One of the most widely discussed issues in the U.S. Muslim community is the negative image of Islam in the American media, an issue that was cause for concern even before 9/11. While appeals to the media for accuracy and fairness continue, newspaper headlines regularly print the words “Islam” and “Muslim” next to words like “fanatic,” “fundamentalist,” “militant,” “terrorist” and “violence.” Uses of the term “jihad” in television programs and films are also illustrative. As a pamphlet for the media published by the American Muslim Council explains, the word jihad “is more accurately translated as ‘exertion of effort’, not ‘holy war.’ The Prophet Muhammad said that the highest form of jihad is the personal struggle to make oneself a better Muslim.” Events such as the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis, the Gulf War, and, most significantly, 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror” that followed, have received enormous press coverage as evidence of “Islamic fundamentalism.” American Muslims often ask why a small group of extremists, whose terrorist actions violate the central principles of Islam, should determine the public image of the entire Muslim community. As Edward Said, author of Covering Islam, noted, prejudice against Muslims is “the last sanctioned racism.”
Muslims in the United States experience the impact of these stereotypes in myriad forms. Individuals have experienced discrimination in housing and employment, or even harassment and attacks from strangers on the street; mosques and Islamic centers across the country frequently report vandalism. During the 1990s the attacks on people and places of worship received little attention from the mainstream press, despite the fact that a number of mosques were destroyed by arson across the United States in places like Yuba City, California, Springfield, Illinois, and Greenville, South Carolina. Such incidents have only increased in recent years, adding to the list mosques in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Joplin, Missouri and Toledo, Ohio. Many Muslim communities experience difficulties with neighbors and zoning boards even before establishing places of worship, and the connection between stereotypes and harassment is often explicit: at a city council meeting in California, one neighbor opposing the establishment of a local Islamic center exclaimed, “It only takes five people to make a group of terrorists.”
A 2011 report entitled “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” published by the Center for American Progress, traces the voices and sources of funding of the anti-Islamic rhetoric that has stimulated a fear of Muslims. These include organizations like ACT! for America, Jihad Watch, American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), and Stop Islamization of America (SIOA). SIOA, founded in 2010, had a prominent role in creating public opposition to the Muslim community center, Park51, mistakenly dubbed as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which was to be constructed in Lower Manhattan. SIOA was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group in 2011. The Center for Security Policy (CSP) was identified by the “Fear, Inc.” report as being at the hub of the anti-Islam movement, as it is highly influential with right-wing politicians, and a “central hub of the anti-Muslim network and an active promoter of anti-Sharia messaging and anti-Muslim rhetoric.” In 2012, the American Freedom Defense Initiative sponsored advertisements on public transportation in the New York area that declared: “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.” While many supported the organization’s right to freedom of speech, many, including the Anti-Defamation League, also criticized the SIOA and AFDI for condemning an entire religion and its members. Rabbis for Human Rights as well as Christian groups such as Sojourners and the United Methodist Women responded in support of Muslims, placing counter ads in support of Muslims.
Even before 9/11, the effects of stereotyping against Muslims were apparent. For example, in the immediate wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, early news accounts included reports of people of “Middle Eastern heritage” fleeing the scene; many journalists, “experts,” and even former Representative Dave McCurdy linked the bombing to “fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups.” The response was fast and furious: over two hundred incidents of bias against the Muslim community followed in the next few days, including attacks on private homes and mosques. Muslims were not involved in the bombing, but many were active in the rescue efforts.
The American Muslim community has mobilized to fight against these dangerous stereotypes and their damaging effects. A growing number of Muslim organizations are offering resources to educate the media and the general public about Islam, and to encourage Muslims in their local communities to speak out against discrimination. In the 1990s, the American Muslim Council in Washington, D.C. published a pamphlet to teach Muslims how to write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor of local newspapers as well as how to organize meetings with media and public officials in response to a crisis. The Islamic Circle of North America has set up a toll-free number to report bias and hate incidents; the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which began in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, has continued to track hate crimes against American Muslims. Muslims are also active in interfaith groups and outreach programs across the country.
Many Muslim individuals and communities in America are finding ways to be innovative and transparent in their efforts to dispel some of the stereotypes that are perpetuated about Islam. Mosques across the country hold open houses and invite non-Muslims to lectures about Islam or to attend Friday prayers. Advertisements for “Islam 101” classes are posted in subway cars and buses in Boston. Muslim student groups are hosting “Islam Awareness Weeks,”on their college campuses. Individuals, too, are attempting to educate non-Muslims about various traditions of Islam. For example, Imam Khalid Latif, Muslim chaplain at New York University, wrote a “Ramadan Reflection” article in the Huffington Post for each day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2011 and 2012, in which he addressed a range of topics from his own 9/11 story to the challenges and rewards of keeping the fast.
Television has also been a venue for “rebranding” Islam. Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012) was a comedy series on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). All-American Muslim (2011) aired for one season on The Learning Channel (TLC). Following the daily lives of Lebanese-American Shi’a Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan, All-American Muslim received attention in the news when some companies such the home-improvement store Lowe’s requested their advertisements be removed during the show’s airing. One loud voice in the controversy was the Florida Family Foundation whose founder claimed airing the show was “dangerous” because it presented Muslims as ordinary Americans.
While there are many strong voices, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, that denounce militant jihad and Islamic fundamentalism, there remain a number of media outlets and individuals who seem committed to promoting fear-inducing, monolithic, and extremist understandings of Islam. As Muslim communities and their allies continue to find ways to counter these negative stereotypes, there may yet be a day when “Islamophobia” is an idea of the past and no longer a living reality.
A few months ago, at one of my lectures, a young mother approached me and said, eyes downcast, that her seven-year-old son didn’t want to go to school anymore because of the names people were calling him: “Terrorist,” “Osama,” “America-hater.” Kids were starting to gang up on him on the playground. Pushing him down, sometimes kicking him.
He had started to have nightmares again. And he didn’t want to be Muslim anymore. He wanted to change his name, he wanted to stop praying, he wanted his parents to stop fasting during Ramadan.
She got no response when she talked to the teachers about it. Some said her son was making it up, others said it really wasn’t that bad.
I have heard that story several dozen times over the past few years: from students in Chicago high schools to students at Duke University.
My wife and I will (God willing) be having a baby in May, and I find myself having anxiety attacks about his childhood in this country. Will he face a constant barrage of bullies, media messages and authority figures that demean him because of his faith? When I confessed my fear to a group of African-American professors at a college in South Carolina, one said: “It sounds like the experience black parents had, and still have, in the South.”
Something profoundly un-American is happening in America: the irrational fear and hatred of a group of people because of an aspect of their identity. People are taking the criminals of this community and superimposing their image on every other member, including children. Somehow, my Muslim baby will look like Osama bin Laden to millions of Americans.
In every other circumstance, we would call this way of thinking absurd at best and racist at worst. If you see an armed robbery suspect on the evening news who happens to be five foot eleven inches, you do not expect every person who is the same height to be an armed robber. That would be absurd. And if that armed robbery suspect happens to be of South Asian descent, you do not hold the first South Asian you see on the subway responsible for his actions. That would be racist.
So why am I – a five-foot-eleven-inch South Asian – implicated in and held responsible for the actions of people (terrorists, murderers) who happen to share another part of my identity, faith? Why isn’t that way of thinking considered both absurd and racist? And why isn’t more being done about kids in school who are subject to a constant barrage of hatred based on such absurdity and racism?
Thus far, I have discussed the experiences of other people, but I realize that the direct question was about whether I have experienced discrimination because of my faith.
My answer: read the comments people have made to my previous postings on this blog. Notice the ugly terms they use to describe the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him). In what world is it appropriate to insult the founder of a religion in a public forum?
Read how the commentators insist on highlighting only the dark sides of Islam, making some things up, taking other things out of context and dramatically twisting the tradition to which I belong. Doesn’t every nation/religion/tradition have a dark side?
The Constitution of the country that I love treats human beings of a darker hue as 3/5 of a person. But that is not the entire story of this nation, and it would be perverse to point out only that without also noting how it was in tension with other ethics and how the matter was resolved. Why is it OK to twist Islam?
Is there any greater violation of the American spirit and the human ethic than to spit on the heritage that somebody considers precious? Would these people spit on somebody’s race? Their ethnicity? Their language? Their parents?
Isn’t America about people from different backgrounds – racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, religious – who maintain pride in their heritage and come together to build a new nation?
I want to be a part of that. Millions of Muslims in America want to be part of building this nation.
The people who are trying to shut us out are not only twisting our faith, they are insulting the soul of this country.
More on: Bin Laden, Dark Side, Faith, High Schools, National, Osama Bin Laden, Religion
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