Islamophobia is stupid: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
“Surely, you will follow the ways of those nations who were before you, in everything as one arrow resembles another, (i.e. just like them), so much so that even if they entered a hole of a sand-lizard, you would enter it.” – (Recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim)
My initiation into community activism was in late 2001. I got my feet wet at the helm of the fourth largest city in America’s leading Muslim civil-rights organization. As a convert, it was a ‘baptism by fire’ as I was relatively new to Islam and Houston, a city at that time with well over 90 Islamic centers and an estimated 300,000 Muslims. I was the organization’s first executive director and my work included dealing with arson, gunshots and bombs aimed at mosques. We responded to purposeful disrespect of the Quran, attempts to prevent our sisters from wearing the hijab or Muslims in general from having other religious accommodations. Our two person staff was responsible for community outreach, networking, empowerment programs and media relations.
Since that time I have been serving the community on the city, state and national scenes as a messaging and public relations consultant. I can assure you that our community has been contemplating Islamophobia for quite some time. It is indeed a stupid phenomenon, but perhaps not in the way one might think. My analysis of the term has dramatically changed since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I believe there is a better way forward.
In this series, I intend to explore the term Islamophobia, how it is used and its effectiveness. My goals are to find better ways to counteract ignorance, fear and bigotry. I ask that you read this series with an open mind and as an active participant. Consider yourself a member of a virtual focus group, because the problem of Islamophobia affects us all.
THINGS ARE NOT IMPROVING:
If the latest news-cycles’ focus on the growing distrust and fear of American Muslims has taught us anything, it has clearly shown that as a society we are still struggling to deal with the trauma of 9/11. We are balancing the threat of terrorism and the resulting cataclysmic cycles of violence, war and new security policies eroding the civil liberties of all.
The intensity of today’s anti-Muslim hysteria is noticeably different. It is more widespread and most alarmingly, it seems more palatable to the public at large. The vocal extremists who are spreading fear and hostility are not just making the news; they are in fact creating an environment that nurtures their hate. I won’t rehash the headlines as you are all aware of them, but we must ask, what has changed and what is behind the increased spread of anti-Muslim fear? Are we contributing to the problem?
A partial understanding to this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment can be found in lessons learned from the disaster response world. While dealing with long term recovery efforts, emergency managers have documented trends surrounding “significant anniversaries” of tragic events. People tend to relive the event. It should be noted that next year will mark a full decade since 9/11. So don’t be fooled when we see a brief cooling off period after Election Day, November 2. The industry of “harbor fear and contempt for Muslims” has not yet begun to peak.
Poll after poll has shown that anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise, and as a community we seem to be stuck doing what we have always done, and expecting different results. A key part of this insanity is what I like to call “comfortable activism.” Comfortable because it is what we’ve always done, it is what other communities have done and it gives us a sense of self-gratification that we acted against our foe and that we had the moral high-ground.
Isn’t it past time that we evaluate the term Islamophobia? Are there implicit activist approaches that its use requires? If so, are these approaches beneficial? Is our community stuck in modus operandi? What about other communities that we interact with or belong to; does our current trajectory affect them in a beneficial way? These are the questions this series seeks to answer. The solutions exist, but the path forward is up to us.
First, we must start at the beginning, what does the term Islamophobia mean?
THE ETYMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT:
Etymology: Islam+phobia = Islamophobia
A common use of the term is to call out anti-Muslim bigotry.
However, the term literally means a fear of Islam.
The false equation:
Islam (religion of 1.5 billion people (1 person of every 5) on the planet) + Phobia (an irrational fear) = anti-Muslim bigotry?
Because, linguistically Islamophobia focuses on Islam, it exacerbates the confusion of the words Islam and Muslim. This point is tremendously important, not merely because it annoys us to be called “Islamics,” but also because when any derivative or English language adaptation of the word Islam is created, the resulting phrase sends the message that ALL Muslims and our faith itself are implicated in the term’s new meaning.
The key example of this was on Aug 10, 2006 when President George W. Bush used the phrase Islamic-fascists.
It would, at this point, be a chicken and egg conversation to explore what came first between terms like “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorism” or the labeling of people as Islamophobes. What should be crystal clear is that one feeds the other.
ACCURACY OF THE TERM:
Based on etymology of the term it can be considered very accurate in an academic or theoretical sense by describing some peoples’ fears and/or ignorance about Islamic doctrines and theology. The groups that support this view can be subdivided into three groups each with progressively less support for the idea of fear of Islam itself as they move toward the idea of fear of Muslims as well.
The first group contends that due to Islam’s rapid expansion, being so vast and so successful, so quickly that its eclipsing of the early expansion of Christianity caused a deeply rooted bias against Islam. They suggest that this was seen as countering a “proof” or manifestation of the Christian faith. Some of the very early Christian communities’ took the “miraculous” spread of Christianity as a demonstrated victory over the pagan and Jewish communities and as a evidence of the validity of their faith.
The second group contends that Islam is not defined or rooted by its source texts and traditions, but rather it is what Muslims do that actually defines Islam. While on scholarly level, I can appreciate this where the rubber meets the roadapproach; I also believe it is very dangerous. This view lends public credibility to any agenda driven group that wishes to redefine, reinterpret or change the established orthodox, textual and traditionally held views of the vast majority of Muslims.
Defining Islam by the actions of some Muslims rejects time honored traditions of Islamic scholarship. It allows any Muslim — qualified or not — to define Islam. This applies equally to all fringe groups; from those that promote or justify indiscriminate violence to those that want to change the religion in other ways. This also ignores the broad and overwhelming consensus of Muslims who embrace Islam as a living tradition that is rooted in the traditional sciences and orthodox understandings of Islamic sources. This is important because it can serve to stifle positive and effective refutation of extremist groups by equating unequal voices by making them appear equally authoritative.
The third group sees the term Islamophobia in light of another term (xenophobia) and therefore not entirely accurate. They argue that the fear of Muslims is really a part of the larger trend of xenophobia of all “others,” and in this case of Muslims. This is why many definitions of the Islamophobia describe Muslims as a monolith.
DEFINITIONS OF ISLAMOPHOBIA:
Islamophobia [ˌɪzlɑːməˈfəʊbɪə] n
(Psychology) (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture
2. In 1996, the Runnymede Trust a UK based organization report titled, “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All” defined by the term as “an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.”
Islam is not a race.
Muslims are not members of a race.
In my analysis, the accuracy angle misses the boat altogether. The inherent problems of an unclear definition are only one piece of our conundrum. Not having clear goals for our communities’ progress is another major concern.
A NEW WAY FORWARD?
Our task is to earn the respect of larger society and to integrate while maintaining our faith, our identity and our Godly way of life.
Along the way we will have to stand against injustice, but those stances only require partnership and cooperation; not that we adopt other community’s models of generational struggle as our own. So why are we as members of a religious community copying models of non-similar communities’ activism in our struggles to counteract bigotry and fear?
Surely as a community we must stand on our own terms. The key is charting our direction ourselves. The great African American leader Frederick Douglass while addressing the Louisville Convention in Kentucky, Sept. 24, 1883 said: “Depend on it, men will not care much for a people who do not care for themselves.” The first step in caring for ourselves is to know who we are and what binds us as a community.
To truly discuss these issues we will need to examine some related concepts like race, ethnicity and culture. In Part Two, we will look at these concepts along with how Islamophobia is used tactically. We will then explore how these tactics combined with the complexity of our communities’ demographics impact the perception of Islam and Muslims. Please sound off in the comments section and stay tuned!