Caleb Iyer Elfenbein, an associate professor of history and religious studies and director of the Center for the Humanities at Grinnell College, recalls 2015 as turning point for him as a scholar, American citizen, and writer. He gained tenure and with it, a new freedom to pursue writing not only for other academics but also for a wider audience. “This was my opportunity to address something pressing and contemporary,” he says.
Elfenbein decided to take on Islamophobia and the corrosive impact of public hate, which he found in waves of news headlines describing suspicion and surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. in the wake of 2001, rage over a proposed Muslim mosque and community center near Ground Zero in New York City in 2010, the 2015 terror attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the anti-immigrant campaign and presidency of Donald J. Trump.
After training with Grinnell’s digital humanities program, Elfenbein pulled together grant funding and several talented students to establish a new online database, Mapping Islamophobia. It has grown to nearly 2,000 media-documented reports whose subjects range from physical attacks on Muslims to assaults on their dignity and their right to space in the public square. Through it all, he finds, Muslims—burdened with unwarranted attacks on their faith, culture, and commitment to America—have responded with an unexhaustible dedication to public outreach and engagement.
The project’s findings prompted Elfenbein to write Fear in Our Hearts: What Islamophobia Tells Us about America (Jan. 2021). It’s the first book on Islam to be included in NYU Press’s North American Religions series, says senior editor Jennifer Hammer, who acquired and edited it. She particularly liked that the text is rich in stories of individual experiences, making the book accessible for scholars, students, and general readers alike.
One of those individuals is Maheen Haq. As a college student in 2017, Haq wrote an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, “Being Muslim Is...,” which described her daily life in rural Maryland. “It is fear in your heart,” she wrote.
That sentiment registered so deeply with Elfenbein that it became the title and a theme in the book. When he revisits Haq in 2019, she tells him she is afraid no more.
Brave as that sounds, it made Elfenbein sad, he says, because “behind her lack of fear is that Haq has accepted that bad things can happen to her.” He adds, “White non-Muslim Americans” like himself “still have the privilege not to have to think about race and the normalization of public hate.” Carrying the burden of other people’s fears, he writes in the book, “cuts against a core principle of our democracy: that all of us have the right to decide when, where, how, and why to participate in public life.”
“Most of us are not going to be involved in grand social change but there’s real value in doing the small work, local work, in being neighborly to one another,” Elfenbein says. He begins Fear in Our Hearts by sharing a “beautiful idea in Islamic devotional traditions: that God is closer to us than our own jugular. I understand this idea to mean that God is always with us, is part of us. God is an everpresent witness to what we do, what we think, how we approach living with others in the world.”
And the book ends with a charge to the reader: “Fear is a normal part of being human, but what we do with our fear is not preordained. It’s a choice. It’s a series of choices, every day. Let’s make the right ones together by being good allies to one another, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.”