“Islamophobia: What Muslims Can Do”
By Michael Wolfe
Crescent Post | April 26, 2011
A year ago, we saw a different racial argument being made, against the Latino community in Arizona. That is where the polarizing language was developed that is now being adapted to Muslims and Islam in the U.S. In both cases, under the banner of patriotism, the rhetoric stimulates a voter base around an immigration question, in order to activate the politics of paranoia. Many politicians are stooping to appeal to this base, which is largely populated by groups that can’t seem to adjust to contemporary society. Its largest constituency is a segment of insular-thinking people who feel threatened by 21st century globalism. And the net effect isn’t pretty. Guns appear in hip pockets. Hate language spews. Notably, a recent Gallup poll has linked contempt for Jews with a thirty-fold increase in the tendency to embrace Islamophobia.
The Quran contains over 6,000 verses. A handful speak of violence. Every chapter is concerned with a religious spiritual practice that holds essentially the same values as Christianity and Judaism. Yet people who want Islam excluded from American society justify themselves by citing the same few lines from the Quran torn out of context. The intent is to persuade others that all Muslims are compelled by their faith to act on them. The same approach might be used towards Jews and Christians. Using the Torah, the equivalent might be to claim that all Jews must stone disobedient sons to death because it says they must in Deuteronomy (21:18- 21). Using the New Testament, the argument might be that Christians must slay all resistant non-Christians because it says to do so in Luke (19:27).
Those who argue to exclude American Muslims also try to hold them responsible for acts of violence committed ten thousand miles away. They support this view with statements like, “Look what they do in Waziristan. They’re all that way.” In the matter of violence, American Muslims’ weakest links are the few, confused young would-be Jihadists in our midst, who need to be address unequivocally, according to principles. The hare-brained violent behavior exhibited even here from time to time has no place in the Muslim community. But it isn’t limited to our community. Every group is susceptible, including the very people who would like to stigmatize Muslims and Islam, as we saw with the recent shooting of an elected representative in Arizona.
A surprising number of politicians are now conflating Shariah with Terrorism and bringing “legislation against Islam” to a vote in two dozen state houses. Some of these bills and resolutions seek to “ban Shariah,” as if, rather than being a reference point for a Muslim’s personal conduct, Shariah were a body of foreign law seeking somehow to impose itself on the life of a pluralistic society. In Arizona, this so called ban is laughably lumped together with a ban on “karma.” Since banning karma essentially means a ban on the inevitable results of human action, I’m prepared to take all bets that it can’t succeed. I look forward, soon, to asking the people of Arizona, (paraphrasing Sarah Palin), “So, how’s that ban on karma workin’ for ya?”
These are the rhetorical tricks of politicians manufacturing falsehoods masquerading as truth to get cheap votes.
First, they can demonstrate proactively that Muslim Americans are not a 5th column in modern society. They can make it plain in word and deed that Muslim values are human values, that the values of Tahrir square resonate with American values—that Jefferson and Adams understood this, and that modern Americans need to get it, too: that freedom of speech, fair representation, respecting the rights of other religions are shared human ideals. Despite what fear mongers want others to believe, regular Americans need to understand that the vast majority of Muslims around the world don’t “want Jihad”. They want a job. They want a real education. They want homes where they can raise families, hospitals that work, and governments that don’t rob them of their resources, their voices, their society and souls.
Secondly, Muslims shouldn’t get defensive. Don’t even respond to these wild attacks if you can help it. The framing of the “question” ensures you’re going to have to fight uphill. Instead of arguing back self-defensively, Muslims might better concentrate on activating their own base of ‘mainstream’ Americans who already have good working, friendly relationships with Muslims. Muslims should form alliances and let others speak for their authenticity.
Islamophobia is an illness, like malaria: it can be transmitted by a tiny bite, result in terrible headaches, and prove fatal when it goes untreated. Also, like malaria, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best treatment for Islamophobia is honest dialogue that leads to understanding. On 9/12 /11, at the height of the “Ground Zero Mosque” fever, we showed a film called “Talking Through Walls” in the very building in Lower Manhattan that was the crux of all the furor. The film recorded the drama of building a mosque in small-town America. Most of the people who attended were mainstream New Yorkers. They came, they sat on the floor, they shared food together, they watched the film, and afterwards they talked. That one event resulted in a dozen more such screenings around Manhattan in the next two weeks. You might say it was just what the doctor ordered.
The word “dialogue” reminds me of a warning the author and scholar Tariq Ramadan recently expressed: When you say, “Let’s have a dialogue” but what you really mean is “Listen to me,” you don’t have a dialogue at all. You have an interactive monologue.
Real dialogue requires respect. Standing on our principles and judging other people by that group’s worst practices is not respectful. Judging from the top of our group’s theoretical performance down to the bottom of another group’s worst examples is an unfair judgment. It goes nowhere. We need to talk on common ground. Talking from the edges of our differences is guaranteed not to go very far, because it’s only skin deep.
The real common ground we all share is made of the base notes of our existence: that is, our mortality, our fragility, our complex identities, and our flaws—which demand compassion and understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. The deeper the level you share on, the more another person can know that you’re alive. “Show me what you love, and show me how you suffer: That’s how you show me who you are.”
Again, the best allegiance and solidarity is with our principles. Muslims need to be ready to oppose oppression when it comes from their own community too, not just when it comes from another community that threatens their comfort. We all have to be vigilant against people in our own house who seem to be like us but actually represent the forces of chaos. We have to step out of our comfort zone and stand on our principles, not on mere solidarity.
Groups under terrible pressure don’t just save themselves. Other people come to help. Muslims in times like these could try to remember the story of Hamza, coming home from another day of hunting and passing by the town-square, where he sees a person being humiliated for his beliefs. At that moment Hamza, a respectable member of his community, does an extraordinary thing: he joins the person being humiliated. Muslims need to find the Hamza’s of American society, the people who understand that, if a Muslim’s religious and civil rights are threatened, then their own rights aren’t safe either. And what we expect for ourselves we have to extend to others. We don’t have to agree in order to respect other people’s right to believe as they do.
Allies are drawn to those who set an unshakeable example in adverse times. The best prescription against Islamophobia is to forge allies. Finding allies, forging new alliances, and most importantly getting your allies to speak up for you in public.
One More Thing: Click-Click!
In an effort to gather allies from other faiths and backgrounds, we at Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) recently launched a new project called “My Fellow American.” This project calls upon people from other faiths and backgrounds to share personal stories on YouTube about a Muslim American they know. The operating instructions, for Muslims to pass on to their neighbors, are simple:
62% of Americans have never met a Muslim.
Do you know a Muslim?
Share your story through YouTube on this page (you can see a video example below):
The idea is for other Americans to post a collection of short personal videos talking about their friendships with individual Muslims. We’re hoping this site will find many fans by 9/11/2011.
Go to the site yourself and watch a few of the volunteered videos and you’ll get the idea. If you know of individuals who would want to turn their cell phone or computer into a camera and upload a personal video, encourage them. The more authentic, honest and genuine the brief piece can be, the better.
1. ” The average politician weeps with the shepherd and dines with the jackal. Don’t put too much faith in politicians. Put your faith in people.”
2. “The camel doesn’t see his own hump; he sees the hump of his brother.”
Michael Wolfe is the author of nine books and Co-Founder and President of Unity Productions Foundation. In 2002, UPF produced the nationally broadcast two-hour documentary “Mohammad: Legacy of a Prophet,” which won the Cine Award Special Jury Prize that year for best documentary and aired around the world in a dozen languages on the National Geographic Channel. UPF has since produced six more documentaries, five of which have shown on PBS.