Note: Following is a transcript from a presentation I gave for St. Croix Falls Unitarians on August 6 2017.
I want to begin by stating that I am not an expert on the topic of Islamophobia. But what does seem clear to me is that there is a history in this country to distrust outsiders and fear the worst. For example, in 1915 a second group of Ku Klux Klan was founded and flourished nationwide in the 1920s, particularly in urban areas of the Midwest and West. Rooted in local Protestant communities, it opposed Catholics and Jews and used intimidation tactics modeled on the southern Klan. One could fill a book with examples. Tribalism and fear are problems inherent to the human condition.
To be sure, Islamic extremists do represent a threat. From September 12 2001 through December 31 2016 Islamic extremist attacks led to 119 deaths in the United States. Forty-nine of those deaths came from the June 2016 Orlando nightclub attack. During that same period “far-right extremist” attacks led to either 106 or 158 deaths, depending on how they defined far-right extremists.
We need to be vigilant as a society toward all forms of extremism. People watching the news need to be aware that a violent extremist group only represents that group, and not a larger group such as all conservatives or all Islamists. What seems unfortunate is that the American public seems more agitated by Islamic extremists than by far-right extremists. Islamophobia generalizes the extremist threat to include anyone who appears that they could have originated at some point in time from the Middle East.
The Huffington Post tracked Islamophobia in the United States throughout 2016. Having tracked hate for a year, they found that people who disparaged Muslim Americans are mostly reading from the same script. Here’s what they learned, summarized as the 6 Rules of Islamophobia In America – in other words, patterns of belief among those people who hate, scapegoat, or profile Muslim Americans.
Rule 1: Muslims are not American.
Muslims just can’t be from here, the thinking goes ? even though Muslims fight in our military and die in our wars, and even though a United States without Muslims has never existed.
Rule 2: All Muslims are terrorists.
Rule 3: Pork is to Muslims as a crucifix is to vampires.
Like Judaism, Islam generally prohibits its followers from eating pork. While these pork-based acts of hate are undoubtedly meant as insults, the perpetrators may believe that pork could magically harm Muslims. For example, Trump in 2016, told an apocryphal story of how a United States general killed Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.
Rule 4: All brown people are potentially Muslim, and are therefore potentially terrorists.
For example, Singhs wear turbans and are Sikh, not Muslim. Christian immigrants from Lebanon are not Muslim.
Rule 5: Islam is not a religion, it’s a violent ideology. Here’s the misperception: Islam “is an ideology posing as a religion. Islam is intolerant and deceitful, and its adherents are ordered to overthrow our way of life and to replace it with ‘Sharia’ law.’ People in less metropolitan areas seem more likely to believe this. For example, a This American Life documentary focused on the reaction of citizens in St. Cloud Minnesota to Somalian refugees, which included a fear of Somalians imposing Sharia law. Trump isn’t to blame here, he just happened to be expressing a very real attitude already existing in many rural or less metropolitan areas of our country. In St. Cloud, and elsewhere, the fear is unfounded.
Rule 6: There’s a secret Muslim plot to take over and/or destroy the United States and/or Western civilization from within.
The idea of a “civilization jihad” is a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory. But it’s also a popular one that has contributed to this country’s dim view of Muslims. According to a UK research company, many Americans think 17 out of every 100 people in the United States are Muslim — that would be over 50 million Muslims in America. There are only about 3 million.
If we’re going to help protect our Muslim neighbors, coworkers, friends and family, these are six “rules” that need to be challenged.
There seems to be a tendency for some Americans to generalize Islam from what they here about Islam in extremist countries. In the fall of 2014 CNN invited Christian and Muslim scholar Reza Aslan for his response to the view that Islam is a violent and repressive religion. I understand that current events in the Middle East continue to shape governments and cultures. For example, the government in Turkey is more repressive today than in 2014. But the call to stop generalizing prejudice is still relevant. I’ve pulled two statements and a question from that interview, focusing on Aslan’s response.
Responding to the statement that circumcision for women is a Muslim problem:
Aslan states: the argument about the female genital mutilation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of [misunderstanding]. It’s not an Islamic problem. It’s a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.
Responding to the statement that it is not a free and open society for women in Muslim countries.
Aslan states: Well, not in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.
It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. I mean, again, the problem is that you’re talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, well, in Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive and so therefore that is somehow representative of Islam.
It’s representative of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the most, if not the most, extremist Muslim country in the world. In a month Saudi Arabia, our closest ally, has beheaded 19 people. Nobody seems to care about that because Saudi Arabia sort of preserves our national interests.
When asked: does Islam promote violence?
Aslan responds: Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, [their economy], their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.
Stop saying things like “Muslim countries”, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same. [To generalize] what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, as representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country, is, frankly — and I use this word seriously — stupid. So let’s stop doing that. End quote.
The request to “stop doing that” seems unlikely to be effective when directed at the general public.
Negin Farsad uses social justice comedy to clear up misconceptions about Islam. She’s better at it than I am. So I’m going to let her speak for herself in this 8 minute TED video.
Research suggests that strongly held beliefs are highly resistant to change. Challenging rigid beliefs can actually make them stronger. It’s called the rebound effect. Our persuasive energy is better spent with folks whose opinions are undecided or less rigid.
If a friend reveals their negative bias in conversation, it should be all right for you to disagree. There’s no need for argument or difficult discussions. Set a tone for allowing disagreement. Disagreement means that we don’t need to have the same opinion about everything, and that we don’t need to try and change the other person.
But how do we react if we personally witness hatred? To be alert and awake to the moment is a good start. We are not passive bystanders to the mean-spirited treatment of minorities – including women. When we pause and become more awake, we are more likely to respond appropriately.
How we respond will be an individual choice, and must fit your predilection, your personal resources, and the potential resources or variables of a situation.
In a public setting with uninvolved bystanders and harassment that has not escalated into violence, it might be helpful to engage the victim in small talk or ask them, “How are you doing right now?” Try to build a safe space. Engage in eye contact with potential allies. If it seems feasible, guide the victim out of range of hateful comments.
On the podcast Invisibilia, there was an account of a dinner party that was interrupted by a burglar, and one of the guests asked the burglar if they would like a glass of wine. The burglar accepted, and the situation de-escalated.
Eckhart Tolle and Fred Rogers employed gentle, quiet, but intense presence in difficult situations, and we’ve heard the stories of elderly women vocally backing down angry youth.
There is no one answer, but we do live in the age of video cell phones and an ability to call 911 when violence seems imminent. Please don’t put yourself in harm’s way based on this presentation alone. The subject is worthy of inquiry, introspection, rehearsal of choices, and the vigils of mindfulness.
Thank you for your kind attention.