The Muslim Response To Islamophobia is Destroying Us From Within

Fear of anti-Muslim bigotry is creating severe consequences for Muslim faith.

American Muslims are scared and rightfully so. Many are worried about what the future might hold with Trump’s presidency and the increase in public expressions of Islamophobia being spewed right and left. While fear is a valid emotion and is necessary in waking us up out of complacency, it can also lead to negative consequences.

As we read throughout the Quran, all communities of believers are tested with fear-inducing trials. Faced with these tests, successful communities stay united on a shared commitment to God and His religion in spite of the fear. This is often easier said than done. Maintaining commitment to one’s faith and its tenets is not easy in times of trials (fitan) and, oftentimes, fear and anxiety can cloud the decisionmaking process. For Muslims today, anxiety about Islamophobia has the potential to lead our community down a dangerous road. To see how this happens, we only need to refer to the Quran and its account of Bani Israel. In many instances, a strong sense of fear led Bani Israel to directly disobey God’s commandments, which in turn led to ruin (for example, as described in Surah Yunus: “But no one believed Moses, except [some] youths among his people, for fear of Pharaoh and his establishment that they would persecute them.” [10:83]).

Fear Factor

We see the same dynamic in religious and ethnic communities today. An eye opening article recently published in The Federalist is provocatively titled “How Liberalism Destroyed the American Jew.” The article describes how Jewish American political and moral choices over the past several generations have resulted in a thorough loss of faith. A Pew study cited in the article asked Jewish American respondents: What does it mean to be Jewish? One might imagine that the answer would have something to do with believing in God, reading the Torah, or following Abraham and Moses. These points, however, do not factor into Jewish identity according to the majority of the Jewish Americans surveyed by Pew whereas “eating traditional Jewish foods” and “having a good sense of humor” do. The two religious features a minority of respondents did recognize as part of their identity was “caring about Israel” and “observing Jewish law,” but the latter was at the bottom of the list. Other common features of their identity Jewish Americans noted include “leading a moral life” and “working for justice/equality,” though these, of course, are not values unique to Judaism.

What does all this have to do with fear? Well, it is important to note that “remembering the Holocaust” is the overall number one component of Jewish identity that seventy-three percent of Jews recognized. Is it a coincidence that this component has to do with fear? Is it a coincidence that remembering the one greatest act of anti-Semitism, i.e., the Holocaust, is what most Jews consider to be what being Jewish is all about?

There is a clear connection between the remembrance of the Holocaust being the number-one feature of Jewish identity and the fact that the rest of the list has little to nothing to do with Judaism as a theology and more to do with cultural practices and general values that are endorsed by the dominant American culture at large. Fear is a potent motivator. Fear is a potent justifier. Virtually anything can be justified if one believes that the alternative is the Holocaust.

In contrast to the Jewish community, however, the majority of the American Muslim community has not had genocide in its history (though segments of the American Muslim community, such as Black, Native, Bosnian, and Palestinian American Muslims, among others, have). Undoubtedly, American Muslims must be vigilant in the face of any threat. At the same time, the community must be aware of how preparing for a threat can have unintended negative consequences on the community’s faith. For example, making exceptions to, bending, and even discarding otherwise well-established religious principles all become possible if one feels, even remotely, that the spectre of genocide looms. And if the possibility of genocide is on the table, then one can justify to oneself doing anything to embed oneself into the status quo, avoid being politically incorrect, avoid sticking out, avoid going against the grain of the dominant culture, all in order to minimize any hostility by society at large. All of the community’s political, social, and cultural decision making is potentially short-circuited by this fear. Of course, none of this is to say that fear is not a perfectly valid, justified emotion. It certainly is and can be used to accomplish great good. But the question is, even when it is justified, how does that fear affect everything else?

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Muslim Identity Means Hijab and Hummus?

Recent sociological and anthropological research examines precisely this question. Numerous studies analyze how “minorities” react in the face of “cultural anxiety” due to widespread bigotry and discrimination. What these studies show is that cultural anxiety is positively correlated with two things: 1) “ethnic essentialism” and 2) “multicultural ideology.” In laymen’s terms, this means that when a minority group feels threatened by the dominant group, they will, first of all, double down on those aspects of their culture and values that they believe to constitute the essence of their group identity. Second, they will increasingly tend to endorse multiculturalism, namely the view that a healthy society should treat all groups within it equally and that the presence of such groups enriches society overall.

These dynamics accurately describe the internal discourse within the American Muslim community since the September 11th attacks. Obviously, Islam is not a culture per se and Muslims are not an ethnicity, but the underlying concepts still apply given that, from a secular perspective, Islam can be considered a set of values, beliefs, and practices, which is what secular academic discourse considers a culture to be for the most part.

That caveat aside, it is beyond dispute that American Muslims have felt a great deal of “cultural anxiety” due to, not only Islamophobic attitudes in American society generally, but also due to hostile government measures that have targeted Muslims and their institutions. The anxiety and fear felt by the Muslim community has led to both essentialism and multiculturalism. Feeling pressure from the dominant American culture has had (what is from an Islamic standpoint) a positive effect of making Muslims more embedded in their Muslim identity, in a word, more “unapologetically Muslim.” At the same time, American Muslims have adopted more of a multicultural attitude as they have become more socially and politically engaged. For example, since 9/11, Muslim involvement in interfaith events, interfaith coalitions, etc., saw a massive increase. Muslim involvement in mainstream political groups and coalitions also jumped. The language of Muslim leaders, imams, and speakers has also been suffuse with expressions of multiculturalism, diversity, relevance, engagement, etc.

While anxiety and fear drive these tendencies of essentialism and multiculturalism, the two are often opposing forces. This is because multiculturalism is characterized by coming together on the basis of shared interests and other commonalities whereas essentialism is characterized by emphasizing differences in order to distinguish one’s own group from the dominant majority. How is this tension resolved?

For American Muslims, the danger is that this tension could result in a deliberate de-emphasis and minimization of those beliefs, values, and practices of Islam that most directly conflict with the dominant culture while overemphasizing specific Muslim cultural markers. This would allow Muslims to maintain some form of a unified, essentialistic identity — even though, primarily, it is cultural rather than religious identity — while also integrating themselves within the larger American milieu and its institutions, which, for the most part, tolerate and even celebrate cultural diversity but not theological, ideological, or ethical diversity. We have seen some signs of this in context of Muslim involvement with certain American political parties in recent years. And again, the example of Jewish Americans proves instructive. As a community, Jewish Americans have a very strong sense of identity and group cohesion, i.e., due to their essentialism, while also being well integrated socially, politically, and culturally, i.e., due to their multiculturalism. In other words, they have resolved the essentialism-multiculturalism divide. But as the previously cited Pew study discovered, the resulting Jewish identity has little to do with the particulars of Judaism as a religion.

Muslim and Atheist at the Same Time

This secularization of Jewish identity also explains the phenomenon of “Jewish atheism.” Not all Jews agree that one can be a Jew without believing in God. Nonetheless, Jewish atheist institutions have become a well established and growing part of the overall Jewish American community. This is not surprising given that half of all Jewish Americans have doubts about God’s existence.

We see similar trends in the Muslim community, as new labels like “ex-Muslim” and “atheist Muslim” have been adopted by people who consider themselves “culturally Muslim” but “theologically atheist.” Neologisms like “atheist Muslim” only make sense if “Muslim,” like “Jew,” is rendered as an ethnic or cultural label, one among many. Of course, the Arabic word “Muslim” itself means “one who submits [to God]” and theologically to be Muslim, in truth, has certain requirements in terms of belief and practice. But these requirements are set by God and communicated through revelation. But from a secular perspective that denies the existence and/or relevance of God, “Muslim” can be deployed in whatever way convention dictates. By this standard, even “Muslim Jew” or “Muslim Christian” should be a linguistic and conceptual possibility.

Ultimately, “cultural anxiety” in the form of Islamophobia will continue to pressure Muslims to secularize and racialize their Muslim identity. As a community, we need to be well aware of this pressure so that we can recognize its signs and strive to resist it. By surrendering ourselves to a crippling fear of anti-Muslim bigotry, we risk losing our very souls. Rather, we need to channel that fear into positive practical and spiritual avenues, namely Islamically-informed activism as well as increased reliance on and fear of God Almighty.

To think of it differently, if there are extreme Islamophobes in the world who want to stamp out Muslims as a religious community, there are two methods to do so. One method would be to deport, intern, or kill Muslims through acts of bigotry or even genocide. The other method would be to create conditions that are conducive to the erosion and dissolution of Muslim faith, such that, eventually, being Muslim has nothing to do with the religious values and norms of Islam. We should ensure that, in our heightened concern for combating the first method, we do not forget to combat the second equally nefarious, equally destructive method as well.

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15 responses to “The Muslim Response To Islamophobia is Destroying Us From Within”

  1. Abdul-Rahim Adada Mohammed says:

    Well written!

  2. Ahmad B. says:

    Excellent piece! Jazakumullahu khayran, Br. Daniel. I would only add to it by making a point I have previously made in other fora (such as your Facebook page), namely: I think it is dangerous for us as Muslims to continuously think of, talk about, and present ourselves as a “minority” as opposed to a “religious group.” Now, obviously, since only about 1-2% of Americans are Muslim, that makes us indeed a “religious minority.” But do we see ourselves primarily as a “minority” (that happens to have a religion, sort of) or as a “religion / religious community” (that happens to be numerically in the minority)? In other words, are we a “religious MINORITY” or a “RELIGIOUS minority”?

    The former very easily plays into the trend that you are warning against here, for a “minority” can literally by anything (just as long as the community is not a numeric majority). An Islamic *religious* community, on the other hand, can certainly not just be anything, since its very identity is explicitly tied to a *religious* commitment to Islam. What defines the religious community as such has nothing to do with numbers. As such, the definition, its operative terms and entailments, etc., would be the same whether we are a minority or majority. That is, we are essentially defined by the same beliefs, practices, and moral commitments whether in New York or Cairo, Copenhagen or Kuala Lumpur. And this is a totally different way of thinking about ourselves, defining ourselves, determining community boundaries, and presenting ourselves to others than doing so primarily as a “minority” among minorities.

    I think a major sign of whether we define ourselves primarily as a “minority” or as a “religion” can be seen in our attitude towards da’wa. A “minority” is content just to have its rights protected, be given a seat at the table among other minorities, and, eventually, to fuse into the melting pot with little substance left and only cosmetic markers of difference to betoken the “uniqueness” of their identity. An Islamic religious community, on the other hand, believes strongly that it exists (both in minority and majority situations) in order to bear witness to a specific truth, embody that truth meaningfully in its personal, professional, social, and political engagements, and, crucially, call other people to that truth (with, of course, wisdom, beautiful admonition, and sound argument, as Allah has commanded us in Surat al-Isra’).

    The last part of this for me is that, as I have mentioned before, I continue to think, especially in these troubling times, that we should demand our rights in the U.S. specifically as a religious group demanding its explicit constitutionally protected guarantees of religious freedom, integrity, and practice, and not as some random “minority” that is seeking rights “as a minority.” Whether there are 200 Muslims in America or 200 million, the founding documents and commitments of this country explicitly guarantee my rights, as an American, to practice whatever faith I want. Not only does that, in my view, provide a much stronger legal, social, and cultural basis for seeking our rights under this particular political order, but it also reinforces our view of ourselves as a religious community defined by its belief in and practice of its religion. Playing the minority card has the potential directly to undermine this.

    As a closing remark, I think CAIR, for example (and from what I have been told), has taken an interesting and overall principled approach here. A local CAIR representative explained to me once that if a Muslim had been fired from working in a bar for being Muslim, they would not take up the case since they would not fight for the “right” of a Muslim to work in a bar in the first place (since it’s haram). If the same Muslim were fired from a department store, on the other hand, they would take it up. Similarly, a case came up of a transgender Muslim “female” who wore niqab and was discriminated against at work. Since the discrimination was based on the niqab and the person’s identification with Islam, they took up the case. Had it been a question of discrimination on the basis of being transgender, they would have declined, since Islamic law does not recognize the validity of transgenderism to begin with. This, to me, clearly bespeaks an engagement on the basis of operative Islamic religious principles, rather than a conception of Islam and Muslims as nothing more than a self-identifying minority community.

    May Allah guide us all to what is right in these trying times. Ameen!

    Ahmad B.

    • Malick says:

      Great, great points, brother Ahmad B. Very insightful. The true thing is that American islam, or better yet Muslim Americans, or perhaps I should say Islam in America will never fully mature as a political force and therefore a religious one until Muslims understand the dichotomy between RELIGIOUS minority and religious MINORITY.
      What is missed when that distinction is lost is exactly as you say, surviving versus thriving, maintaining versus growing, a one room mosque versus a 10000 square feet mosque with minarets, parking, a community room and an attached cemetery, voting for the candidate we fear the least (if we even vote) versus advocating and surrogating for our candidate.
      These times we live in highlight it very effectively. The reason islamophobia is trending and the president, his cabinet, his generals, elected officials and the media may speak so aggressively and disparagingly about islam is because they sense that as a religious MINORITY, american muslims are weak communally and politically. Which is also why every potus, yes, including and especially Obama, may support the obliteration of Muslim countries abroad while pretending to be very islam friendly, and because we see ourselves still as survivors, we fail to exercise our rights to demand a cease and desist in our country’s ongoign war against our brothers, whether in Syria or in Palestine.
      And if one doubts the above, let us ask whose preference is enforced between the Jewish minority and the Muslim minority, and why.

  3. Ahmad B. says:

    As a follow up to my previous comment, the CAIR examples are quite instructive and serve to show how each of these positions / orientations really does have teeth, meaning we need to think very carefully about how we conduct our affairs and manage our discourse.

    The CAIR paradigm, by applying an ethical, legal, and moral filter derived from substantive Islamic faith commitments, might actually turn down a discrimination case brought to them by a believing Muslim, if taking up the case might have the effect of restoring someone to a haram position or activity, thus endangering that person’s akhira. (From this perspective, in fact, the Muslim bartender’s firing was, in the larger scheme, nothing short of a mercy from Allah, a wake-up call to spurn him on to finding halal employment. I suppose one could make the argument that nevertheless, from a purely American legal perspective, we should object to the firing as long as it was motivated by anti-Muslim bias on the part of the bar owner. There might be something to this, and in an ideal world, the guy wouldn’t have been fired through discrimination and hopefully a well-meaning Muslim could have gotten through to him at some point to convince him to change his employment for the sake of Allah. But given limited time and resources, CAIR declines the case due to the moral dubiousness of the occupation to which their intervention would be seeking to restore the Muslim.)

    Same goes with the case of the “transgender” Muslim wearing a niqab but discriminated against for being transgender. An ethically informed Muslim set of criteria actually leads to a declining of the case, although the person involved is a Muslim and has been “discriminated” against. This outcome would be appalling, however, from the perspective of Islam as an essentially racialized / ethnicized minority community with little to no normative content of its own that is distinct from the dominant secular liberalism. From this perspective, the transgender Muslim “female” is doubly discriminated against, doubly vulnerable due to the “intersectionality” of belonging simultaneously to two distinct *minority communities*–the Muslim community and the transgender community–and for that reason, the person’s case, if anything, should be preferred over others and put at the top of the list.

    So here we have two very different–in fact opposite–outcomes, both of which are consistent with some underlying larger stance on who we are as a community and what that means. Given that the results are contradictory, however, and that each stance may even rise to the level of looking repugnant from the other perspective, we really need to think very carefully about what we’re doing here, why, on what terms, and with what likely long-term effect.

    Again, kudos to Br. Daniel for pointing this out all so clearly and concisely!

  4. Wa iyyakum, Ahmad B. I agree that conceiving ourselves as a “minority” is potentially problematic given that that term signals an ethnic or racial status. I tried to caveat this somewhat in the essay, but not as fully as you have in your comment, so jazakumAllah khayran for that.

    Regarding your point about appealing to principles of religious freedom, does this mean that Muslims should also stand up for the right of, for example, Satanists to practice Black Mass and other rituals of desecration that they understand as private religious practice? Would Muslim advocacy organizations, such as CAIR, have to be committed to defending and standing with Satanists and other religious groups under the banner of religious freedom? To what extent can we invoke religious freedom without also committing ourselves to a kind of pragmatism that this post takes issue with?

    Point being, I’m not sure that shifting our discourse from one of “minority rights” to “religious freedom” avoids the problems this post is concerned with, namely Islamic principles taking a back seat in lieu of political expediency.

    I agree that we should understand ourselves as a “religious community.” The Islamic conception of itself as a religion, however, is much broader than what American or European secularism is willing to earmark for the sake of “religious freedom.” If we constrain our understanding of religion to only that which modern secularism allows for and delimits as “religious,” sooner or later, we will hit up against the same confusions and the same problems. We need to move beyond these categories altogether.

    • Ahmad B. says:

      Salam Daniel,

      Jazakumullahu khayran for your response. I see the problem you are pointing out about using religious freedom. I still think it’s a better tack overall for internal purposes, as it reinforces in our own minds that we are a religious group seeking to practice our religion. The secular system itself can’t distinguish between Islamic tawhid and Satanism (no more than it can distinguish, say, between a synagogue and a gay bathhouse–both are equally just “institutions” of different “minority groups”), and we should, in our macro critique, point out that weakness of the system.

      We do, however, have some internal criteria for judging what is an authentic religion for political accommodation purposes, and I suppose it would make sense for us, true to our values, to rely on those in choosing what rights and for what groups we would actually stick our neck out on the line for, march down the street holding placards for, etc. I would, by these criteria, wholeheartedly support the right of Jews, Christians, and other groups traditionally seen by Muslims as “religions” for political purposes (including Zoroastrians, Hindus, and others by extended definitions of “ahl al-kitab” and “ahl al-dhimma”), but probably wouldn’t do so for groups that we could in no way conceive of as a legitimate religion, such as Satan-worshipers.

      Would that be considered “hypocritical” by the terms of the system? Perhaps. Is it a neat solution and a comfortable situation to have to be in? No. But the system itself will never be in full conformity with Islam (especially where Muslims are in a non-majority situation), which means that we will never be able to be fully true to our principles without awkwardness, charges of hypocrisy, etc.

  5. Belal Mobarak says:

    Jazakah Allah khair, love your thoughts and analyses.

  6. Ibrahim says:

    Really good piece, brother. I’ve never doubted your work once because you have always been principled mashaAllah. Keep up the good work!

  7. Alt Islamist says:

    So after a long intellectual articl this is your reply? You my friend are living a sad life

  8. Quazi says:

    May Allah reward you Br. Daniel. Very timely reminder. Previously in facebook, you had alluded to the danger of unrestricted endorsement of LGBT and other movements. On top of that I will add – I am worried that young Muslims in the west somehow getting an implicit understanding of perennial viewpoint (all religions are equal), although our Imams/leaders are not saying any such thing explicitly. But in the absence of enough teachings that clarifies that Islam is the only accepted religion by Allah, unrestricted cooperation with other faith groups is a big danger. I know that Prophet (SAW) took help from non-Muslims. However, it was made abundantly clear in his teachings that Islam is the only truth. So, yes – we should collaborate with other faith groups based on common moral principles, such as resistance against discrimination, opposing liberal sexual education policies, but in the long run we should be extremely careful about what message our youth is getting about some fundamentals of Islam.

    • I agree that there is also a potential for confusion in context of some kinds of interfaith activity. But I haven’t seen much evidence of Muslim youth converting to other faiths. A large proportion seem to be following the general trend among millenials at large of leaving off religious affiliation altogether. Of course, seeing Islam as “just another religion, like all the rest” might very well contribute to that trend. If all religions are equally valid, then none of them are, especially in light of the “freedom” and comfort afforded by modern thought, modern values, and modern ways of life, which make religion in general and Islam in particular with its rituals and religious requirements seem irrelevant and hardly worth the trouble.

  9. Omar says:

    Really great reminder Dr J. Its especially important for me and others to think about building and supporting institutions and resources that will act to preserve our faith and its beautiful principles for ourselves and children.

  10. Omar Husain says:

    Mashallah, your writings are always on point. So often we are busy trying to explain what Islam is not, that we forget what it actually is. I love how you constantly stress never to lose ourselves. On another note, I will referencing this article Inshallah at jumah. #teamwork!

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