Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Islamophobia and defending Muslims: Why it matters

Every now and then, I get asked why I, a non-Muslim, non-Arab American, am so vocal in my defense of Muslims and Arabs. So I guess I'll put it on the record. How did I, a corn-fed Midwestern girl, come to care so much about these often marginalized communities that I don't personally belong to? I'm more than happy to explain.

On September 11, 2001, I was only twelve years old, a seventh-grade student. Even then, I wondered if the growing perception of Muslims as being exclusively violent and destructive was missing the mark: at best, it seemed incomplete, and at worst, patently and insidiously false. I could not understand why the violent Muslim image that persisted in the public eye seemed to so contradict the Muslim community that always greeted people with the words "Peace be upon you." So when I started my undergraduate degree at an evangelical university, I resolved to study Islam for myself, to view different sides and try to understand the faith as its practitioners do. Along the way, I got involved with interfaith work, befriended many Muslims of various backgrounds and political stripes, and even learned to speak, read and write in Arabic.

I also became aware of the work being done by countless Muslim activists, work we never seem to hear about on the mainstream media: Muslims like Eboo Patel founding the Interfaith Youth Core to inspire dialogue and service, and to push for mutual respect between different faiths; or Rami Nashishibi, who founded the Inner City Muslim Action network to address the daunting needs of residents in the heart of Chicago's South Side; or Irshad Manji, a writer and professor inspired by her faith to challenge dangerous cultural trends that sometimes exist in Muslim communities though they have no root in Islam itself; or myriad bloggers and writers of the Arab Spring who are currently fighting for democratic ideals in their own countries. What I learned from my studies and from these amazing people cemented what I had intuited even at twelve years old: contrary to what I had been taught, the enemy of freedom and justice is not Islam, but ignorance, and that countless Muslims reflect this reality in their deeds as well as their words.

If you're reading this blog, you probably know that I spent last summer in Jordan with the U.S. State Department's Critical Language Scholarship program. I will be honest and say that, despite my widened perspective, I initially kept quiet about my Baha'i faith, fearing persecution. So maybe I'd grown to love and trust my Muslim neighbors at home, but I was a religious minority in a Middle Eastern country with Shariah on the books -- since I'd been raised in a country that fears such situations, I had no idea what to expect. Yet the openness and kindness of the society that embraced me was utterly beyond my expectations. I discovered Baha'i and Christian communities thriving amidst this conservative Muslim society. I myself was warmly embraced by Muslims, both liberal and conservative, just as I had been in the States. I was treated like family, and quite frankly, I felt ashamed that my expectations had at first been so low.

Upon my return to the States, I was again confronted with the popular myth that Islam is inherently evil, its followers inherently violent -- but this time, it was personal, an attack against members of my own adopted family. I realized that the people who had so generously opened their hearts and homes to me in the Middle East would, in all probability, be treated with disdain and suspicion were they to visit the USA, thanks to today's environment of ever-increasing Islamophobic sentiment. Frankly, I am embarrassed and horrified by this, because it utterly dishonors the American values I was raised on. I was taught to value freedom and to embrace diversity, because "all men [and women!] are created equal" and they should always be treated with respect and courtesy in spite of perceived differences.

Therefore it seems to me a basic courtesy to ensure that any criticism of a group of people is based in honest, balanced and diligent study of facts, and not in paranoia and half-truths. Islamophobes have created an industry in which they spread misinformation for profit. Scholars both Muslim and secular have widely refuted the claims made by Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Kamal Saleem and other Islamophobic speakers -- yet these individuals continue to draw in millions of dollars and widespread attention for the lies they spread. This is no small matter: When propagated, these stereotypes are extremely harmful not only to American Muslims, but to all Americans who believe in the constitutional right to practice their faith in safety.

The assertion that Muslims are bent on taking over the United States and instituting hardline Shariah law is based on misinformation, baseless paranoia and downright terrible "theology." It is absurd propaganda that certainly does not represent the real views of the overwhelming majority of kind, law-abiding American Muslims. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, public servants, community organizers, artists and musicians. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and our family -- not to mention our first line of defense in rooting out those individuals within the Muslim community who do become radicalized. We truly need to understand that the enemy is ignorance, not Islam.

This is not to romanticize the Muslim community; I respect them more than to do that. There are some issues that exist within Muslim societies that I take serious issue with--but conflating a cultural problem with that culture's religion is a mistake that too many people make. For example, the practice of "honor" killing that sometimes occurs in Muslim societies is something that I find utterly horrifying -- but so do most Muslims, who will be the first to tell you that it is not condoned in either the Qur'an or the Sunnah, and instead has its root in cultural practices that predate Islam. I am also deeply troubled by discrimination against the Baha'i community in some Muslim countries, particularly in Iran, but then, so are the wonderful folks at the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights. To blame these trends on Islam itself, as do those in the Islamophobia circuit, is dangerously simplistic and outright ridiculous. We know better, for example, than to judge all Christians on the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or Anders Breivik, because we can recognize that their actions do not truly represent biblical teaching. We know better than to blame Jesus for European colonialism and "heretic"-burning, even though some of its worst perpetrators claimed to be devout Christians. Why in the world would we not grant the same grace to our Muslim neighbors?

The Qur'an stresses peacefulness, justice, and respect to human rights and dignity, and these virtues are upheld by the vast majority of the world's over 1 billion Muslims. They need us to support them as allies, not to be constantly alienated by those who seek to demonize their entire religious community based on its worst elements. It says in the Qur'an quite plainly that, if anyone takes a life except in self-defense, it is as if they have murdered all of humanity. Those "Islamic" terrorists who commit crimes against innocent people (and more often than not, against innocent Muslims) are, in reality, violating the standards of their own professed religion. The countless Muslims who are inspired by their faith to contribute positively to our shared society need our support and for their voices to be heard. It is our privilege, as well as responsibility, for all of us to ensure that our neighbors are respected.

Also, this:



"Can't nobody be free unless we're all free. There's no 'me' and no 'you,' just 'us.'"

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