Last week discussions in my classes inevitably drifted to the tragic events in Paris and Beirut. In one of my classes it was already in the syllabus that we would be talking about terrorism and Islamophobia. Professors asked us questions such as “what does anti-Muslim discourse tell us about prejudice and politics?” to “who gets to decide who gets to check-in ‘safe’ on Facebook?”
That Friday of the tragedy in Paris I read a news article on Reuters before my morning Arabic class. The first ten minutes of class is always dedicated to discussion on an Arabic-language news article of our choosing. Usually this happens on the train ride on the way to campus as was the case that morning. This particular article was about Friday, (13 November) being a day of national mourning in Lebanon after two explosions in Beirut had killed at least 43 people and injured 200 more the day before (12 November 2015). ISIS/Daesh claimed responsibility.
Fast forward a few hours after my classes when I could look at headlines again (and Facebook, of course) and see that there had also been terrorist attacks in Paris. On Facebook, the few friends and acquaintances I have in Paris, including two Muslims, checked-in safe. Later that weekend, ISIS claimed responsibility for these attacks as well.
And then came the French flag icons and profile pictures. What had happened to Beirut? As France followed through with its vendetta against ISIS/Daesh, the Lebanese dead, injured, and in pain were pushed aside. This goes without saying anything about the lack of collective and global mourning for other terrorist attacks, shootings, deaths, and trauma in other parts of the world. One writer, in reaction to the death of a French police dog decried that the #JeSuisChien hashtag was the latest sign in racist westerners caring more about dead dogs than dead humans.
To add insult to injury, (if mourning for a dead dog was not dehumanizing enough to non-European suffering in the world) European countries seemed to use the Paris attacks as a point to launch renewed suspicions of Syrian refugees and demands to close borders. Several Republicans in the United States followed suit, including Marco Rubio, the white-washed son of Cuban refugees capitalizing on the fear that any Syrian refugees could be a possible terrorist waiting to spread the same kind of death and terror that bombers in Paris had done days before. Too many politicians have been demanding that their states close their borders to refugees. Even the governor of my new state of residence, Massachusetts, expressed that he did not want Syrian refugees. I thought I had escaped such racist and Islamophobic statements after leaving Brownback’s Kansas.
And don’t get me started on Trump’s suggestion that Muslims in America carry ID cards. The Republican presidential candidates sincerely scare me.
Then there was the short discussion on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News program where Katrina Pearson, a spokesperson for Donald Trump (surprise, surprise) was set up to confront the president of the Republican Muslim Coalition, Saba Ahmed. Ahmed, in her red, white, and blue hijab, in reaction to Kelly’s claim that mosques are “hotbeds of political activity,” had to calmly explain that no, “Megyn, we go to the mosque to pray.” Minus the media trap that is agreeing to interview for Fox and the weird phenomenon of Muslim Republicans, hearing Ahmed’s responses was a breath of fresh air.
So what do we do with all of this?
What kind of country are we living in when stating the simple fact that mosques are places of prayer feel like such refreshing, liberating, and powerful statements to make?
What kind of country is it when its global face is so obviously turned away from the suffering of less-“American,” less-white, and less-Christian lives?
What kind of country is it when reactions to tragedy so often become convoluted into some politician’s polemics of fear-mongering of racial, ethnic, and religious others?
We live in a country where fringe anti-Muslim voices in the media seek to mainstream their hatred and influence public policy. As revealed in the 2011 Center of American Progress’s published report “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America” there is a politically influential business of maintaining prejudiced, fringe views about Islam and Muslims supported by an ultra-conservative alliance of far-right politicians, pundits, Islamophobic Christians, and pseudo-“experts” and “insiders” spreading misinformation. “Fear, Inc.” reported on seven “charitable” foundations such as Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (CSP) that have, in all, spent $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009. February of this year (2015), “Fear, Inc. 2.0” was published, continuing to reveal how the this Islamophobic network attempts to spread hate in the United States.
Behind the anti-Muslim rhetoric there are larger conservative claims that “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” are inherently bad ideas because they threaten the safety of Americans and the integrity of American culture (whatever that is). It is as if some might as well say “if liberals weren’t so busy condemning ‘xenophobia,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘Islamophobia’ maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.” Or: “perhaps if politicians, scholars, and faith leaders didn’t spend so much time apologizing for atrocities perpetrated by Muslims we would be a safer country.”
Addressing the loss of life in a country such as Lebanon or that in a Charleston black church is an inconvenience to many people, from Facebook friends to politicians on the global diplomatic scene. It means facing uncomfortable realities and shortcomings in our societies and governments in Canada, the United States, and Europe. It means solving the issue behind the defacing of a Nebraska mosque, arson at a mosque in Ontario, two Florida mosques receiving threatening calls, a man’s threat via social media to “shoot up” another mosque in Texas, and the violent assault of a Muslim woman in Toronto.
The uncomfortable reality is one of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. Addressing it means uncovering the systemic prejudices faced by minorities in countries such as the United States. One institutional systems of prejudice and hate is found in the aforementioned Islamophobic network of ultra-conservative voices and their wealthy patrons, rightly referred to by the Center of American Progress as “Fear, Inc.”
It also means uncovering the complexities of religion, culture, history, and geopolitical situations around the world. These complexities are conveniently glossed over or completely ignored by pseudo-scholarship on the Middle East, Islam, and Muslims that seeks to misinform the public and public policy makers. If complexities are presented, if nuance is presented in debate, it is dismissed as biased or self-serving for liberal ideologies.
For members of “Fear, Inc.” human phenomena (such as religion) are better discussed through a narrow lens to serve their narrow-minded perspectives. Anti-Muslim organizations and media pundits refer to academics to present a mirage of validity to beliefs about Islam and Muslims that they have already decided on. A notable example is Daniel Pipes who received a doctorate in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. As described by Christopher Bail, a sociologist at Duke University, in his book Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, Pipes is yet another scholar that Bail mentions whose narrow, prejudiced, and one-sided, pseudo-expert scholarship misinforms and garners hatred. Frustrated by critical views on his book Slave Soldiers and Islam, he left academia to found the Middle East Forum (MEF) in the 90’s. His organization MEF is supported by programs such as Campus Watch, Islamist Watch, and the Legal Project which all follow the theme of uncovering and monitoring the infiltration of militant and fundamentalist Islam. MEF’s views are also supported by its journal, the Middle East Quarterly.
One recent article on the website of Middle East Quarterly is an article republished from the Toronto Sun, a conservative tabloid newspaper. The use of Tarek Fatah’s article, a conservative Punjabi-Canadian, is most likely an example of what Bail calls the “ethnic expert,” another method employed by Islamophobes to create a semblance of authenticity and truth to their claims. A better known example in the United States is the Lebanese American Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). In the article, Fatah jumps on the far-right anti-Muslim bandwagon to recite the oft-repeated claim that Muslims have not done enough to renounce terrorism. He begins his article with the bombings in Beirut on 12 November writing that “the blast barely made a ripple in the robust Islamic social media community.” However, by the next day, Fatah’s “Islamic social media” was far more vocal and outraged that Western media had given more attention to Paris than Beirut. Such claims attempt to justify western responses to terrorism and western perceptions of predominantly Muslim countries.
One person in one of my classes drew the connection between media coverage of Beirut with the perceptions of predominantly Muslim communities as inherently violent. I.e., of course Beirut lacks coverage because suicide bombings are to be expected in Lebanon. I noticed that articles talked about the two bombs going off in a Shi’i neighborhood. In contrast, we hear and read about attacks on Parisians going about their liberated lives enjoying football games, concerts, and restaurants. Westerners are apparently too civilized to be caught up in religious, ethnic, sectarian and cultural tensions and violence. And Arabs are apparently too uncivilized too be going about normal, everyday lives in the cities they live in.
Pseudo-experts, as well as the testimonies of ex-Muslims, give an air of authenticity to anti-Muslim rhetoric. They describe Islam and Muslims in reductionist ways, treating them as a homogeneous uncivilized community with a homogeneous barbaric tradition which–if only Muslims were truly honest about–is presented as evidence for the incompatibility of Islam with modern, civilized, liberated, western, white society.
When these skewed views are challenged by scholars who actually hold degrees in Islamic studies or closely related fields and do good scholarship they are dismissed as serving a liberal propaganda. The same liberality in politics and public policy that apparently puts westerners in danger of losing their freedom, safety, and way of life.
In August (2015) Pamela Geller criticized Kecia Ali, a feminist scholar in Islamic studies, making the inaccurate claim that Ali blamed the U.S. for Islamic State slavery. Picking at Professor Ali’s ISIS slavery article, almost paragraph by paragraph, Geller attempts to make her claim that this liberal academic is a Muslim apologetic who is not being honest about what Islam really says about slavery.
Needless to say, Geller does a bad job at her criticisms. Ali pointed out in her article that “just because the Qur’an acknowledges slavery and early Muslims, including the Prophet, practiced it doesn’t mean Muslims must always do so…. It is one thing for committed religious thinkers to insist that scripture must always and everywhere apply literally, but it is ludicrous for purportedly objective scholars to do so.”
Geller counters this statement by writing that Muhammad is, as described by the Qur’an, “an excellent example” that must be emulated. Living up to this perfect example includes practicing slavery. She also adds that Muslim countries did not abolish slavery until the West pressured them to do so. Because the west obviously has a wonderful history of abolition. And in the West, slavery, to be sure, was never religiously sanctioned. Abolition was religiously motivated and came straight out of good, white, Christian values. As for Muslims, slavery is religiously sanctioned and there can be no authentic Islamic movement towards abolition.
Geller makes simplistic, reductionist claims that allow her to make jumps in logic that support her Islamophobic rhetoric. She attempts to disprove Ali’s claims by regurgitating essentialist views of Islam. She sees herself on a moral mission to portray a misguided liberal academia. Geller writes that “[h]ere again we suffer the intellectual depravity of the left. And worse, this is what teaches our children. This is what governs our country. This is the cultural cesspool we find ourselves mired in.”
And yet, is not Geller’s rhetoric the exact kind that makes it all the more difficult for Muslims to be understood? Pseudo-scholarship aside, what moral value do Geller’s words have when they serve to promote prejudiced, racist, and ignorant views about more than 1.6 billion human beings that share a planet with her?
Is there anything to learn from all this? Are there any paths forward for my siblings in Islam, fellow students, and academics? In light of all the above, how can we, from the places we stand in our society and communities, make this world a better a place?
I feel that I am only beginning to answer these questions for myself.
Firstly, I think it is incredibly important to call out hypocrisy, especially when it has the moral implication of promoting violence and prejudice. It is hypocritical for someone to claim that they are on the side of human rights when their rhetoric describes Muslims as barbaric. It is hypocritical when someone cries out for the liberation of Muslim women but calls them the mothers, wives, and sisters of terrorists. It is hypocritical to lament over the barbarity of homophobic violence committed by Muslims yet never challenge one’s own homophobia. It is likewise hypocritical to bare refugees from coming to the U.S. including those who are Muslim women and gay men in need of so much saving and liberating moments earlier.
Such rhetoric is clearly self-serving of views that continually dehumanize religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender minorities.
Secondly, we have an obligation to not be simplistic or reductionist in our understandings of any person’s religion, race, ethnicity, or culture. Human phenomena such as religion is complex. Islam and Muslims cannot be painted with broad brushes. They deserve to be spoken of in as full a light as we can manage. And to be sure, this is far different than the anti-Muslim pundit who calls their Islamophobia honest and truthful. And this has nothing to do with their unfounded critique that scholarship that disagrees with their views are mired in apologetics.
An example comes from Kecia Ali’s article on Islam and sex slavery. She explains that
“…early Muslim slavery (like early Muslim marriage) wasn’t particularly a religious institution, and jurists’ ideas about the superiority of free over slave (and male over female) were widely shared across religious boundaries. To say this is not to present an apologetic defense of Islam; to the contrary, effective Muslim ethical thinking requires honesty and transparency about the lasting impact on Muslim thought on slavery and non-consensual sex. However, singling out slavery or rules governing marriage or punishments for a handful of crimes as constituting the enactment of ‘authentic’ Islamic law surely reflects a distorted notion of a Muslim polity.”
Slavery has a complex history and the way it intersects with religion and culture is part of that complexity. To say that Islam, without question, encourages and promotes slavery, is too simplistic. It is dishonest. It discounts histories of slavery that interact with multiple cultures and religions (including Christianity), histories of manumission, histories of sexual ethics, and the histories of Islamic law.
That some point to ISIS/Daesh and a literalist reading of the Qur’an as expressing inherently Islamic morals and practices is no different than pointing to the KKK and a literalist reading of the Bible as expressing categorically and universal Christian morals and practices. To make these claims serve only to dehumanize and essentialize.
At the same time, we, especially those of us who are students and scholars, ought to stay true to a non-essentialist view of Islam and Muslims by discussing ways institutions such as slavery influence Muslim thought and in some contexts persist. In another article, Kecia Ali discusses a part of the Open Letter to Baghdadi which makes the simplistic claim that Islamic Shari’a “worked tirelessly to undo” slavery. She writes that such “wishful thinking does not provide a firm foundation for criticizing contemporary injustices.” By entirely dismissing slavery, one interprets away an injustice that still exists in some parts of the world.
As Ali explains, seeing one set of rulings and interpretations as authentic to the Islamic tradition and another as contrary to it creates a distorted image. In contrast, we are asked to uncover the complexities within Islamic tradition which challenge that distortion.
“Islam is peace” and “Islam is violent” are both simplistic statements. Obviously, one statement carries the intention of promoting tolerance while the other intolerance. My point here is that no religion is ever one thing. Islam has wrongly been presented as consisting of a single body of indisputable texts and interpretations that exist in a canonized vacuum (outside of time and place) that a Muslim must draw upon to be authentically Muslim.
Let me close with an example closer to home.
A non-Muslim friend once asked me: if you’re gay, why are you still Muslim? Why be a part of a faith that hates you and wants you dead?
These questions reveal more about the questioner than the topic itself. It reveals the wide-spread perception of Islam as a barbaric, medieval religion that is inconsonant with liberating western values. The fact that I have asked myself the same question speaks to an internalized Islamophobia (probably not unlike internalized homophobia). I remember talking to the American gay imam Daayiee Abdullah about our convert/coming out stories. I said that if I had been out as a gay man before my conversion, I probably would not have become Muslim. Imam Daayiee called me out on this.
How unfair I was to the complexities of my personal faith journey. And how unfair I was to Islam.
Islam is not inherently homophobic; nor has it been unquestionably queer-friendly. Through my own research, I have learned that what we might term as “queer history” is a complexity of stories spanning centuries and varying contexts of place and culture. These are complexities that allow for the very real possibility of someone being both queer and Muslim.
Taking the complexities into account helps us understand not so great things as well, including terrorism. Islamophobes claim that Islam is a problem because it produces things like ISIS. But just because ISIS claims Islamic tradition does not make it representative of Islam as a whole. Likewise, well-intentioned people claiming ISIS is un-Islamic are playing a similar reductionist game. They rightly say that ISIS holds no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Muslims. But what good does it do to respond with an equally as simplistic notion of Islam? It certainly does a lot of good for projects seeking tolerance but does it really gain anything in inter-faith understanding?
These simplistic arguments play into arguments based on authority. In her article on ISIS, Kecia Ali expresses discomfort with two kinds of arguments on authority: the first claiming ownership of tradition and the second claiming consensus. There are those who challenge Muslim feminist interpretations and movements on the basis of a lack of authority. Likewise, I see other Muslims claim queer interpretations and movements as un-Islamic.
This brings me to a third (but surely not final) way I have found to respond to situations such as the attacks in Beirut and Paris and prejudice against Muslims: the obvious need to make value judgments. None of what I have written here in this blog post is innocent of moral considerations. Nor should it be. In the end, one criteria we can use to make these judgments is dignity. Ali ends her article by saying: “Too frequently, the weapon of ‘scholarly consensus’ has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.”
In light of current events, the challenge of the Muslim, the student, and the scholar is to reveal the hypocrisies of anti-Muslim rhetoric. It also means not falling into the same trap of simplification when it comes to talking about Islam and Muslims . Lastly, it means making moral stances, a recognition that what we speak about in academic (or even faith-based) terms is not free from moral considerations, especially when our own bodies, well-being, and fellow Muslims and/or Muslim neighbors, friends, and family members are at stake.
In other news, I imagine that Thanksgiving will be an interesting time for many of us.