Bigotry has asserted a strong presence in the public realm as negative characterizations of Islam and Muslims are repeated daily. But how do you convince people to hate one fifth of the world’s population? Does it make sense to tell people that a true Muslim is a violent Muslim? And why has Islam become everyone’s favourite punching-bag?
In the era of globalization and digital communication, it is essential to understand and interact with people of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. As members of one large global neighbourhood, communities must break down barriers of stereotypes and build bridges of dialogue and cooperation. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, making up the majority population in 49 countries of the world, while one fifth of the world’s Muslim population lives in non-Muslim majority countries.1Pew Research Center. http://www.pewforum.
In the past decade, warfare and political chaos unfolding in the Muslim world have given rise to fanatical movements attempting to invoke religion to grant Divine authority to their claims. Academics have provided their opinions and analyses on the ideological and psychological origins of these fanatical movements, the political conflicts in which they are involved, the aggravating factors in the past decades which have driven the region into a chaotic bloodbath, the historical causes of instability, and so on. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with these viewpoints, such academic attention is valuable on a complex subject. Unfortunately, the popular airwaves are more often dominated with a less helpful perspective – an intensified effort to demonize Muslims as inherently violent, savage people with a backwards, barbaric religion.
Bigotry is hatred and intolerance towards those with different beliefs, ideas and values, often manifested in prejudice towards another religious group. Bigotry does not entertain any complexity, critical reason, or nuance in a discussion. In the mind of the bigot, the enemy is Islam itself, not just the fanatics. And if the faith is evil, then by implication, anyone who claims to follow Islam and calls themselves Muslim is deliberately espousing evil and should be dealt with accordingly. The entire faith community is condemned as repugnant to modern society. If that view sounds seriously problematic, it’s because it is.
When Bigots become Theologians
What are the rhetorical tactics that bigots use to justify this characterization of Islam as inherently evil? Believe it or not, they pretend to be theologians. Here’s how:
When confronted with educated Muslims who espouse peaceful coexistence with others, a bigot may respond with the argument that these masses are just “nominal Muslims who don’t take their faith seriously”.2While the commentator who made this statement (Sam Harris) later backed off, confessing to have “misspoke slightly”, this retraction is undermined by the same statement being repeated seven years earlier in a TruthDig debate on May 22, 2007: “I’m not saying that all 1.4 billion Muslims are AlQaeda – I’m not saying that. There’s no doubt that some significant percentage of Muslims don’t take their religion all that seriously – that is a good thing.” In other words, the only Muslims who aren’t violent criminals are the ones who are ‘fake Muslims’, who don’t take their religion seriously. The near-verbatim repetition 7 years later makes it difficult to dismiss as a mere ‘slip of the tongue’ what instead appears to be carefully rehearsed rhetoric designed to vilify an entire faith community as violent savages. Note also that in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”. In other words, they are not normal human beings worthy of respect and dignity. Notice, the entire argument about Islam hinges on drawing this strange distinction: violent Muslims are true Muslims, peaceful Muslims are fake Muslims. But declaring who is and is not a ‘true’ Muslim is not a philosophical or scientific argument, it’s a theological judgement. And why should we accept bigots as Islamic theologians to dictate what is and what isn’t “authentic Islam”? It is up to the mainstream adherents of a faith to embody and live its authentic message.
Moreover, the assertion is seriously problematic. One would think that scholars of Islam and religious leaders take their faith more seriously than hijackers at a strip club or acknowledged ignoramuses, and Islamic scripture repeatedly calls on Muslims to live in harmony with people of all faiths, but bigots have no time for such ‘nuances’.3Some bigots will go further and take a more aggressive line of attack and flat-out accuse all peaceful Muslims of being liars, claiming that there is a doctrine of ‘taqiyyah’ that allows Muslims to lie about their faith. Sadly, there can be no reasoning with someone who will accuse you of lying no matter what you say. Moreover, this so-called doctrine is an absolute fabrication. Sunni Muslims will have never heard this word in their lives, while Shi’a Muslims will know the term only as a reference to concealing one’s identity when under threat of anti-religious persecution. In reality, it’s no secret to research groups and intelligence agencies that this bigotry is factually bogus – an MI5 research document discussed in The Guardian noted:
“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”
So the ideology which radicalized fanatics call ‘Islam’ denotes something completely different than the ‘Islam’ recognized by a billion faithful Muslims. This illustrates why the perpetual debates on “Islam and violence” in the media are completely pointless until one specifies what on earth we are talking about. Are you talking about the ideology of radical groups or the faith of your colleagues and neighbours? Once we are pushed to specify, the debate instantaneously dissolves. The fact that violent groups hold a violent ideology is so pathetically obvious that it need not be asked. The far more useful question to ask is the one that bigots have provided zero insight into: what precisely is that ideology comprised of, how does it attract followers, what are the geopolitical factors that have lead to its proliferation, and how can we mitigate those factors in order to eliminate this ideology?
Despite bigots feigning expertise on Islamic theology and Qur’anic exegesis, no sophisticated discussion of these subjects ever emerges in the course of their anti-Islamic diatribes. No mention is made of any work of theology of any of the diverse theological schools, nor any reference to the scholarly discussions on Maqasid, Usul, Mu’aamalat, etc. Furthermore, the slightest familiarity with foundational texts of Qur’anic exegesis demonstrates that bigoted portrayals of Islam simply do not stand up to academic scrutiny (read this article on the Top 5 Misquotations of the Qur’an).
Labeling all Muslims liars and criminals?
The implicit assertion of bigotry is that if you’re a Muslim who understands Islam, you have two options. Either you are peaceful, in which case your claim to follow Islam is a lie, or you are violent in which case you are a “real Muslim”. It should be patently obvious that a discourse that demands classification of all Muslims as either “peaceful-liars” or “honest-criminals” only serves to further demonize and dehumanize this faith community in society. As Haroon Moghul writes, ” It’s treating whole categories of people as inferior and backwards and stupid based on categories someone else creates.”. Whenever a Muslim is encountered in daily life, the discourse of bigotry demands that the Muslim be regarded as either a peaceful-liar or an honest-criminal, but never as a fellow human being to treat with respect, dignity and compassion.
This exposes why there is a fundamental difference between criticizing religious beliefs versus hate speech intended to dehumanize a faith community. People can criticize one another’s beliefs as illogical and incoherent and still go home feeling friendship towards one another. But declaring that someone else espouses criminal beliefs, that their entire way of life and identity is evil, or that they subscribe to a doctrine of violence is essentially rejecting them from society and implicitly calling for their legal incarceration. Here’s a quick litmus for bigotry – is a person suggesting that those who truly believe in the message of Islam and follow the teachings of the Qur’an are violent criminals? If yes, bingo! That’s bigotry.
No room for rationality
There is a very crude simplification process operating behind the bigotry. When we look at these third-world Muslim majority countries, we certainly do see many problems that are multifactorial in nature. The easiest (and laziest) thing to say is that the lowest common denominator is an evil religion, that’s why these ‘savage subhuman Muslims’ keep misbehaving! On the other hand, the rational thing to do is examine the historical, cultural, sectarian, and political data about where these conflicts originate and come up with a scientific explanation. What if its not about the religion but the weaponization and instrumentalization of religion by certain groups? What if political instability, decades of warfare, tyranny, occupation and hundreds of thousands of people killed are advantageous to the emergence of extremist groups? What if – like every violent movement in human history – these groups simply exploit whatever popular ideology or religion they can in order to advance their agenda? Groups may use the banner of ethnic identity, or national identity, or cultural identity, or religious/ideological identity, depending on whatever happens to be most politically expedient (refer to this article – An Axe to Grind – Does Religion Cause Violence?).
Some problems in the Muslim world arise from social inequality, some from lack of education, some from political corruption or instability, some from repressive cultural traditions, and certainly some arise from harmful misinterpretations of religion. However, it is essential to the tactics of bigotry that no academic sophistication be utilized in discussion. All problems are handled in exactly the same manner, and argued to be from the exact same root – Islam. If there is a negative cultural practice that is present in certain regions, it becomes representative of all Muslims worldwide. If there are intolerant clerics in one country, it is not their interpretation of Shari’ah which is criticized, but Islam as a whole.
Bigots often use “Shari’ah” as a convenient shorthand for radicalization or a catch-all term for anything bad. So Muslims who say they want to live by Shari’ah are automatically assumed to be in agreement with the most radical caricature of Shari’ah possible. The problem with this argument is that Shari’ah simply refers to the Divinely ordained path towards God, the human interpretation of which is termed Fiqh. What is Shar’iah to you may be utterly rejected as contrary to Shar’iah by the vast majority of Muslims. As the famous theologian, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751H) articulated, “Shari’ah is all about justice, compassion, wisdom, and prosperity. Therefore, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with cruelty, prosperity with harm, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Shari’ah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretations.”4Ibn al-Qayyim, I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 4, 337, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi 1st ed.
It is worth asking bigots, what would they lose if they focused on condemning the people actually responsible for criminal behaviour rather than everyone from the Islamic faith? If a barbaric practice is seen, why not condemn those people involved in that practice? Why not criticize those particular clerics whose opinions are unfair to women? Why make all Muslims guilty until proven innocent? Why is there always a compulsion to generalize to Islam itself, as if nothing meaningful can be derived from a discussion that does not result in a categorical pronouncement on the faith identity of 1.6 billion people?
Wrong AND Dangerous
It should be evident that the rhetoric of bigotry is both wrong and dangerous. It is factually wrong in that it completely fails to understand Islamic theology, and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad who said, “Be compassionate towards all those on earth, and the One above the Heavens will bestow compassion upon you” (read more on compassion in Islam and Islamic values). It is factually wrong in that it grossly mischaracterizes the views of 1.6 billion Muslims who advocate peaceful coexistence with others and renounce violence.5One of the most comprehensive studies on this topic is the book Who Speaks for Islam by Esposito and Mogahed which reviews the findings of the Gallup poll.
But it’s not just wrong. It’s dangerous too. According to the bigots, there is an existential war between the west and Islam. That’s the idea that your existence is incompatible with my existence, or “this planet ‘aint big enough for the two of us.” According to the bigots, there should be fighting between Muslims and the West, because their identities necessarily conflict. It’s precisely the same message that extremists use as a rallying cry. As one German journalist embedded in ISIS confirmed that anti-Islam movements “are unwittingly playing into the hands of the ISIS. The [ISIS] movement has stated numerous times that escalations between Muslims and Non-Muslims in Germany and other countries of the West are in its interest.”. So extremists want Muslims to think that the west is waging war against them, to feel beleaguered and marginalized by society, and to feel that they must take up arms to defend their identity from annihilation. Extremists use such false propaganda to lure disillusioned alienated Muslim youth, so why are bigots so actively peddling it? Moreover, think about people with mental illness or a history of violent crime who witness this discourse broadcasted on every channel on a daily basis. When such volatile individuals are bombarded with the imagery and language of a ‘war on Islam’, does it not increase the risk that they may ‘act out’ the perceived existential conflict? Doesn’t the propagation of such bigotry endanger all of us?
Bigotry has also contributed to a dangerous rise in the amount of hatred towards Muslims. Muslims have become the most despised religious group in America, suffering a tremendous rise in hate crimes, attacks on mosques, employment discrimination, with some academics asserting that anti-Muslim sentiment is similar to the hatred towards Japanese-Americans during World War II. Hatred inevitably leads to violence. A fanatical atheist with frequent online rants against Islam and religion translated his words into actions when he entered a Muslim family’s home and murdered three innocent young Muslims. Consider also the stabbing of a New York Taxi driver. According to the prosecution, “After insulting the tenets of Islam and mocking the restrictions of Ramadan, the defendant, unprovoked, reached through the cab partition and sliced the victim across his neck.” And such incidents happen repeatedly. The largest scale incident has been the mass killing of 77 people in Norway by the anti-Muslim extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who cited an American Islamophobe no less than 64 times in his manifesto, demonizing Islam and Muslims as evil. Many experts have expressed great concern that the rising prominence of a discourse which dehumanizes Muslims could lead to more systematic forms of persecution, as witnessed earlier in the twentieth century.
So if bigotry is increasing the rate of violence by radical Muslims and by anti-Muslim extremists, why on earth would anyone wish to adopt this discourse?
“But Islam isn’t a race!” – The process of dehumanization
Everyone knows that racism is morally and socially unacceptable. But should hatred towards a religious group be regarded similarly? A frequent excuse that is given to justify hatred toward Muslims is that Muslims aren’t a race. But this objection misses the point entirely. The reason racism is morally reprehensible is not because it is hatred for people who are different genetically or dermatologically. The reason that racism is morally reprehensible is because it is hatred for people who are different. Period. It is just one form of xenophobia, another way of dehumanizing a visible minority in society. That’s also why anti-semitism, misogyny, and homophobia are regarded as offensive. They all diminish the basic human dignity of an identifiable group in society. That’s why hatred of Islam and violence against Muslims frequently adopts racialized manifestations – it’s all part of the same dehumanization process. When an entire community of human beings becomes perpetually denigrated and vilified, we should all find that deeply troubling, regardless of whether that community is defined by ethnicity, culture, or creed.
Isn’t hating Islam different from hating Muslims though? Well, being a Muslim means following Islam. If you call yourself a Muslim, it typically implies that you regard Islam as an integral part of your identity. And therefore, whenever anyone places the crosshairs on Islam, they place the crosshairs on you. The logic is very simple – if someone believes that the world should be rid of Islam, they believe that the world should not contain anyone who espouses and practices Islam. If someone believes that Islam should be eliminated, that logically necessitates that they believe that Muslims should be eliminated – the only question is how.
But does that mean we can’t criticize beliefs? Not at all. Beliefs, doctrines, ideas, and values which are violent or intolerant should rightly be criticized along with those particular individuals who espouse them. But when speaking about a global faith community, the essential caveat that must be added is “this interpretation of Islam” or “some Muslims believe”, otherwise one is again descending into a generalization and monolithic characterization of Islam and all Muslims. Whenever someone says “Islam is X” or “Muslims are Y”, they can either mean it in a descriptive or prescriptive sense. If they mean it in a descriptive sense, it will invariably be factually wrong, because the identity of 1.6 billion people is not monolithic and resists such reductionistic characterization. On the other hand, if it is intended in a prescriptive sense, then one is saying, “the true Islam is X” or “Islam should be understood to mean X”, which is an appropriate sentiment for a Muslim theologian or preacher to express, but otherwise wouldn’t make any academic sense.
Hatred and hostility can be successfully conquered with love, compassion, and kindness. The Qur’an teaches, “The good deed and the bad deed are not the same. Return evil with good, so the one who was formerly your enemy will become a most dear friend” (Qur’an 41:34). The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do not be mere imitators, treating well only those who treat you well and doing wrong to those who do you wrong. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong if they do evil” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi). Muslims must play a vital role in reaching out to the non-Muslim community, embodying the Prophetic virtues in their moral character, and being a source of good in the society around them.
Bigotry really isn’t sensible, neither ethically nor academically. We really have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and get to work trying to break down barriers, foster mutual respect and compassion, and strive to eliminate oppression, discrimination, injustice and violence.6As Rabbi Eric Yoffie eloquently writes in Time magazine, “But as the small number of Muslim extremists becomes ever more skilled at commanding attention and manipulating the media for their own purposes, it becomes more important for the rest of us to avoid tarring all Muslims with the brush of fanaticism. This means rejecting the stereotyping of Islam, categorically and unequivocally. This means recognizing that normative Islam, which has a billion adherents, is a religion that promotes kindness and compassion, opposes violence, and promotes a middle way between extremes. This means speaking up when American bigots demonize Muslims and bash Islam. And this means, above all, educating Americans in a serious way about the teachings of Islam.” We must collaborate in constructive educational, humanitarian and diplomatic efforts to provide justice, security, transparency and the restoration of basic human rights and necessities.
|↑1||Pew Research Center. http://www.pewforum.|
|↑2||While the commentator who made this statement (Sam Harris) later backed off, confessing to have “misspoke slightly”, this retraction is undermined by the same statement being repeated seven years earlier in a TruthDig debate on May 22, 2007: “I’m not saying that all 1.4 billion Muslims are AlQaeda – I’m not saying that. There’s no doubt that some significant percentage of Muslims don’t take their religion all that seriously – that is a good thing.” In other words, the only Muslims who aren’t violent criminals are the ones who are ‘fake Muslims’, who don’t take their religion seriously. The near-verbatim repetition 7 years later makes it difficult to dismiss as a mere ‘slip of the tongue’ what instead appears to be carefully rehearsed rhetoric designed to vilify an entire faith community as violent savages. Note also that in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”. In other words, they are not normal human beings worthy of respect and dignity.|
|↑3||Some bigots will go further and take a more aggressive line of attack and flat-out accuse all peaceful Muslims of being liars, claiming that there is a doctrine of ‘taqiyyah’ that allows Muslims to lie about their faith. Sadly, there can be no reasoning with someone who will accuse you of lying no matter what you say. Moreover, this so-called doctrine is an absolute fabrication. Sunni Muslims will have never heard this word in their lives, while Shi’a Muslims will know the term only as a reference to concealing one’s identity when under threat of anti-religious persecution.|
|↑4||Ibn al-Qayyim, I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 4, 337, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi 1st ed.|
|↑5||One of the most comprehensive studies on this topic is the book Who Speaks for Islam by Esposito and Mogahed which reviews the findings of the Gallup poll.|
|↑6||As Rabbi Eric Yoffie eloquently writes in Time magazine, “But as the small number of Muslim extremists becomes ever more skilled at commanding attention and manipulating the media for their own purposes, it becomes more important for the rest of us to avoid tarring all Muslims with the brush of fanaticism. This means rejecting the stereotyping of Islam, categorically and unequivocally. This means recognizing that normative Islam, which has a billion adherents, is a religion that promotes kindness and compassion, opposes violence, and promotes a middle way between extremes. This means speaking up when American bigots demonize Muslims and bash Islam. And this means, above all, educating Americans in a serious way about the teachings of Islam.”|