Note: This article was first published ten years ago. Reading it again now gives you an idea about how we have been literally going around in circles dealing with the issue of islamophobia. I’m republishing the article now to show the fruitless irony of our relentless pursuit against what we call islamophobia when to the day in 2016, we still have not identified the term is any cognitive way. This 10-year old article shows how we have been stuck. I haven’t changed a single word from the original.
BY IMAM ABU LAITH LUQMAN AHMAD
Recognition of Islamophobia as the irrational and unwarranted fear of Muslims and Islam lingers in lexical incubation. Some accept the term fully while others discount its validity. Whether this neologism will gain currency as a bona fide social pathology or be viewed simply as a marginally legitimate term, moonlighting as a public relations tool, remains to be seen. Phobias, according to the American Psychiatric Association, are mental disorders characterized by persistent and irrational fear of a particular thing, situation or animal. The word Islamophobia and the operative definition applied to it is far from clinical recognition. However, I must admit, it is a catchy term and certainly trendy-sounding enough to fuel circulation. Like: “What are you guys doing this weekend? “We’re going to fight Islamophobia!” Its etymology ensures seamless placement in the “for Islam”, “saving the deen”, “for Allah” category.
Islamophobia has a diabolical, sinister ring to it. You can almost picture a young Muslim mother sending her child off to public school: “Now son, remember to drink your milk, look both ways when you cross the street, don’t forget to say your prayers on time and be sure to watch out for any Islamophobia!” We’ve used the term with such frequency and with such self-serving overtones that it has started to lose it effectiveness if it even had any. Picture the scenario of a man who utters an anti-Muslim remark causing outrage in the Muslim community; he’s rushed to a licensed Islamophobist for diagnosis, after submitting to a few diagnostics the man turns to the doctor in anxious trepidation and says: “Well Doc, tell me! What is it? Racism? Psychomotor agitation? Bipolar disorder? Bird flu? The doctor, clipboard in hand, gazes solemnly into his eyes and says: “No Pat, what you have is a mild case of Islamophobia.” The man, wiping the sweat off his brow, says: “That’s all? Thank God, for a moment I thought it was something serious.”
As Muslims, accurate and responsible use of categorical verbiage is a moral obligation and, in this case, a vital tactical adjunct for Muslims in America. This is why it is critical that before we wage jihad against Islamophobia, we accurately define the terminology. Perhaps we can avoid misdirecting our energies in what may very well be another fruitless pursuit, frocked in Islamic trappings, that fails to address the root of our problems as Muslims. Sure there is discrimination against Muslims and yes, it should be addressed, but not manipulated. I don’t see crowds of rednecks chasing down Muslims in the streets.
Let’s set aside American foreign policy for a moment, that’s a separate issue. I’m talking about everyday life, living in America. Are there Americans who fear Muslims? Absolutely, and there are some that fear bald-headed bikers clad in leather, there are some that fear Latinos, Italians whose last name ends in a vowel and Christian fundamentalists. There are people in America who fear African Americans, especially those less than 25 years of age who, parenthetically, may be the most feared minority in the country. There are people in America who fear skinheads, the sound of fire trucks, the din of crowded subways, men with bushy moustaches, Caucasians, the police, Catholic priests, the homeless, and there are even people in America, believe it or not, who are mortified by toothless old ladies. I’m terrified of dentist visits and a contentious divorce could make a person afraid of the opposite sex. Welcome to the club. Fear is an industry in America and that’s not going to change any time soon.
Accepting that there are Americans who fear Muslims, is such fear completely irrational? Well, knowing that a surgically worded fatwa can turn an unsuspecting young Muslim into a societal menace overnight and the capricious way in which a Muslim can be suddenly labelled a non-Muslim, a deviant or infidel does cause concern. Is there fanaticism in the name of Islam? Yes. Is it widespread? Yes. Are we doing much to combat it? I don’t think so. I’d never expect that anyone could find any moral imperative to suicide bomb a Mawlid celebration. Regardless of the variant opinions of Muslims on celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, bombing a group of Muslims – many of whom were scholars of Islam – gathered in honour of Allah’s final messenger would make a person say Hmm… Talk about Americans fearing Muslims, there are Muslims that fear Muslims! Does this qualify them as Islamophobes? I think not.
We can blame the media until we are blue in the face for negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims. Even as of this writing, graphic imagery of Muslim on Muslim violence, Muslim rage, Muslim turmoil, dominate network and print media. However, these images fuel policy; they help pass massive budget appropriations and provide justification for the mega industry that is known as the war on terror. Preparing ourselves for the so-called Muslim threat has created completely new industries in America as well as bolstering others. Police departments are spending billions of dollars on preventive arsenal and technology to prepare for the Muslim threat. Kevlar-fitted canines, which 10 years ago might have been the butt of a Jay Leno opening monologue, are now a lucrative commercial venture.
There is such abundance and variety of Muslim media footage that politicians, policy makers, businessmen, non-profits and industrialists can literally pick out what suits their purpose. Want to do missionary work in Iraq? Grab some hungry children footage. Want to get funding to buy new jail doors from your brother in-law’s company? Get some terrorist cell simulation footage. Want to retrofit that county bridge to withstand a terrorist attack? Of course, no one could imagine what a so-called terrorist would want with a bridge in the middle of nowhere, but you simply pull out the appropriate news footage and motion passed. The press is only doing their job, selling news entertainment.
The question is, what are we going to do? Continue complaining? Ignore our own ills? Only take on agendas that have fund-raising potential? The only thing stopping the Muslims from changing their condition is our own arrogance, religious sectarianism, injustices to our selves and refusal to address serious social Islamic issues. It is nonsense to assume that the media is the only culprit. Or to assume we can somehow eradicate unwarranted fear or distrust of Muslims through the rhetoric of public relations or references to the glorious history of Islam. America is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ kind of country. Which, by the way, is not an unIslamic viewpoint. The prophet said: “Verily deeds are tallied according to those that are last (innamaa al-a’maalu bil khawaa’teem).” Years of town halls, demonstrations, accountability sessions, sensitivity training and boycotts hasn’t removed graphic negative Muslim media imagery from top billing on headline news. Money can’t buy you love. Yeah, I know the Beatles said it in 1964 but Allah said it 1,400 years prior: “And if you spent everything in the world you could not have joined between their hearts, but it is Allah who joined between them”, 8:63.
Americans do not necessarily fear Islam and Muslims. What Americans do not want is to see suicide bombers in New York City. As an American Muslim who knows no other homeland, I have no problem in protecting our borders or legitimately defending my country. Does that make me a bad Muslim? I live here, why would I want to see America go down in flames? I have issues with the phrase “Death to America”. Our way of life here may not be all good but it definitely is not all bad. We need to stop making politics part of theology or if we insist on doing so we should accept that no one group or ethnicity can speak for all American Muslims. You have scholars who have never experienced the family bonding that takes place at Thanksgiving dinner or understood the true nature of the holiday making fatwas using triangulated logic, telling me that to sit down with my Muslim and non-Muslim family to eat roasted turkey, macaroni and cheese, hug my aunties whom I haven’t seen all year and watch a football game with my cousins is a faith deficiency! My response to that fatwa is posted elsewhere. However, the point I’m making is that there is a distinct, irrational, extremist tendency in our application of Islam that needs to be extricated.
Americans are more confused about Islam and Muslims than anything else. I don’t think the media is entirely to blame for that. Heck, even Muslims are confused about Islam. Every year there are millions of Muslims in America who are confused about the start of Ramadan. Should I fast or should I eat? Can I do both? Taraaweeh prayer: is it 20 rakáat or 8? Am I wrong if I do 8? Am I an innovator if I do 20? Do I give salaams to all Muslims or just some of them? Do I boycott American products even though I live in America? I still can’t figure that one out. There are so many conflicting fatwas flying around that a person spirals into bewilderment just trying to keep track of them, let alone making sense of some of them.
Domestically, the American people have accommodated and accepted the Muslim presence in too many ways for anyone to suggest that there is a pandemic of Islamophobia. It has been and still is a struggle. However, the doors have already been opened in large part by African American Muslims. American Muslims in the United States have very little difficulty buying homes, starting businesses, enrolling in universities or obtaining the so-called American dream. Redundant use of psycho-suggestive coinage would tend to make you feel that people are staring you down when they just happen to be looking at you like they do everybody else. It can also convince you that you were not hired because you were a Muslim and not simply because another candidate was more appealing or more qualified. Statistically speaking, incidents of anti-Muslim hate, violence, discrimination in America are relatively low. If we divide the 1,500 or so anti-Muslim and anti-Arab (what about anti-African or anti-Asian?) incidents reported by one of the largest and loudest civil rights groups in America into the six million Muslims who legally reside in America, that adds up to 2/10ths of a per cent. If we multiply the number by five to take into consideration unreported incidents, we arrive at the grand total of one per cent of the general Muslim population, hardly enough to qualify fighting Islamophobia as a top priority!
Using the term as a scare tactic has created another neologism: ‘Islamophobia-phobia’ (the fear of Islamophobia), which is a greater threat to Muslims than Islamophobia. It is true that many Muslims in America receive daily briefs detailing anti-Muslim incidents. However, these daily alarms appear more like self-serving, opinion shaping, headline grabbing and manipulative issue control than proof of an evil, unwarranted, mindless campaign against Muslims and Arabs by the American citizenry. Give me a break!
With respect to the religion of Islam, the only ones who can taint its image are its designated practitioners i.e. the Muslims. This is why the prophet opted not to dispose of some of the treasonous hypocrites in Medina. It also explains why he reprimanded Mu’aath ibn Jabal for leading the congregational prayer beyond reasonable length. Both actions are potential repellents. Extremism – although it may seem, depending upon the interpreter, to have a textual basis (Koran and Sunna) – usually results in other than the desired outcome. Our failure to realise this point will leave us in disappointment. We have many examples of such. Our recent overreaction to the cartoon portrayal of the prophet is just one. None of our protests altered the prophet’s status in any way. His place with Allah is still secure and in the same degree he is still the honoured last prophet of god. All the ranting did not endear the masses to Islam; it exposed our lack of rectitude, it cost us lives, money, time, moral capital and lacked definitive textual basis.
Human beings cannot invalidate the quality or value of Islam; on the contrary, Islam is a divinely pre-validated faith and way of life according to orthodox Islamic creed (aqeeeda). “Verily the religion of Allah is Islam”, 3:19. Adherence to Islam or lack of it determines humanistic value, balances societies and, by the way, supports stable, healthy civilisations. Anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States has particular causes such as providential disbelief or what is known in theological jargon as kufr. Nothing we can do about that. “And tis no different whether you warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe”, 36:10. Other causes are misunderstanding, misrepresentation of Islam by Muslims or non-Muslims, injustice, the absence of Islamic standards of civility (yes, there is such a thing) and the conspicuous scarcity of Muslim social service institutions in America. Furthermore, anti-Islamic sentiment is not always tantamount to anti-god, anti-righteousness or anti-justice. You can’t go around accusing anyone who criticises a Muslim of being immoral or Islamophobic. We are gullible but we’re not idiots, at least not all of us.
Placing responsibility for Islam’s image on other than ourselves is a flawed and unstable paradigm that siphons away valuable time, energy and spiritual as well as temporal benefit. It distracts us from individual and collective responsibility and sets in motion as’baab (causative factors) that could deprive us, at this critical juncture in our history, of what we need most: divine intervention and support. This can only come from Allah. “Allah is the Friend of those who believe; He takes them out of the darknesses into the (one) light”, 2:257. Faith, more than rhetoric action, is required. If we for a moment think that success or improvement in our condition can ever occur without it we are engaging in a fantasy, existing only in the quilt of our minds, woven together with the threads of wishful thinking. Want to prove people in the West wrong about Muslims? Be charitable, help others, feed the hungry, assist the orphan, teach people to read, build a hospital, pave a road or clean a park. Charitable work does wonders for the soul and it doesn’t hurt public image either if that’s what we care about. The prophet said: “Prayer is light and charity is proof.” When a people address their own ills and acknowledge their individual and collective faults and their need to change wrongful ways, and embrace fairness, righteousness, civility, adab, humility, brotherhood, honesty, patience and the qualities that ultimately define our character, change becomes imminent. Divine assistance is set in motion.
Labelling people Islamophobes still muzzles some criticism of Islam and Muslims. However, for many other Americans it just tees them off, especially when one can easily see the upward mobility, affluence, academic, commercial and political presence of immigrant Muslims in American society. No one likes a perpetual whiner, especially one perceived as having a silver spoon on his palate. This is regardless of whether he worked for it or not. Other than paying taxes, there is no significant Islamic social welfare component to offset suspicion, hostility, resentment or mistrust. This is another cause for anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiment in America.
We hardly see Islamic ideals and principles manifested institutionally in the United States. Oh, pardon me, that’s not entirely true. Islamic ideals and principles do exist in many American institutions. Let’s see: the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, free and reduced fee clinics, food stamps, homeless shelters, the SPCA, fire departments, traffic lights, free libraries, trash collection, the ability to disagree publicly, oh, and we have tawheed (monotheism) here too. Maybe we have forgotten what Islam is all about. It just may be possible that we have some closet Islamophobia within us! Let us all, myself included, get our act together and leave dog-and-pony shows to the circus.
Imam Luqman Ahmad – [Published in 2006]