Since assuming office this year, President Donald Trump has forcefully pushed for a travel ban on immigrants from six mostly Muslim countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. He has argued that doing so would strengthen America’s national security, despite the overwhelming criticism the ban has received for propagating Islamophobia. Over a century ago, Trump’s predecessor Chester A. Arthur similarly endorsed legislation that singled out the Chinese, a group that threatened the so-called “safety”—specifically, job safety—of Americans.
While these two presidential acts speak to our country’s disturbingly explicit discrimination against immigrants, they also reveal the barriers to acceptance Asian Americans continually face. In the mid-1800s, Chinese laborers were scorned for taking low-wage jobs and accused of driving down pay. The anxiety over these immigrants fed into their depiction as the “Yellow Peril,” a disparaging label that portrayed Chinese immigrants as uncivilized ape-like beings. Some decades later, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps, following an attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today, much of the antagonism that the Chinese and Japanese once endured is directed at Muslims. Among the 2.05 million Muslim American adults who live in the United States, more come from countries in South Asia—particularly Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—than any other region, according to the Pew Research Center. South Asian Americans who do not identify as Muslim are still often victims of anti-Muslim discrimination, as many Islamophobes misleadingly attribute Islam to the entire South Asian demographic. Now, more than ever, Asian Americans, as a whole, need to come together to fight this modern-day bigotry.
For years, Asian American activism has been a fragmented movement. In 1966, the black activist Stokey Carmichael, one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke at a rally where he advocated for “Black Power,” a slogan that promoted self-empowerment among African Americans. Asian American activists, many of whom had Chinese, Filipino and Japanese roots, took notice and started their own crusade called “Yellow Power.” The campaign, which began at college campuses, demanded a mixed curricula that included the Asian American experience, reparations for Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II, an end to the Vietnam War, and fair housing.
Around this time, the South Asian population in America gradually increased, as a result of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The community naturally needed a platform to voice its concerns, but Asian American activists were largely interested in issues that primarily affected those of East Asian descent. South Asians were, for the most part, left out of the conversation until later. The term “Asian American,” it appeared, only applied to those who came from the Far East.
Despite efforts from Asian American advocacy groups to be more inclusive today, many South Asians still feel neglected. In a scathing essay for The Tempest, for instance, Nepali American Aastha Uprety argued earlier this year that South Asians continue to have an “awkward relationship” with Asian American activism. “The movement’s singular narrative gives voice to the same topics, like media representation and certain microaggressions, over and over again,” she wrote. The problem, she claims, is that repeated focus on these matters overshadows the struggles of South Asians, which most notably include Islamophobia. Because Muslims account for a much smaller percentage of East Asians than South Asians, the topic of Islamophobia has seemingly been lost in the Asian American conversation, a discussion that has more often than not advanced the interests of the former while disadvantaging the latter.
According to Human Rights Watch, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States jumped 44 percent between 2015 and 2016. Although many South Asian organizations have strongly denounced the attacks, other Asian American groups have remained relatively passive in leading the charge. The lack of forceful action on the latter’s behalf implies that the fight against Islamophobia merely concerns a select few, even though Islamophobia is a form of racism—not just a type of religious intolerance—against a group that is Asian American.
Although not always thought of as such, Islam is inherently an Asian religion. Originating in west-central Arabia, it became a powerful influence in South and Southeast Asia in the eleventh century. Today, approximately 62 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, the Pew Research Center points out. Even in China, where Islam is one of the least observed religions, the nation’s 20 million Muslims far outnumber the 4.3 million who live in the Americas. From majority-Muslim countries like Pakistan to cities like Seoul in South Korea, Islam has been a central piece in Asia’s socieconomic development. Anti-Muslim discrimination is an issue that South and East Asians need to work on together, especially here in the United States.
Strengthening solidarity among Asian Americans against Islamophobia begins with revisiting the definition of “Asian American.” Too often, narrowly defining this racial descriptor has become a roadblock to Asian American advancement. Advocating for causes specific to East Asian Americans and promoting such issues more widely as “Asian American” fail to consider the dangers that South Asian Americans face. At a time when racism and religious intolerance now go hand-in-hand for many South Asians, Asian Americans of all backgrounds need to unite in a show of force. Only then can we truly say that Asian American activism is indeed Asian American.