The Messenger of Allah said, “The believer does not defame, abuse, disparage, nor vilify.” (al-Tirmidhi)
So it is official, Islamophobia IS stupid! Well, at least the Associated Press (AP) rejected the term (along with Homophobia and “ethnic cleansing”) in their most recent update to the AP Stylebook. [For those who don’t know, the AP is an organization that among other things sets the journalistic standards for American Journalism if not most of English speaking world. To learn more about the AP, visit them here: http://www.ap.org/company/news-values]
The AP’s Reasoning for Excluding “-phobias”
The online Stylebook now says that “-phobia,” “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness,” should not be used “in political or social contexts,” including “homophobia” and “Islamophobia.” AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico, “”We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing.” – Emphasis added original source can be found here.
Why is this important? Two main reasons come to mind:
1) Journalist will begin to avoid using the term in their own writing and will tend to use it primarily in quotes of their interviewees
2) This represents a rare opportunity for Muslims to be able to define ourselves and shape the conversation about Islam and Muslims using more accurate, relatable and positive language.
In the first two parts of this series (part 1 here & part 2 here) we explored my argument that using the term Islamophobia was a strategic blunder destined to cause our community and causes more harm than good.
The major themes of my arguments were based on several factors like the etymology of the phrase, the dehumanizing effect it has on Muslims and the fact that Muslims are a religious grouping of people, not a race or are we ethnically monolithic. I then argued that the use of Islamophobia necessitates a strategy that leads to our community to be seen as a special interest group instead of a normal, contributing part of the societies we live in. Furthermore, we covered how the phrase Islamophobia is a politicized, inaccurate and invented term with multiple meanings that mostly was ineffective with regard to shaming bigotry against Muslims.
In these final pieces I hope to show how its use negatively affects our relationships and the “brand” or general perception of Islam and Muslims. Finally, I will recommend a way forward that I believe will better serve our community.
New Developments, New Strategies?
Contrary to the kneejerk reaction many of us will have to this development, now that journalists will be using the term Islamophobia only when quoting their sources and interviewees, the Muslim voice can be even MORE empowered. Muslims who are supportive of the term Islamophobia will use similar arguments as many leaders of gay community have already articulated in their response to the AP’s rejection of Homophobia: mainly that the term is established and that there is a need to shame bigots.
However, with regard to Islamophobia neither of these points are as strong as they are with homophobia not to mention that these responses still do not deal with the core reason for AP’s rejecting the terms on the grounds of accuracy.
“Homophobia especially — it’s just off the mark. It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case” said AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn. Source here.
The crucial concept for us to examine is how our messaging (specifically Muslim’s use of the term Islamophobia) shapes the way in which people view our faith and community. Are we favoring relationship building and the idea of soft power or are we attempting to use coercion? Will our community and more specifically the leadership of our major national organizations employ strategic messaging or continue to depend on reactionary rhetoric?
So what are our goals?
We just concluded one of the most polarizing political campaigns in recent history. And while I predicted the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry during the 2012 elections, we would be fool hearted to think that any drop in anti-Muslim defamation we are likely to see in the coming months means that people do not continue to harbor distrust and/or ill will for those that they do not know. The reality is that the effects of our deeply divided nation will linger for years to come and this is precisely the type of environment that fuels fear and hate.
Bias against Muslims and/or Islam is a real problem. How we deal with it is what matters. Do we seek acceptance from those who hate us? Do we confront hate with force? What options do we have?
As Muslims we should always begin with an examination of our intentions and goals, then establish and maintain our integrity in pursuit of our goals.
If we merely seek the self-satisfaction of calling out bigots, we are on the right track with phrases like Islamophobia. Media highlights and footage of Muslims using language like this makes for good fundraising today, but does it serve our communities long term interests? Is the temporary emotional satisfaction we derive worth the potential costs and can this strategy really heal the wounds of fear, bias or hate?
If our goals are to be able to practice our religion freely, to be respected as Muslims and to clear misconceptions about Islam, then we are woefully on the wrong track.
A useful formula to understand confrontation is the dialectical method.
In short the dialect formula says that thesis A and thesis B result in synthesis AB. Or in very simple terms when two cultures, ideas or even points of view meet, that their meeting has an impact on the original starting points. Our task as people on the religion of truth is to manage that outcome to the best of our ability, not to deepen the divisions between people.
Principles and self-confidence
Islamophobia is a term that is unbefitting of a self-respecting Muslim, because ultimately embracing the term forces us to internalize an unhealthy world view.
The Messenger of Allah said, “Anger is a burning coal. It burns in the heart.” (al-Tirmidhi and al-Bayhaqi)
By seeing ourselves through the lens of someone else’s fears and/or ignorance, we willingly preoccupy our consciousness with negative imagery about our community and religion. We begin internalizing the narrative that we are reacting against: that Islam is the problem. This is a sure path to developing a communal victim mentality and can lead to generations of Muslims with self-image problems and therefore self-limited progress and stunted influence.
This is not consistent with the example of how our noble Prophet dealt with the hatred and persecution that the early Muslims faced.
Our Prophet said, “Wondrous are the believer’s affairs. For him there is good in all his affairs, and this is so only for the believer. When something pleasing happens to him, he is grateful, and that is good for him; and when something displeasing happens to him, he is patient, and that is good for him.” (Sahih Muslim)
We have to understand that life today — with the onslaught of so much messaging, opinion, information and consumerism, combined with a weak economy — means that people do not have the desire nor the time to pay attention to nuances and issues of groups they are not sympathetic toward or do not identify with.
In today’s mass communication world, we have to recognize, respect and begin to utilize the power of framing discussions. The frame of Islamophobia does allow us to call people out for bigotry — I think rather weakly and ineffectively — however, in the minds of non-Muslims it also permanently places us in the role of conflict at worst, or as a special interest at best.
Let’s look at a typical scenario:
A Muslim or some group of Muslims is confronted with bias. We respond by calling it Islamophobia. Then a significant portion of the larger society we live in, learns about this incident through watching a 30 second spot on the news. The news segment has little background or context. Often the viewer feels implicated by our response and treatment of one of “their” own. They feel implicated not because they are committed “Islamophobes” but because they do not know much about Islam and Muslims, they do not ever have to deal with anti-Muslims sentiment and often these folks are sympathetic (regardless of if the source of the bias is based in hate, ignorance or mis-information) to what we just called Islamophobia.
Far too often we respond like this and galvanize bystanders – who normally would not care enough to have a position on our community — against us. Furthermore people who are already civil liberties and civil rights minded are already supportive so our response does not move them and the rest of the community either will still not care or develop a sense that they are being called a racist or bigot by virtue of them belonging to a demographic similar to the perpetrators of the original anti-Muslim bias.
This is in part where the false narrative that Muslims don’t condemn terror comes from. The non-Muslim public more often hears more about Muslims condemning bigotry and oppression against Muslims, than anything that Muslims actually stand for or believe. They almost never hear directly from Muslims in any context other than some spokesperson reacting to some negative event while almost never being exposed to any positive information about Islam or Muslims.
Simply put, it is important to realize that the average American has more than enough in their own life to worry about. So when it comes to some other subset of the population, most Non-Muslims just want to know that we won’t blow them up, sit by and allow someone else to blow them up, limit their freedoms or use their resources.
Here is another way to look at it. Person A says, “I don’t want a Mosque at ground zero.” Person B says, “You are an Islamophobe!” The conversation ends and denigrates into a conflict. Conflict with Muslims already having a “goodwill deficit” combined with the prevalent ignorance about our faith and community is normally a net loss for our long term goals of respect and freedom to practice our faith.
Expanding our messaging toolbox
Fighting fire with fire sometimes works, however it also leaves a scorched earth. That is fine in some cases, like stopping the advance of a wildfire. But we are dealing with people, ideas and emotions not land, brush and trees.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy about how we label and respond to hate is that we fail to capitalize on the fact that we are truly empowered to define our own narrative. We have the power to accept or reject the terms used and now with the AP’s stance we can really make a strategic shift in our messaging.
Remember that the latest demographic numbers have our community at less than 2% of the U.S. population. Can we afford reactionary or opposition messaging as our primary voice in media coverage?
To Date Our Efforts Have Not Produced Positive Results
It is well documented that over the last eleven years there has been a steady and negative shift or decline in people’s attitudes about Islam and Muslims at large and Americans’ perceptions about American Muslims have been stagnant while opinions about Islam have eroded. Documented research from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is available here and from the Gallup Muslim-West Perceptions Index available here along with video here.
In the final segment of this series (Islamophobia is Stupid Part IV) we will conclude by examining alternative terms and two new strategies for our community to adopt: 1) containment of anti-Muslim bias and 2) values-based relationship building through strategic messaging.
Comments not related to the subject of this piece will be edited or deleted. ApologeticsÂ and any other forms of â€˜my religion is better than your’s will be moderated. NOTE: Telling Muslims what we believe or debating us about how to understand our religious texts can and should be done on other forums.