a forty-day period. 

And you asked the question before in terms of anti-Muslim hate, like, what does this tell us? The recording and the rigorous nature of recording of anti-Semitic incidents is often, if not always, the canary in the coal mine. So if there’s anti-Jewish hate, if there’s anti-Semitic incidents, there’s anti-Muslim hate, there’s anti-Black hate, there’s anti-immigrant hate, there’s xenophobia. There’s, you know, religious prejudice, or minority prejudice, or disability prejudice across the board. So is it that bad? I think it’s pretty bad. I think it’s pretty bad. I mean, the statistics bear that out. I mean, you cannot walk away from that statistic feeling heartened or warm, saying, oh, it’s, it’s OK. No. Like, there is a problem.  

There is a problem when public safety and security officers, you know, have to get taken to a hospital after a student protest advocating for a particular issue on a Midwestern college or university campus. It’s not OK that that’s happening. On the other hand, like, we have to keep in mind the canary in the coal mine here of all forms of bias and bigotry. And what happens abroad has a reverberation effect here at home. That’s across the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Southeast Asia, as we’ve talked about many times. So I think what we—what happens at home has a reverberation effect here. And that often the anti-Semitic incidents, that ADL is very skilled in recording and documenting, are the canary in the coal mine for the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, the South Asian bias and bigotry incidents that we saw the post-9/11 and again today. Those two are very closely connected. 

AMOS: OK, at this time— 

PANDITH: Can I say one— 

AMOS: Oh, sorry. Yeah. 

PANDITH: You know, what George said about the canary in the coal mine, it is sort of the opposite of what policy people are doing around these issues. Your foot is on the gas pedal when things are really bad. What can we do? What can we do? And when things seem to be OK, they release their foot a little bit and they’re not active and interested. One of the lessons here is the foot needs to be on the gas pedal for the duration. And we need to—we need to understand that the build is now—the momentum is so fast that if we—if we do not do that, we’re not going to be able to even get our hands around what needs to be—needs to be done. And today, I think that both Zahed and George would tell you that we do have solutions that we know have been tested. Not on mass, but they’ve been tested as things that can help reduce prejudice and bigotry, that can activate change in the cultural ecosystem. And I think that is a positive, that we do have something—lessons learned that we could apply if we wanted to.  

AMOS: OK. Hope that we can talk about that, but I want to turn this over to the audience because they have been patiently waiting. I can’t see them, but I think that they have been. So we’re going to invite members to join our conversation. Remember that this is on the record and the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. So I want to turn this over to Deanna, and we will have questions from the audience. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

We will take the first question from Maryum Saifee. 

Q: Thank you so much, Maryum Saifee. I’m a Foreign Service officer at the State Department.  

I first just want to thank CFR for hosting this discussion. It’s timely. It’s important and very personal for me. My father was a victim of a hate crime, anti-Muslim hate crime, in 2017. He was assaulted, punched in the face, seventy-year-old man in Texas. And I share this because we didn’t actually report it. So that’s another nuance to the conversation is a lot of these hate crimes are not reported. I thought I would be courageous enough to report, but when it came to my dad’s life, I couldn’t—you know, parent’s safety, I couldn’t do it. So just sharing that.  

I also really appreciate the distinction made that a critique of Israeli policy or calls for a ceasefire are not synonymous with anti-Semitism. I think that nuance is sometimes lost in this heated social media landscape. And so speaking of social media, my question is on the role of generative AI, the speed, sophistication, and velocity of mis- and disinformation. The landlord who stabbed that boy twenty-six times, Wadea, built him a treehouse, you know, a month before. So it’s really scary how polarizing this landscape is. So what role can policymakers have in regulating this space? Which I know is a hard question. Thanks. 

AMOS: Any of you? 

AMANULLAH: Well, I won’t speak to the policymakers but I can speak about generative AI. I mean, it is something—I spoke at a conference by the Turing Institute in September on this, where people were starting to look at how AI could be applied in this space. But I can tell you, there’s a lot of activity happening behind the scenes about both how generative AI can be leveraged by bad actors and extremist groups but also how generative AI can be used to push back with counter speech and so forth, or as a tool for communities to be used. I can tell you that’s happening now. And there is some research has been put in that direction.  

But it is really early days. I mean, in terms of legislation, as Farah I was mentioning, you know, the DSA in Europe has already come in effect, but there’s no similar legislation in the U.S. People are taking notes. There are AI addendums to those acts in Europe, and in the U.K., and in the EU. We’ll see what happens. But they’re based on the principles of harm protection and human rights. And those are the kind of frameworks that have to govern how these technologies are leveraged, how they’re deployed, how they’re used, how they’re regulated. We’re at the beginning of a long discussion when it comes to that. 

AMOS: Farah, I’ve seen crazy stuff that looks like it was produced by AI. And does that run in Europe? Have they figured out how to do it? Do they have rules? 

PANDITH: I think there’s a—yeah, no, I’m not an expert on AI. And I was—I was laughing, because I am thinking to myself, if things are this complicated right now and the speed with which we’re—the slowness with which we’re, you know, talking about this, where do we where do we end up? Maryam is actually working at the State Department in the bureau that does cyber. And so, you know, she—I’m putting some pressure on her to actually be forward-leaning with her team as they think about how to—how to be role models on this. 

But the answer to your question, Deb, is that, to my knowledge, there is no country in the world that is ahead of the game in how to think about this. They are discovering things as we speak. But the one thing that is not connected to Maryum’s question about AI, but is connected to technology in general, is that bad guys are all learning from each other about what works online. And so it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter what your ideology is. You can be ISIS, or you can be Hamas, or you can be, you know, the Proud Boys. If you see something that works online, whether it’s memes or videos or whatever you’re using in the social media platforms, you’re sure—of course, you’re going to copy what somebody else is doing, if they do it well. And so that’s where I think we haven’t even been able to get that right. And I’m worried—(laughs)—I’m worried because when you’re talking about the AI component, I don’t know where we go with that because we haven’t even sorted the most basic stuff. 

AMOS: George?  

SELIM: Yeah. Let me just start off by saying I’m so sorry to hear about the hate crime that your family experienced, that your father experienced. To give you just a quick statistic to the point you made on reporting, for every hate crime or bias-based crime, the numbers that researchers have put out in the past roughly decade tell us that there’s anywhere between a three and six factor of unreported hate crimes or bias-based crime. So for every one, hate crime or bias-based crime that’s reported, there’s three, four, five or six that go unreported. So take whatever this statistic is of anti-Semitic incidents, anti-Muslim bias, anti-Black bigotry, and multiply out the factors there. So we know it’s significant. And let me just use this as a commercial for reporting hate crimes and bias-based crimes. It may not always be something that law enforcement can act on, however, there are advocacy organizations that represent different constituencies, races, religions, ethnic groups, that that do take in those reportings. And so you should always do that. That’s a big, personal kind of PSA of mine. 

And the second thing is, I’ll kinds of—I don’t have a specific answer of generative AI. But I’ll use the analogy of ChatGPT. What a lot of professors and academics did in the fear of, oh, my students are going to copy their papers, they’re going to talk into ChatGPT and it’s going to spit out homework, it wreaked a fair bit of havoc at both the college and university, as well as the high school and elementary school level. But the really smart teachers and educators embraced it. And they said, OK, we’re going to bring ChatGPT into the classroom. Here’s how we’re going to use it. Here’s how we’re going to teach kids to utilize it. And the military’s done this, all kinds of bodies and institutions of learning have embraced ChatGPT—not all, but many have—in a way that it’s part of the learning not part of the something to be on guard for in a plagiarism context. And so I think in the chat—in the in the generative AI context, we need to learn—we need to start embracing it. It needs to be part of our diplomatic corps. It needs to be part of our college and university settings. 

And unless and until we start to embrace generative AI as something that we deal with, then we’re not going to fear it like spoofing, or doxing, or some other malicious activity. I think we’re aways out from that, but I do think in every forum of policymakers, generative AI needs to be something that’s helping further the conversation not something that we’re on guard against that we’re just pointing to technology or social media companies to figure out how to do something with. Because they’ve not been able to figure out how to do something about hate speech online, and so we shouldn’t hold our breath that they’re going to figure out how to do something about generative AI. 

AMOS: And, George, I’ve seen statistics that say it’s old people who do all the retweeting of disinformation, because they can’t read it. (Laughter.) And we’re going to depend on the young generation, because they’ll see it before we will. 

Next question, please. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Krishen Sud. 

Q: Yeah. Hi. Thank you for doing this session and for taking my call. 

Can I just—this may sound like a provocative question, but I’m just trying to do understand the issue a little bit. You know, we’ve come into an environment where everybody identifies themselves as, you know, Muslim American, or Jewish American, or gay American, or Indian American, which is what I am. Well, when I first came to the U.S. thirty-four years ago, we were—we tried to become American who happen to be Indian, or American who happen to be Jewish, or whatever. And is this whole identity where we wear our identity, you know, across our forehead all the time resulting in any way in increased backlash? But, I mean, obviously I’m not trying to justify the backlash, but I’m trying to understand if that is one of the reasons that you would attribute to a sense that more of this backlash is going on. Thank you. 

AMANULLAH: If I could on that. Like you, I grew up feeling American of Indian background, exactly that. The identity, because of the—because of—you know, you name all the incidents to go through from 9/11 and forward, felt like it was imposed upon me. Now, when that happens you either accept it, that narrative, or you challenge it. And by challenging it, you have to define yourself. So I’m still very fervent when I talk to people that I’m American, I’m culturally Californian. You know, but, you know, when it comes to defining what that Muslim aspect or that, you know, racial aspect is, someone has to do in a positive way. Otherwise, that—you know, that weaponized narrative will take root. And it’s a bit of a necessary, you know, endeavor in this—in this day and age. You know, finding that balance is something that every group of individuals, whatever their background, has to do. They don’t necessarily want to be defined by one characteristic. We are multifaceted individuals. But that’s a skill to really leverage all of those and define yourself as a combination of those—of those factors is something that we all have to sort of encourage in a positive way. 

AMOS: And some of us wear our identities, I mean, there’s no way to escape them. You look like that, or your name is like that, or, you know, what you’re wearing is that.  


PANDITH: Well, Krishen, I would say, you know, you’re asking a very philosophical question. And it’s a really good one. But there’s a responsibility for all of us. And I am like you. I was born in India. And I grew up in the United States, starting in 1969, where I never talked about my religion or my background because—not because I was ashamed of it, because it didn’t—it’s not the way the environment was. Nobody was identifying in those ways. So things have changed, obviously. I concur with you on that fact. 

But I think that there’s something else to be said. And that is, there is no way around the cultural moment we are in where everything is happening at a very fast pace around identity and belonging. And I think that there is an importance that we need to place on the generation that is Gen Alpha, and the generation that is Gen Z, in helping them navigate in such a way that they are proud of who they are and speaking about it in whatever way they wish to. There’s no right and wrong, obviously. But with all that complexity, so that they are not—they are not in a situation where any kind of predator can use who they are to their advantage. 

And I think. Unfortunately, that is—that is a reality that we know happens with bad actors, where, you know, the identity of people, who they are, where they come from, makes a difference to how they—how they choose to correspond and connect with people. I think that your question is much bigger than how I’m answering it, of course. But I did want to say, I think one of the weak spots that we have in America right now is understanding the effect of all of this identity and belonging on the youngest of generations, as you said, Gen Alpha. And I think it is really important that we do more to get to focus on that generation in particular. 

AMOS: George, does your organization focus on that generation? 

SELIM: We do. I mean, I think that the three things that ADL does is we investigate, we advocate, and we educate. We have a range of programs in the K-12 setting that address, you know, a comprehensive, anti-hate, anti-bias platform. But I think the question is a valid one. I mean, I concur broadly with Zahed and Farah’s comments. I think the question is very philosophical, I agree, Farah. And it’s one that we should all ponder.  

Like, when we walk into a room either personally or professionally, whether it’s a school, a community forum, or sporting event, is our conscious or unconscious bias saying, oh, there’s a group of people of color in the room, or a group of women, in the room or a group of older white men in the room? Like, are we consciously attributing race, identity, religion, age, sexual orientation? I mean, I think that’s part of the consuming, Deborah to your earlier question on whether it’s—I inferred your earlier question is media literacy. Is what we’re consuming everyday today driving us to always overtly identify as a male, as a female, as a nonbinary, as, you know, a political party one way or another, or whatever our labels or our identities are? 

In many ways, I feel like I want—I don’t want to be in that world where we’re always identifying someone or some group. On the other hand, I want to be conscious of my unconscious bias. Am I doing that unintentionally or in an unattributed way? And so I think the question’s a great one. I think it’s a question that we should all kind of strive to be in a society where, irrespective of the label, we’re striving towards a sense of inclusion that it doesn’t matter what the labels are, but that we’re diverse and we’re stronger together than we are apart. 

AMOS: Thanks, Krishen. Can we have the next question, please? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jonathan Golden. 

Q: Hello. Am I unmuted? 

AMOS: Yes, you are. 

Q: Fantastic. Thank you. Jonathan Golden from Drew University Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict. 

So I have a question/concern. Voters tend to have short memories. And I understand that many Muslim Arab voters in the U.S. at the moment, may be understandably frustrated with the Biden administration and their approach to the current war. But as you, several of the speakers referenced earlier, you know, is there a risk that in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, that could actually translate to putting the Muslim ban candidate back in the White House? 

AMOS: Zahed. 

AMANULLAH: There is a risk. And I think this is not something to be taken lightly. I think this is also a product of the increased political participation of Muslims in American society, not just as elected officials but as voters. And whether or not this leads to a Trump victory or, in fact, you know, there is at the last minute, you know, a change of heart, depending on what is put in front of voters, remains to be seen. I think we have eleven months to have that dialogue. But, you know, as, you know, there’s a lot of examples in American politics right now of people who are perceived to be voting against their self-interest. And this—you know, whether this becomes another one of those or not, we’ll have to see.  

But I think the—most Muslims in the U.S. would view this with a different lens. It’s that they want to be heard. You know, and they are, you know, saying that our support does not come without, you know, at least having a seat at the table, and being listened to, and having—so that’s what’s—that’s what’s being expressed right now. It’s being expressed through polls, not the ballot box. So we’ll see how that evolves. But it wasn’t surprising that it was going to come to this place. As, you know, the last election, 2022 and then 2020 before that. Record number of Muslims elected to public office both times. And I’m sure that 2024 will be another record. So that’s a change in the landscape that’s going to reflect itself in these complicated ways. 

AMOS: Farah. 

PANDITH: I don’t really have much to add. Zahed did it so beautifully. Jonathan, one other thing I would say to you is that as you think about the sophistication of American Muslims and how they’ve understood the power that they have to be heard on the policy side, they’re far more sophisticated today than they were even before 9/11. And what Zahed is saying is really, really important. How they flex that muscle in the next eleven months is going to make a difference to some of the questions that you’re asking. I think it is early days. Everybody—there’s high emotion right now, obviously. So I don’t think looking at a poll is the right—is the right answer. 

If you got Millennials and Gen Z who are American Muslims thinking differently about the capacity of somebody like Trump to come back, and what they wanted, and what they were willing to do to make sure that that doesn’t happen, I think you’re going to see some different actions on the ground. But, again, the war’s in early days, first. Secondly, I think that American Muslims are also really trying to figure out how they want to play this. And I think—I’m glad you’re asking the question, but I think it’s a little bit too soon to know. 

AMOS: So, George, let me see if you can expand on that. And there’s sometimes, as I read the news, I think they already have an effect. You know, the White House has been clear about what they don’t want to happen. And I wondered if you thought that that voice was being heard in the White House. 

SELIM: It’s tough to say. I mean, my time away from government has been some time. Again, I concur with Zahed’s initial analysis and the points that Farah mentioned. The only thing that I would add is that because of the closeness of the political race and the current conflict in the Middle East in proximity to the upcoming presidential election, is that any White House—whether it be Democrat or Republican—is paying a lot closer attention to what’s happening. I think the change in House speaker has really reflected the fact that there are very turbulent times politically across both major political parties in the U.S.  

The point that Zahed referred to about Muslims voting or Muslim elected officials is an important reflection of the very turbulent nature of the times, where different constituencies—whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Democrats, or conservatives, or liberals, or Republicans, or whatever the kind of attribute is—is that everything is up for grabs, it seems like, at this point. Nothing is certain. Just because you’re aligned on a particular issue, that doesn’t mean you’re going to vote for one particular party. And I think the current conflict in the Middle East and the war that Hamas initiated on October 7 has really made that point crystal clear, that foreign policy is going to play a much more significant portion of this upcoming voter electorate than it has in previous years. And ultimately, we’ll see how it plays out. 

AMOS: Thanks, Jonathan. Can we have our next question? We are—we’ve got six minutes left. So let’s see how many we can get in. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Timothy Horrigan. 

Q: Hi. Can you hear me? My name is Timothy Horrigan. I’m a—well, I’m one of the local officials. I’m a state rep from Durham, New Hampshire, which is a college town. Home of the University of New Hampshire.  

And this crisis caused by the Gaza war, I think, has led to an uptick in anti-intellectualism and intolerance of dissent here in the United States. We had a couple of—our campus at UNH has been relatively peaceful, but there were a couple of incidents that—not to get too partisan—but, like, conservative Republicans have seized upon and even demanded to defund the university and have people fired. One was just a small demonstration with a few students chanting pro-Palestinian slogans for a few minutes. But they’re still outraged by the fact the university—not sure what the university could have done about it.  

But also, like, there’s a professor who ironically is herself Jewish, but she’s also of West Indian descent who—and it’s a little bit unclear exactly what it is she said. But she said something which was pro-Palestinian, which they’re, like, misconstruing, as, you know, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. You know, and they want to have her fired, even though she’s a tenured professor and a pretty distinguished member of the faculty. And they want to cut the university’s budget. And so it just seems like how do we fight all this? How do we—how do we fight all this, like, intolerance of dissent and anti-intellectualism— 

AMOS: Thank you. We have about four minutes left, so let me get to the—let’s— 

Q: Used up a lot of it, yeah. 

AMOS: Yeah. Let’s— 

AMANULLAH: Really quickly, as a starting point, I live in a small sort of rural community where there’s a lot of tensions, of course, over what’s happening. But the leaders of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities got together, had a dialogue with their—with their elected official and president, and decided to draft a statement of tolerance and respect, and make sure that, from that point of view, that message was put out, understanding the differences of opinion, understanding the passions, but at least establishing a baseline. Now, that’s just one small community in England that’s, you know. But that’s something, if replicated in small communities, could at least set that baseline of—you know, of tolerance, but also of a willingness to engage in dialogue in a respectful way. 

Now, campuses are different environments, of course. And you, of course, are experiencing this. And there’s a generational divide. There’s all sorts of other factors at play. But outside of that environment, I think, you know, there is an ecosystem within college towns. This is one thing that you could do. 

AMOS: Farah. 

PANDITH: I agree with everything Zahed said. 

AMOS: (Laughs.) OK. And George. 

SELIM: Nothing to add. Thank you. 

AMOS: (Laughs.) All right. We’re going to sneak in one more question, but it needs to be very short. 

OPERATOR: No further questions at this time. 

AMOS: OK. So here’s then my last question and we’ll do a speed round. And that is, what’s your best technique? What should everybody do tomorrow to make things a little bit better? And I’ll start with Zahed, and we’ll go around the panel. 

AMANULLAH: Well, I mean, I want to—I guess my answer would be, you know, we had an interesting circumstance where I live that I turned into a case study for ISD, which you can read on our website, on anti-mosque mobilization. And the whole strategy of going through that relied on working with allies and faith communities, working with the social media companies in a responsible way, understanding legislation, being able to challenge the far-right in a, you know, coordinated fashion. We learned so many lessons from that. And I think that, you know, what people that we engaged with on the ground understood that even if they were just a neighbor or a—you know, that there were things that they could do. You know, keeping their eyes open about what’s happening, communicating regularly with people of other backgrounds, and, you know, sharing their concerns, offering to help when it came to sort of, you know, in our instance, stopping a protest by the far-right, you know? 

There are things that you can do. I think biggest thing is awareness. And awareness of what you’re speaking, how you’re speaking, not being inflammatory if you can help it, even if you want to, you know, put forth a point of view. And then, again, understanding the role of religion and geopolitics and all of these things, and not conflating different issues, so you don’t come out with an anti-religious bias because you have a particular opinion. 

AMOS: Farah, thirty seconds each for you and George. 

PANDITH: Well, I agree with everything Zahed said, but I will also add that oftentimes people think that one person cannot make a difference. And that is not true. Nano-interventions, one on one, can absolutely make a difference, even in the way in which you’re disagreeing well, even in the way you’re trying to learn about somebody who is different than you. Sounds like Pollyanna, but in fact all of those nano-interventions make a difference to a neighborhood and to a community. So the first thing I’d say is, find a way to do something you haven’t done before to learn about somebody who’s different than you. And then, secondly, find out the NGOs in your local area that are actually doing cohesion work, and see how you can be helpful. 

AMOS: George. 

SELIM: Call someone that you know you vehemently disagree with on a particular issue, and explain to them why. My ask is for all people to demonstrate counsel culture, not just cancel culture because they disagree with someone. But find a way to make sure that your views, in a very rational and thoughtful way, are understood and that you’re not just cutting someone off because they might have a different view than you.  

AMOS: Wow! That’s great. And we’re on time. (Laughs.) Thank you very much for joining this absolutely wonderful panel conversation that needed to be had. I would like to thank our panelists, Zahed Amanullah, Farah Pandith, and George Selim. Thanks, all of you. And thanks, the Council on Foreign Relations, for putting this together.  

SELIM: Thank you. 

AMANULLAH: Thanks very much.  


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