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Three Myths that Perpetuate Islamophobia

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Author: Atif  Mir

Source: November 2010 eGazette

What is it about Islam that frightens the western world? Has Islamophobia risen merely because of the emergence of the Muslim radical? The answer, of course, is no. Unfortunately, many journalists, politicians and interest groups in Europe and America frequently accuse Islam of being totalitarian and terrorist in nature as well as inherently hostile to non-Muslims.  Some of them also argue that instead of encouraging Muslims to integrate, Islam motivates Muslims to take over their western homelands by introducing shariah. In other words, Islamophobes argue that the true Islamic teachings of Islam pose a threat to western values and as such Muslims must make a choice between their host country and their religion. These baseless accusations against Islam are reminiscent of the prejudice and discrimination that Jews faced before World War II.  Granted that Islamic terrorists do bear some responsibility for fueling Islamophobia, but a religion of one billion should not be classified as a religion of terrorism and intolerance due to the actions of a tiny minority. Islamophobes’ arguments are based on three false myths about Islam:

  1.  Islam is a monolithic religion
  1. Islam is hostile to non-Muslims and its values are fundamentally at odds with western values.
  2. Muslims in America and Europe are numerically strong enough to pose a threat to the American or European way of life.

The article will dispel these three myths after establishing that Islamophobia is a new form of racism.

 Is Islamophobia a New Form of Racism?

 Some scholars have called Islamophobia a subtle and new form of cultural racism. They argue that even though few people in the USA and Europe think of blacks as racially inferior, this does not mean that racism has disappeared completely. Instead of ‘classical’ racism, new and more subtle types of racism have emerged.[1] Islamophobia is one such racism. Amir Saeed shows in his article “Media, Racism and Islamophobia” that western media portrays Islam and Muslims as inherently inferior to the west. The article states that:

“…ever-increasing body of research has argued that…the images, representations and discourses related to Islam in mainstream Western media tend to be negative and hostile”.[2]

 Saeed argues that while such arguments are based on religion and culture, the essentialist argument forwarded is similar to the biological reasoning forwarded in the 19th century to justify colonization and imperial war.[3] The racism against Muslims has emerged under the guise of cultural superiority established under Orientalism. The exploitation of Orient’s resources and peoples had been legitimized through the ethno centric language of Christian European identity that propagated the myth that the predominantly Muslim peoples of the Orient were irrational, uncultured, uncivilized, barbaric and ultimately inferior.[4]

Although neither the west nor Islam are monolithic entities, western media tends to treat Islam and the west as oppositional and such simplistic division serves to maintain stereotypes that the media itself creates of Islam as the ‘other’ and ‘different’. [5]

Instead of evaluating governmental policies, Islamophobia blames Islam for any social or economic problems that pertain to Muslims, similar to the ones of 1960s, when the housing, education and employment issues that blacks faced were framed as race issues as opposed to the social problems they actually were. [6]

It is sad that Islamophobes behave as bigots but try to to be seen as the champions of freedom.  Professor Joan Wallach Scott has argued very persuasively in one of her articles that the French ban on the Islamic veil has little to do with female emancipation. She argues that:

“The same politicians who have long resisted laws on sexual harassment and the punishment of domestic violence become advocates for women when these are identified as Muslim offences. This puts aside the continuing issue of gender inequality as a national problem. And politicians demonstrate their prowess to their national constituencies by acting to protect these supposedly vulnerable women from the men who are said to violate their rights: the proposed law levies a small fine of €150 on a woman wearing a burqa in public, while the men presumed to have forced her compliance get a year in prison and a fine of €30,000.”[7]

Simply put, by taking a stand against the burqa, the French politicians have not only flamed Islamophobia but have also found an easy way to portray themselves as the champions of gender freedom and equality without making any real contribution to the feminist cause.

The consequences of Islamophobia are serious. The Council on American Islamic Relations in 2002 noted that the media distortion of Islam had led to an increased number of ‘hate crimes’ against Muslims throughout the USA. [8] The Danish cartoons, published in the name of freedom of speech, also reinforced the stereotype of Islam as a violent religion and Muslims as hostile to non-Muslims. Geert Wilders took Islamophobia to a new level when he compared Islam with fascism and the Holy Quran with Mein Kampf, a book written by Adolf Hitler and considered to be a manifesto of Nazism. His exact words are as follows:

“I see many differences between Islam and other religions. In fact, I see Islam not so much as a religion as much as an ideology. As I see it, the aim of the Islamic ideology is to dominate and to submit the Western societies to their belief, and this is unlike the other religions. I say that Islam is not another branch on the tree of religions – it has to be put in the corner of totalitarian ideologies. That’s why I compare it with communism and fascism – I see the comparisons between the Koran and Mein Kampf.” [9]

Wilders also calls al-Hijra, “the Islamic doctrine of migration,” a Trojan-horse doctrine that commands Muslim believers to move to a non-Muslim country, have as many children as possible, and then seize power. [10]

Doug Saunders, a journalist, warns Wilders that perhaps his words, and the message of Fitna (the documentary movie made by Wilders against Islam), is exactly the kind of hate propaganda faced by  Jews before the Second World War. Back then, Judaism had been closely linked with communism like Islam is now linked with fascism and it was believed that Judaic beliefs brought nothing but terrorism and violence. [11]

The negative portrayal of Islam by politicians and media often makes the general population not only more prejudiced against Islam but also deeply fearful of it. Worse, such prejudice and fear has begun to find its way into the laws and policies of some western nations. Some examples are the refusal of France to serve halal (Islamic version of Kosher) meat in school cafeterias, the banning of mosque minarets in Switzerland, halting the construction of new mosques in Germany and the banning of the burqa in France.

The latest example of Islamophobia is the boycott by conservative bloggers of Canadian-based Campbell Soup, which has rolled out halal (Islamic version of Kosher) soups in its product line. They justify their blatant prejudice by linking ISNA, which provides the halal certification to Campbell products, to Hamas without providing any evidence whatsoever.  Here is what an editorial in Philadelphia Daily News had to say about this controversy:

“It’s yet another alarming development in the so- far-successful political strategy of exploiting ignorance and fear of Islam. It joins last summer’s roiling controversy over a proposed Islamic cultural center a few New York blocks from Ground Zero and the crazy Florida minister’s threat to publicly burn a Quran. In recent weeks, various politicians have pronounced warnings that Americans are in grave danger of being subject to sharia law. Don’t assume these “issues” are confined to the conservative fringe…Why are so many people so willing to believe these myths? Perhaps it is because Americans, who are among the most religious people in the world, are also remarkably illiterate about religion. A recent survey by the Pew Center found that many Christian Americans know little about non-Christian religions…In assessment of thousands of acts of suicide terrorism by a University of Chicago professor found that most Muslim perpetrators are motivated not by doctrines of “radical Islam” but by the desire for revenge against American policies, especially the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s ever-so-more challenging to our worldview – and much less politically potent – than seeing an insidious conspiracy in a can of Vegetarian Vegetable soup.”[12]

Also, the fact that these conservative bloggers are targeting Islamic dietary laws and not the dietary laws of Jews or Hindus proves what Edward Said had said about a decade ago:

 “Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussions about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians”[13]

Myths that Perpetuate Islamophobia

 Myth 1: Islam is a Totalitarian, Violent and Monolithic Religion

Islamophobes go to great lengths to associate Islam with violence and totalitarianism. When a Muslim commits an act of violence against a Muslim woman or a non-Muslim person, Islamophobes hurry to pin the blame on Islam while discounting the cultural, economic and political reasons behind such violence. Radical elements of Islam that target innocent civilians do not represent mainstream Muslims. They do not reflect the pure teachings of Islam. The Holy Quran permits only defensive war while the Holy Prophet taught Muslims not to hurt innocent civilians during war. It is unfortunate that radical Muslims are often given more coverage in the media than those hundreds of millions of Muslim men and women who serve humanity as doctors, scientists, charity workers, social workers, human right activists or lawyers.

Bernard Lewis has forwarded a favourite argument of Islamophobes to prove that Islam is totalitarian. He argues that Islam “is not merely a system of belief and worship, a compartment of life, so to speak…It is rather the whole of life”. Edward Said refutes this myth and makes the case that such “a statement demonstrates not only bias, but also a ludicrous misunderstanding of how human life actually operates. Lewis’s methods suggest that all Muslims – all one billion of them – have read, absorbed, and totally accepted ‘the rules’…that govern ‘civil, criminal and what we call constitutional law’, and then slavishly follow those precepts in every significant action of their daily lives. If there was ever an occasion to apply the word preposterous, it is here. Lewis simply cannot deal with the diversity of Muslim, much less human life because it is closed to him as something foreign, radically different and other.”[14]

The fact is that different Muslim cultures across the globe interpret Islamic guidelines and teachings differently. Muslims can be liberal or conservative. Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey interpret Quran differently based on their uniquer history, environment, culture and politics. It is because of these varying interpretations  that Muslim women across the globe wear varying Islamic attire.  Some may wear a hijab, and others the veil or burqa. Interestingly, it is European countries that are discouraging diversity within Islam by banning the burqa.

Myth 2: Islam is hostile to non-Muslims and its values are fundamentally at odds with the western values.

The myth that Islam is intolerant and hostile to non-Muslims received a strong boost from 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in London in 2005.

Dominique Moisi explains the impact of 9/11 and London attacks on the psyche of the western population in the following words:

“For many of the English after July 2005, the greatest shock was the realization that the enemy was within them; in fact the enemy was them. The suicide bombers of London were mostly British citizens born and educated in Great Britain. By the same token, most of the 9/11 hijackers had gone through technical universities in Europe.  Living with Europeans and being taught by European professors had not distracted them from terrible project. It is clear that our universities had absolutely no humanistic appeal for them, either in the content of the courses they took or in any marginal attempts to integrate them culturally and socially. These facts underscore the vulnerability and weakness of Europe in the face of hatred from the Islamic world.” [15]

It is understandable if many of the English were in shock after the London attacks and entertained thoughts that Muslims are unable to fit into western society. These thoughts, of course, do not reflect the reality. The reality is that majority of Muslims do not feel their Islamic values to be fundamentally at odds with their western values. That is why Moisi goes on to argue that the London attacks must be put into perspective. He argues:

“To neglect the existence of threat would be suicidal, but to be obsessed with it is counterproductive, for our ambition must be to integrate migrant of every faith and background as successfully as possible. After all, we need them as much as we need us.”[16]

Moisi supports his point by referring to an essay ‘Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France’, in which the authors, Jonathen Lawrence and Justin Vaisse, provide revealing statistics which work to establish that the great majority of European Muslims want to integrate successfully into their respective emigrant countries.[17]

To make this integration easier, Islamophobes must stop incessantly declaring that Islam is inherently hostile to western values and therefore its followers must choose between their national identity or their religious identity, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  According to Reza Aslan, it is exactly this kind of thinking that has made the successful integration of Muslims into European society difficult. According to Aslan, integration of Muslims in America has been far more successful because America’s commitment to freedom of religion does not force Muslims to choose between their religious and nationalist identities. Aslan states:

“Much has been written about why Muslims in the US have, for the most part, managed to avoid many of the problems of identity and integration facing Muslim communities in Europe Obviously, economic circumstances, have played a role: While the majority of Muslims in Europe hail from impoverished immigrant families, the majority of Muslims in the United States are solidly middle-class…And certainly America’s long and storied history of absorbing different cultures, religions, and ethnicities has made a difference in shaping the experience of American Muslims…But undoubtedly the most significant factor in allowing American Muslims to comfortably reconcile their faith and traditions with the realities of American life is the core American belief that there need be no conflict between one’s religious and nationalist identities. Above all else, it is America’s commitment to the freedoms of religion, and religious expression, that has made Muslims in the United States so much more restraint to the pull of Jihadism than their European counterparts”[18]

This excerpt offers two lessons. First, the integration policies of the USA have thus far been successful.  This integration, however, may well become unravelled if the U.S. continues to and insists upon identifying Islam with the actions of a small minority of Muslim radicals. Second, the overwhelming majority of Muslims want to integrate into their western homelands. But this commitment to integration does not mean that Muslims are willing to give up their beliefs. A Muslim woman can wear a hijab and can still be a doctor. A Muslim man can watch cricket or Ice hockey with his non-Muslim friends without drinking beer. The reality is that Islamic teachings and fundamental western values can be integrated to create a British, American or French Islam just like there is an Indonesian, Malaysian and Turkish Islam.

What makes this integration possible for Muslims is that Islam is, in fact, not hostile to non-Muslims as claimed by Islamophobes. Islam condemns racism, holds the principles of justice to be more important than group loyalty, preaches freedom of conscience and teaches that loyalty to homeland is a part of faith. For instance, the Holy Quran says:

O ye who believe! be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do. (5:9)

 Verily, Allah commands you to make over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge between men, you judge with justice. And surely excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you! Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. (4:59)

The Holy Prophetsaw said:

O People, your Lord is One, you are the progeny of the same father (who was created from dust). Hence it is not permissible for you to make any discrimination between high and low. Neither an Arab has superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab. A white person is not superior to a black person one, nor a black is superior to a white. The most honourable among you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous.

In Islam, neither racial nor ethnic discrimination is condoned.  In fact, both kinds of discrimination are considered violations of Divine Attributes. God shows universal compassion and does not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is the responsibility of Muslims to internalize these attributes and become tolerant and compassion toward others including non-Muslims.  Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah (as), explains in his book Message of Peace:

 “A religion which does not inculcate universal compassion is no religion at all. Similarly, a human being without the faculty of compassion is no human at all. Our God has never discriminated between one people and another. This is illustrated by the fact that all the potentials and capabilities which have been granted to the Aryans have also been granted to the races inhabiting Arabia, Persia, Syria, China, Japan, Europe and America. The earth created by God provides a common floor for all people alike, and His sun and moon and many stars are a source of radiance and provide many other benefits to all alike. Likewise, all peoples benefit from the elements created by Him, such as air, water, fire and earth, and similarly from other products created by Him like grain, fruit, and healing agents, etc. These attributes of God teach us the lesson that we, too, should behave magnanimously and kindly towards our fellow human beings and should not be petty of heart and illiberal.”

Furthermore, Muslims do believe in the salvation of non-Muslims. The Holy Quran clearly says:

Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians — whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds — shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:63)

It is clear from above examples that the principle of justice , loyalty to homeland,  freedom of conscience, moral uprightness, universal compassion and salvation are key elements of Islam and together these principles teach Muslims to be tolerant, compassionate and respectful to non-Muslims. Unfortunately, Geert Wilders has confused these Islamic values with Nazism.

Myth 3: Muslims pose a Threat to the Western Way of Life

As discussed above, Aslan argues that the U.S.’s commitment to freedom of religion does not force Muslims to choose between their religious and nationalist identities.  However, in the USA, the demonization of Islam has become a very regular feature in some media outlets. These outlets along with some conservative interest groups have voiced unfounded concerns that Islamic law is creeping into American law and as such Muslims are slowly taking over the U.S. Such concerns have been circulated in European media as well.

A perfect example of Islamophobia was reported when Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle told a crowd of Tea Party rally-goers that two cities — Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas — are under Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam. Of course, the claims turned out to be false. Later, it was discovered Frankford, Texas doesn’t really exist. Dallas annexed the city in 1975 and all that remains is a church and cemetery. Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly told the Associated Press that Angle’s comments were “shameful” and “totally irresponsible.”[19]

The fear-mongering tactic employed by Sharron Angle was not an isolated incident. Even Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of House of Representatives, has raised baseless concerns that Islamic law is creeping into America.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a Journalist, comically demonstrates the absurdness of the fear that Muslims are slowly taking over America in the following words:

“A Martian takeover of New Jersey is more likely than the imposition of a caliphate, or of Muslim law, on America, for any number of reasons, including: One percent of America’s population is Muslim; within this one percent, a vanishingly small minority believes in the ideology of al-Qaeda, which propogates the idea of the restoration of the caliphate; a much greater percentage of American Muslims believes in interfaith dialogue (I know this from personal experience, having been invited to countless interfaith dialogue groups). Only a true paranoid could look at America as it is today and see the creeping takeover of Islamist caliphate ideology.”[20]

Hopefully, the American commitment to the freedom of religion will prevail and American public will not pay any attention these Islamophobic voices.

Conclusion

 All in all, Islam is not a monolithic religion. Only a tiny minority of Muslims are radical. The overwhelming majority are peaceful and want to become integrated in their western homelands. It is unfortunate that Islamophobes try to paint Muslims as blood-thirsty and hostile community bent on taking over Europe and America. The time has come for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and people of all faiths to form an alliance against elements of radicalism that are to be found in all faiths, and which are a threat to intercultural and interreligious peace. The enemy is not Islam, nor is it any other faith. The enemy is intolerance, which is propagated by hate mongers such as anti-Semites and Islamophobes or anyone else who spreads hatred against any faith group.  A noble laureate, Elie Wiesel, who experienced the suffering of Jews first hand during the Second World War, wrote his memories in a book, Night. In the preface of the book, he explains that the reason he wrote his memories is because “he does not want his past to become the future of youth today and the children who will be born tomorrow”. The point is that we must always be vigilant to identify hatred, and address it before it takes on a systematic violent form. Muslims today are concerned that their depiction by Islamophobes’ as a violent and monolithic people will slowly dehumanize them in the minds of the western public According to the studies of social psychology, dehumanization is defined as the process by which one person or group views others as not worthy of humane treatment and eventually extreme dehumanization leads to crimes against humanity and acts of genocide such as the Holocaust. [21]

The question is how we should become aware of our prejudices and rein them in. The solution lies in not forgetting the simple historical truth that hatred and prejudice are like a cancer that continues to find a new group to target until it eats away the soul of a whole nation.

History has taught us again and again that we have the natural urge to prejudge an individual based on his religion and culture, and how often the prejudice when let loose grows into discrimination, which when left unchecked, transforms into hatred which can trigger violence and even genocide or a holocaust.

Islamophobes instead of making malicious generalizations and baseless accusations should acknowledge the existence of diversity in Islam and make a serious effort to create a positive atmosphere of dialogue and of course, Muslims living in west must reciprocate that effort. The aim of dialogue must be to better understand each other plus find a way to coexist that is mutually rewarding.



[1] Saeed, Amir, “Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media”, Sociology Compass, University of Sunderland, 2007, p.446

[2] Saeed, Amir, p.444

[3] Saeed, Amir, p.446-447

 

[4] Saeed, Amir, p.448

[5] Saeed, Amir, p. 453

[6] Saeed, Amir, p. 450-451

[7] Wallach, Joan “France’s ban on the Islamic veil has little to do with female emancipation” http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/aug/26/france-ban-islamic-veil

[8] Saeed, Amir, p. 455

[9] Saunders, Doug, “The Scary World of Geert Wilders”, The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/the-scary-world-of-geert-wilders/article1491766/

[10] Saunders, Doug, “The Scary World of Geert Wilders”,

[11] Saunders, Doug, “The Scary World of Geert Wilders”

[12] Philadelphia Daily News, Controvery over Halal Soup is nuts http://www.philly.com/dailynews/opinion/20101020_DN_Editorial__A_Daily_News_editorial.html

[13] Said, Edward, “Introduction to the Vintage Edition”, Covering Islam: How the Media and Experts Determine How we See the rest of the world, Vintage Books, New York,  1997, p.xii

[14] Said, Edward, p.xxxi

[15] Moisi, Dominique, “The Culture of Fear” in The Geopolitics of Emotion,  Anchor Books, New York, June 2010, p. 103-104

[16] Moisi, Dominique, p. 103-104

[17] Moisi, Dominique,  p. 102-103

[18] Aslan, Reza, “The End of War as we Know it” in Beyond Fundamentalism, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010, p. 159-160

[19] Simon, Jeff, “Angle: Two American cities under Sharia law”, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/09/angle-two-american-cities-under-sharia-law/?iref=allsearch

[20] Goldberg, Jeffrey, “Pamela Geller, Clinical Paranoid” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/10/pamela-geller-clinical-paranoid/64355/

[21] Mitcham, Carl, “Humanization and Dehumanization”, http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2655-2005.87.pdf

Posted by on September 2, 2012. Filed under ISLAM,Islam: A Religion of Peace,ISLAMOPHOBIA,Law. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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