Researching Islamophobia in the Bay Area

by Rhonda Itaoui, CRG Visiting Scholar from Western Sydney University, Australia

Rhonda Itaoui

Late December 2014, I apprehensively accepted an offer for a commonwealth-supported place in Western Sydney University’s PhD Program in Human Geography to become a visiting scholar in the CRG Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project. Overwhelmed by nerves, fear and self-doubt, I knew this commitment would be no less than an intense, demanding challenge. As I sit here on the beautiful UC Berkeley campus in California, I can safely say I could never have imagined writing a reflection of my PhD experience from such a position of privilege. A strong passion for researching racial inequality – namely Islamophobia, encouragement from mentors, and a rigorous application process resulted in receiving the prestigious Australian Government Endeavour Postgraduate Scholarship to fund a full-year of PhD fieldwork on Islamophobia in the Bay Area.

As a member of the Australian Muslim community subject to increasing levels of Islamophobia, my interest in capturing and documenting the impacts of this form of racism on Muslim youth is very much a personal one. My educational background in human geography inspired a consideration of how the public exclusion of Muslims from Sydney’s spaces expressed through protests against Mosque development or Islamic institutions was being interpreted by Muslims, and whether it shaped the way they perceived and engaged with various regions they had been excluded from. My 2014 research on the impacts of Islamophobia on the spatial mobility of Muslim youth in Sydney, found that experiences of Islamophobia not only impacted the way young Muslims perceived their neighbourhoods, but also limited the way they engaged in certain spaces.

Fatima Khemilat and Rhonda Itaoui

My Bay Area case-study, supervised by Dr. Hatem Bazian (Ethnic Studies), who leads the Center for Race and Gender’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, aims to similarly uncover the geography of Islamophobia in the Bay Area. As of April 2016, I have collected over 150 online surveys, and will spend the remaining three months of my visit conducting over 30 interviews with young Muslims on their diverse experiences of identity and belonging in the Bay Area. Upon collecting these narratives, I will undertake a relational comparison between the experiences of young Muslims in the Bay Area and Sydney to gain insight into the complexities of how Islamophobia is experienced, and the way it is both locally and globally produced and manifested.

The research process has been exciting, rewarding and challenging. Conducting research on such a sensitive topic, with a community under immense political pressure called for a more “participatory” research approach.  Gaining trust and building rapport as an “insider-outsider” resulted in data collection delays, that was equally met with enriched local knowledge, stronger community networks, and building friendships along the way.

Throughout the research process, my time as a visiting scholar at CRG has facilitated access to endless resources, networks, and opportunities for research dissemination and professional development as an Early Career Researcher. Dr. Bazian’s local knowledge and wellestablished trust with the Bay Area Muslim community has been instrumental to my data collection and rapportbuilding in the early months of my visit.

Further, CRG has provided me with access to a community with like-minded individuals and groups who are striving towards the common goal of achieving racial justice. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my research via a number of public-speaking engagements across the Bay Area, ranging from presenting my local findings at the CRG Thursday Forum Series, training UC Berkeley students on “racialization” at the local YWCA, speaking as a “Phenomenal Woman of Colour” at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, and presenting my Sydney case-study at the Annual Islamophobia Conference, co-sponsored by CRG. My UC Berkeley affiliation has opened doors to a vast array of career development workshops ranging from resume consultancy, to training in digital research methods such as “demographic mapping” at D-Lab in Barrows Hall. Of all these benefits, the collegial, welcoming and supportive team environment at CRG has been the highlight of my visit, and made my research, opportunities and accomplishments possible.

I look forward to the remainder of my appointment as a visiting scholar at CRG that will be filled with endless opportunities for social, professional and intellectual growth.

This article was originally published in the CRG FaultLines newsletter, Spring 2017 issue.
Source for top photo. Caption: PhD fieldwork in action at the Council on American-Islamic Relations SF Bay Area banquet, ‘Advancing Justice, Challenging Hate’.

Listen to the CRG podcast of Rhonda Itaoui’s presentation, “Geographies of Islamophobia in Sydney and the San Francisco Bay Area: Mapping the Spatial Imaginaries of Young Muslim residents“.