Islamophobia becoming a caricature

The irrationality of Islamophobia is easy to demonstrate.   There are very, very few Muslim terrorists, and those who are reflect a political problem in Mideast countries under corrupt governments where the youth lack hope, or in rare cases a backlash against western culture.   The adherents of Bin Laden are the exception rather than the rule, and they do not adhere to true Muslim doctrine in the eyes of over 99% of the Islamic world.  And from the perspective of Muslims, the real mass killing has been done in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, with Muslims the victims of state terror.   The idea that Muslims are more violent or dangerous is simply wrong.

Yet some people find it easy to make collective broadsides against over a billion innocents.    Anger over a Muslim day at an amusement park after Ramadan, opposition to a community Center in New York City and weird claims that Arabs are crossing the border disguised as Mexicans to have babies that will become terrorists in 18 years were typical.  Calls for ‘internment camps’ and threats to bomb Mecca have faded, however, as most Americans realize that the over the top rhetoric was both irrational and un-American.

Yet there are a few are still at it.   The especially kooky Frank Gaffney seems to think if you have anything to do with a Muslim, you’re infected.  He claims that conservative groups that work with Muslims are trying to spread shariah law and indoctrinate American conservatives  into supporting Islam.    Chief among these alleged insidious traitors are Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and former Bush staffer Suhail Khan.   I’m kidding, right?  Read it here. He claims that the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU) has the goal of indoctrinating conservatives into giving support to Islam and Sharia law.

Gaffney appears to have a Joseph Goebbels approach to propaganda — tell big and outrageous lies with a sense of urgent certainty, and people will believe  (he’s done this before, as the article cited above notes, and almost always with Muslims as the villains).   But the idea that American conservatives can somehow be duped into promoting Islam and Shariah law is too far fetched to even be taken seriously.    I also am personally upset with Gaffney for threatening the prestige of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I got my MA.  He has a Ph.D. from that school!

But Gaffney’s not the only one.   Conservative bloggers are incensed at DC Comics for having Batman choose a French Muslim to head his Paris office.  (Batman runs branch offices?)  Why could he not have a “real” Frenchman?   A good Catholic, or even an atheist?   First, French law makes clear that French identity is related to culture, not genetics.  And the French have a lot of Muslims whose families have been French for generations; they are “true” Frenchmen and women.  These bloggers must be the same people who were miffed that Mecca didn’t get destroyed in the movie 2012!

What kind of bile runs through the veins of a person to make them so hateful towards Islam that they get up in arms over a comic book having a Muslim hero?   Muslims fight and serve in the US armed forces, many have died to save their comrades.  Are they not heroes?   Of course, rationality is not a strong suit with this crowd.   Recently an easily recognizable hoax led to massive effort by opponents of the New York City community center to boycott Justin Bieber. First, boycotting an artist (OK, you can quibble with that description of Bieber) over his or her political views is a bit silly — it’s a sign you’re taking this too seriously.   But not to take the time to really be sure of it before launching a major boycott drive?   Bizarre.

The danger, apparently, is that if we portray Muslims in a kind (I would say, in an accurate) manner, then we’re allowing others to see them as human.  If Muslims are seen as human, then suddenly it’s not fair to single them out and vilify 1.5 billion people because of the acts of a few dozen.    Like Gaffney, who apparently can’t stand that President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and had Muslim aids, Islamophobes are to the West what Bin Laden is to Islam: an irrational extreme which wants a ‘clash of civilization’ so the “evil” side can be defeated by the “good” side.

I say put the Islamic extremists and the Islamophobes in a room together and let them fight it out.   The rest of us can work on things like restructuring the economy and advancing human rights.

Still, there is something both frightening and heartening in all this.  It’s frightening that people can let their rationality slip away, and allow fear of the other to take over.   And it is fear — hate, prejudice, bigotry and anger all have fear as their root cause.  It’s heartening, however, to see that most Americans are rejecting that kind of approach, and that increasingly it’s just the over the top bizarre ones that make the news.   Since the misplaced opposition to the Community Center in New York city burst forth, the media has gotten better on explaining the reality of Islam, and countering those wild claims that Muslims wanted to “kill all Christians” and things like that (sort of like how the Nazis said Jews wanted to eat Christian babies).

As it became clear that the man who wanted to build what the Islamophobes originally claimed was a “mosque on the site of Ground zero” to “honor Osama Bin Laden and claim victory” was really a moderate Sufi who has been constantly working for dialogue and cooperation between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, people started to see the hatemongers for what they really are.   There is already a mosque at the site of that community center, which is a few blocks from ground zero, not on it.    The public started to shrug at that debate, and move away from a fear that somehow Muslims were a danger.

And with caricatures like Gaffney warning that Muslims are trying to take over the conservative movement, and with bloggers waxing indignant about DC Comics daring to have a French Muslim hero, it’ll continue to become obvious that only the crazies see Islam and Muslims writ large as a threat.   There are dangerous extremist groups, and Islam is going through a difficult process of defining itself in the modern context thanks to globalization.   There are real problems.   One can also criticize the militarism and failures of American foreign policy.   There is a lot to fix and deal with on all sides.  But maybe the craziness is subsiding.

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  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on January 7, 2011 - 07:46

    Wow! Those things are crazy.

    However, there is another irrational position to take, which, I suppose, could be called Islamophilia. It glosses over and excuses all evils perpetrated by Muslim people. It insists, despite the terrorists’ claims to the contrary, that jihadist groups and their imams have no connection to the religion of Islam and that they are not really doing it in an attempt to serve Allah. It says, in effect, “It doesn’t really matter that people have died as at the hands of extremists, because there haven’t been that many.”

    Oh, and Islamophiles must always, always bring up Timothy McVeigh. Somehow mentioning his name is proof that terrorism is never, or at least hardly ever, perpetrated by Muslim people.

    They must also say that Israel is just as bad or worse. That tiny nation trying to exist as the sole homeland for Jewish people has no right to exist or to defend itself. The Muslim world, after all needs that small coastal area of the Mediterranean Sea, because their territory isn’t big enough yet.

    And they must say that the United States deserved it, or at least fostered it, because of our “policies.” The extremist terrorists are actually automatons who have no power to act on their own but are programmed to highjack aircraft and blow up buildings.

    Oh, and they absolutely must bring up the Crusades, because a two-sided conflict that occurred during the Middle Ages is proof that Christians are just as bad and that Muslim people are somehow justified in whatever they do to Christians in modern times.

    It’s adherents express no outrage that journalists have been kidnapped and beheaded, that women are mutilated, that young girls are married off to polygamists who are allowed to beat them, that homosexual people are caned and hanged, that people going to work one day were killed in collapsed buildings. The one thing that cannot be said is that the people who do those things are Muslim people.

    To an Islamophile, all effort must be taken to appease the “extremists.” We mustn’t print cartoons that “offend” them. We mustn’t condemn their barbaric cultural practices. Although I remember distinctly that it used to be de rigeur to do so by people on the left–before the attacks on 9-11.

    Let’s see how “few” of these incidents there are. Think of how many terrorist acts were perpetrated by Muslims just in 2010. Here are some of them:

    January 1–car bomb explosion in Pakistan
    February 1–an attempt to attack Israel’s coast using floating bombs
    March 1–an assassination attempt on an Israeli security guard
    April 2–bombing of a railroad track in India
    May 1–car bomb attempt in New York city
    July 27–bombing of a Japanese tanker
    September 28–attempted plot on France, the UK, and Germany
    October 29–bombing attempt on flight from Yemen to the United States
    December 11–car bomb explosion in Stokholm
    December 25–bombing at a food distribution center in Pakistan

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on January 7, 2011 - 13:20

    Don’t collectivize. There are 1.5 billion Muslims. To paint them with a brush colored by a couple dozen terrorists would be morally wrong. It’s not about Islam, it’s about the politics. Collectivizing and criticizing “Muslims” and “Islam” is morally wrong. McVeigh, however, is a good comparison — he is the “libertarian/American” version of a Bin Laden. He was similarly warped in his ideals. And since the roots of terrorism are political, you can’t understand it without looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or both colonialism and on going wars in the region. You have to critically consider the role of US foreign policy in creating breeding grounds for terrorism. After all, it’s a rather recent development, suggesting a recent cause. And the list you gave makes my case — it’s pathetically small compared to the Muslim population, and I’m sure we could find lists of crimes and atrocities from the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan that could match it. And you, as a libertarian, should understand the fallacy of collectivizing, say 12 incidents to talk about 1.5 billion people. Focus on the individuals and their acts/responsibility.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on January 7, 2011 - 15:15

    Hmmm, Islamophilia? I guess my approach to Islam is the same as to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or any religion. I don’t believe that there is one right exclusive religion, and believe most are built on myth and tradition. Yet I also believe they tend to tap into an inner moral set of truths we have, our spiritual dimension, if you will. So I try to respect all faiths, and more importantly try to in both life and teaching urge everyone to respect others, not to stereotype or judge a large group by the actions of a few. Since 9-11 I do incorporate teaching about Islam in my classes to foster understanding and work against fear and bias. But I integrate ideas about Judaism and Christianity alongside, pointing out how all faiths have been abused by those with a political agenda, but that they all deserve respect. I don’t put any above the others in that regard, though when it comes to individuals claiming to act in the name of those faiths, I make sure it’s the individual condemned, not the group.

  4. #4 by josephS on January 7, 2011 - 16:34

    The Muslims community in America is divided. On the one hand are the peace-loving, pluralistically minded Muslims who are comfortable living day to day with everyone else who feel no need or compulsion to push their faith on anyone else. On the other hand are the American Muslims (probably mostly foreign born) who see the Muslim community in opposition to the West. US against Them, as they say.
    Zuhdi Jasser, of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, is a Muslim who has been calling attention to this divide among American Muslims. He has been very vocal about the need for the broader American Muslim community to step up and acknowledge this fact. As things are now, he sees them in denial. There is an element who sees the United States as the enemy. Granted, it’s not the majority, but it doesn’t have to be for Americans in general to recognize that Islam in America is in need of some counseling.
    It’s not Islamophobia just because the Council on American Islamic Relations says it is. That group in particular has “advised” American Muslims not to cooperation with law enforcement (US vs Them), doing a disservice to the constituency it purports to advocate for and the country it claims as home.
    President Obama, his top general in Afghanistan, Secretaries Gates and Clinton — all pled with the American people not to do anything that might insult an otherwise peaceful Muslim world. They asked Terry Jones in Florida not to burn the Koran in protest against radical Muslim extremists who use the Koran to justify their actions. Why? Because they, like lots of other Americans, are aware of how nuts much of the Muslim world is. Everyone from Muslim leaders in Indonesia to the Park51 Imam Rauf warned the US that if Terry Jones burned a few Korans, it could be disastrous for US/Muslim relations, even leading, they warned, to a compromise of world peace, no less.
    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the President of the United States has pleaded with Americans “not to do anything crazy” in order to keep the broader peaceful Muslim world from, well, “doing anything crazy.”

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on January 7, 2011 - 17:41

    The Muslim community is pretty united against those who espouse violence. Just as some Christians do so, some whites are neo-Nazis, some Jews and Blacks are militants for their causes, you can always find militants. Depending on the politics of the moment, the militants may increase their numbers a bit. But it is wrong to focus on the trait shared between the few militants and the massive number of peaceful folk. It is true that for political reasons Mideast countries have a much larger radicalized population (though the vast majority do reject terrorism and Bin Laden). This is not because of Islam, it’s because of politics. This is a serious problem, but not one that would warrant making a collectivization error and thinking Islam is the cause or that we can group Muslims together. That’s like using the Westboro Baptist Church to attack Christianity (and some do that). Also, we’ve killed a lot more people and caused a lot more destruction in that region than any Muslims have here. Don’t you think that might cause a backlash of anger and resentment? Many of them are making the same error you are, they are seeing “Westerners” through the eyes of the atrocities and human rights violations that are really only a tiny faction of what we do there. When both sides start collectivizing like that, it creates problems. I am still amazed that you seem to ignore your libertarian streak and your admiration for Ayn Rand and collectivize Muslims like that.

  6. #6 by josephS on January 7, 2011 - 22:09

    S.E.-
    I’d like to agree with you that politics in Muslim countries has more to do with their attitudes toward the West and the US in particular. And even to some extent I’d put weight on that, too.
    I do think, however, that the force of Islam in the lives of Middle Easterners especially is greater than you give it credit.
    I still point to the Terry Jones situation to make my case. Muslims very obviously (and not just what we’d call “extremists”) were very vocal in warning the US of the grave insult such an act would create. It’s not like someone being a little incensed at their dork neighbor who just to be a jerk one day burns a bible on his front lawn and flips the bird, after which his neighbors flip him off in return – if they notice at all – and go back inside at most shaking their heads.
    Perhaps you’d characterize the Muslim reaction as mere politics, and you’d be right only insofar as Islam is both spiritual AND political in places like Iraq, Iran, Egypt (at least among the masses), Saudi Arabia, and others. But peruse Islamic blogs and more often than not, the gripe against the West isn’t political, it’s religious. Their Allah is being insulted. Allah and the Prophet being subject to insult is not taken lightly among Muslims in the Middle East. Pakistan even makes insulting Allah and Mohammad punishable by death.
    Imam Hassan Qazwini, in his book “American Crescent,” made the point that should Middle Eastern countries adopt democracy, their constitutions would most certainly include deference to Islamic Law and protecting Allah and his Prophet from slurs. Qazwini is considered by many to be a “moderate” Muslim, a Shiite who heads up the Islamic Center of America headquartered in Michigan (He also believes, incidentally, that the 1st Amendment should be changed to reflect the same sentiment, though he is more inclusive in including all religions and prophets – oh joy!).
    So it is not just extremist Muslims who feel this way. As I said before, Terry Jones and his little Koran burning stunt evoked warnings not just from extremists but from folks like Imam Rauf of Park51 stating that “the Muslim World” would look very disapprovingly upon the US if Jones were “allowed” to carry out his plans, so much so that US/Muslim relations would be seriously compromised, up to and including threats to world peace. Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with it. Politics, at least from a Western perspective (such as mine) had nothing to do with it either.

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on January 7, 2011 - 22:54

    Islam in the MIdeast has not yet modernized. The process will be difficult, at times violent (it was for the Christian West, after all). What I oppose is lumping all Muslims together, and making it seem as if the problem was Islam itself. That will undercut our efforts to help find a path to modernity for Muslims — especially since very few, even those who would be angered at burning a Koran — have attitudes like those of Osama Bin Laden. Anything that creates the impression of civilizations “battling” or in conflict helps the extremists. Islam is going through a process that the Christian West went through centuries ago. But when the West started the journey to modernity, there were no greater powers trying to get us to change quickly. My point is that if we focus too much on the religion itself, it not only distracts from what’s happening, but plays into the hands of those who want to fight the transition to modernity.

    Or I think of Muslims I know whose view of life and their faith as peaceful and submissive, taking seriously the idea that religious faith cannot be coerced, and that Muslims should not fight a foe who doesn’t want to fight. It’s just not right to lump them in with the extremists because they share the same religion, any more than it is to lump Christians in with extremists.

    Think of the Koran burning like the scenes of Palestinians burning American flags on 9-11. That really riled people up, and ended up harming the Palestinian image in the US. When a student where I teach (a conservative Republican from a military family) did an art project where faux flags were on the floor of the student center, there were death threats made, people were angry, shouting matches burst out, people said they’d never send their children to a school which would defile the American flag…they didn’t understand the project or the students intent (which was NOT anti-American). So we have similar sorts of reactions in our modern culture — think of how much more sacred the Koran is in a traditional culture than the flag in our modern culture! Yet the reactions are often virulent and angry. We wanted to avoid that, especially in a war zone where emotions are already on edge. (That said, while the idiot wanting to burn the Koran was right not to, I suspect the warnings were overblown.)

  8. #8 by josephS on January 8, 2011 - 16:13

    Scott – I agree with much of what you are saying. I realize that flags and bibles and Korans are powerful symbols that anyone can rally around, even to the extreme, and I hope my comments haven’t suggested in any way that I view Muslims “collectively” as suspect. I certainly do not.
    That said, if I can get back to my original post and then I’ll hang this up …
    I wasn’t addressing the issue of the situation of the 1.5Billion Muslims worldwide so much as the plight of the American Muslim and claims of Islamophobia. I get incensed when I hear people criticizing anyone who has some concerns about Islam and how it fits or doesn’t fit with US attitudes, particularly Constitutional understandings, and the way in which groups like CAIR characterize the Muslim experience in America.
    Recently I watched a video in which CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper was a guest on a Tehran-based “human events” program, on which he proceeded to plant the “Islamophobia” seed and to paint a picture of Muslim life in America as one a near constant fear, hate, and discrimination. He’s wrong in his assessment, and I question what his motives are. I understand that groups like his, in purporting to advocate for Muslims, feel obligated to be aggressive in their work, but he and his organization go too far by appearing to deliberately put the Muslim community in confrontation mode. It is discouraging to find CAIR and its representatives treated as the de facto voice of American Muslims by the media, especially here in the United States.
    The problem with CAIR’s characterization of American attitudes toward Islam is that, for it to be true, American Muslims would be expected to behave quite differently here than they generally do. I worked for a few years with an American-born Muslim woman (“Quanta”) who on social networks trumpeted Islam, the culture of Islam, all the cute things her toddler children did (like sporting a pair of underwear as a hijab), and so on. She had a good job, her husband a doctor. At work she felt free to actively promote Islam in “cross-cultural” seminars, and she received all sorts of support from everyone around her.
    On top of that Quanta felt perfectly free to make derogatory comments about non-Muslim holidays and remind people how insulted she was that neighbors of hers would presume to own dogs, or that the company cafeteria did not accommodate her with halal lunch offerings. Co-workers in confidence remarked at how aggressive she was at times. I just thought it fascinating how she also seemed to believe she and other Muslims in America were being so persecuted.
    Jump to the other side of the world, to Pakistan, where members of the Hindu minority are reluctant to even to give their newborn children Hindu names for fear that it will bring the wrath of the majority down on them. Or Iraq, where Christians are vanishing, leaving the country in droves because of persecution and intolerance that Quanta and her Muslim friends and family never experience in America and quite frankly couldn’t begin to imagine.
    She had bought in as well to the notion of the Muslim community as a single-cell entity in a struggle with the West, which, for example, resulted in perverse attempts to defend the Taliban after Time Magazine ran an article describing the brutality and oppression Taliban women often endure.
    If life were indeed so bad, Quanta might already have left the US, or would “hide” in her home, refusing to leave unless absolutely necessary. When daring to leave the house, she might leave her hijab behind rather than run the risk of being identified as a Muslim. She would take pains to avoid making any derogatory comments about non-Muslim practices or traditions in public. She would likely find it difficult to find work or be afraid even to report crimes against her or her family.
    CAIR’s portrayal of Muslim life in America, as misrepresented by Ibrahim Hooper on the Tehran TV show, goes a long in fostering misperceptions by Muslims in other countries. I think the vast majority of Muslims, especially in the Middle East, have been taken in by this to a certain extent. Read Muslim blogs from those countries and even those from India and you see how otherwise sensible, “normal” people are infused with the belief that Muslims in America are under siege. As much as some claim Americans are ignorant of, well, everything, the Muslim world at large is clueless about America.
    The Terry Jones affair bears this out. Even Obama felt compelled to intervene in order to persuade the broader Muslim world that the US government was not behind the stunt and in no way sanctioned the actions of one obscure preacher burning some Korans in Florida.

    I’ll bug out now with this quote from the Park51 Imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf, who has been given the task at times by the State Dept. of going around the world breaking bread, so to speak, with Muslims in other countries. He was interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on 9/12/2010. What he said about the broader Muslim world was interesting, and, he went on to completely contradict the stance that CAIR and other reactionary organizations have taken. (I cleaned up some of the pauses):

    “In spite of the polls, the fact is that American Muslims are very happy and they thrive in this country. One of the misperceptions that exists in the Muslim world, which needs to be fixed, is the perception that Muslims in America are living in very, very, very bad circumstances. They cannot practice religion freely.
    “It is not the truth at all. The fact is, we are practicing. We fast, we pray, we do our prayers. We are able to do that. The laws protect us. Our political systems protect us. And we enjoy those freedoms in this country. And the Muslim world needs to recognize that.”

  9. #9 by Scott Erb on January 10, 2011 - 03:07

    Yes, I think that while there are real cases where Muslims have been targeted with bigotry, most of the time they are accepted. I also am irritated that so many have opposed Faisal Abdul Rauf, who has long tried to build bridges. We have moments of anger and prejudice, but overall, we in the US do the melting pot thing pretty well (especially when compared to others).

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