Let’s Talk About Islamophobia

allah_symbolNote: The symbol above stands for “Allah,” or God.  When decorated, it can stand for the religion of Islam.  See Religion Facts for more information.

In a recent appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Ben Affleck had a heated debate with Bill Maher about Islamophobia. This conversation, of course, was being held within the context of terrorist attacks, including the beheadings of American citizens, by the group ISIL. Affleck’s point was that it is racist to assume that, because some religious extremists commit terrorist acts, all Muslims are to be feared: “The question is the degree to which you’re willing to say, because I’ve witnessed this behavior, which we all object to on the part of these people—I’m willing to flatly condemn those of you I don’t know and have never met.”

What Affleck is describing is Islamophobia, or the irrational fear and hatred of Muslims. According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender, the term Islamophobia was introduced in a 1991 Runnymede Trust Report and was coined in the context of Muslims in the UK in particular and Europe in general. The report noted the following beliefs as central to Islamophobia:

  • Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities.
  • Islam does not share common values with other major faiths.
  • Islam as a religion is inferior to the West.  It is archaic, barbaric, and irrational.
  • Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism.
  • Islam is a violent political ideology.

Much of what Bill Maher was saying in his argument with Ben Affleck reflects these beliefs. That’s not surprising—Americans are fed Islamophobia by the media, which shows us the terrorists and not the everyday Muslim Americans living their lives like the rest of us.  Activist Muslims who, like their sisters and brothers in other religions, are working toward peace and acceptance for all humans, rarely appear in nationally televised conversations like the one between Maher and Affleck.

Our understanding of Islam is skewed by the information we are given: beheadings are readily available for viewing, but you have to search out the meaning of the gorgeous and sacred alhamdulilah, or “all praise and thanks to God” in Arabic. If the media covered Christianity the way it covers Islam, we’d all be hiding in fear of Operation Rescue bombers, wondering if they would soon expand their campaign beyond women getting abortions and imagining the Crusades as the most accurate depiction of Christian activity and belief.

Even if we approach media coverage with a healthy skeptism, it is easy to become trapped in Islamophobia, because mainstream culture gives us very little incentive to look beyond its borders. To break down Islamophobia, we must seek out information, via the voices of Muslims themselves.  In a Facebook post responding to the conversation between Affleck and Maher, Dr. Omid Safi, Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, published a list of Muslim writers, speakers and activists whose voices, vital to our understanding, are gaining attention:

  • Reza Azlan: An internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, and author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth as well as No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
  • Wajahat Ali: A playwright, attorney, new media journalist and consultant. His play “The Domestic Crusaders” is one the first plays published about Muslim Americans. He blogs at Goatmilk. You can also find his articles on The Guardian and Salon.
  • Arsalan Iftikhar: An international human rights lawyer, global media commentator, and founder of com. His book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era is rooted within the concepts of nonviolence, mercy, and compassion that are at the heart of Islam.
  • Dena Takruri: A presenter and producer at AJ+, the new digital channel from the Al Jazeera Media Network based in San Francisco, CA. Previously, Dena was a host and producer at HuffPost Live, the online streaming video network of The Huffington Postbased in New York City.
  • Noura Erakat: A human rights attorney and activist. As of Fall 2014, she is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University. She has taught international human rights law in the Middle East at Georgetown University since Spring 2009. Noura is a Co-Editor of Jadaliyya.
  • Linda Sarsour: The Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), a network of 22 Arab American organizations in 11 states including the District of Columbia. She also serves as the Director of the Arab American Association of New York, a social service agency serving the Arab community in NYC.

I would also include the following, on the recommendation of Trista Hendren (who has written about the effects of Islamophobia on American Muslim women here and whose own story dealing with it is here):

  • Amina Wadud: A visiting scholar at the Starr King School for the Ministry in California and a visiting consultant on Islam and gender at the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism in Indonesia. She is the author of several books, including Inside the Gender Jihad (Oneworld Publisher, 2006), and Qur’an and Woman (Oxford University Press, 1999), now available in 7 translations.
  • Jamillah Karim: An Assistant Professor of Religion at Spelman College. She specializes in Islam and Muslims in the United States (African American, South Asian and Arab), Islamic Feminism, Race and Ethnicity, and Immigration and Transnational Identity. She is the author of American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender in the Ummah.

And be sure to check out the work of Dr. Safi himself, who blogs here. It is my hope that his vision of freedom and compassion for all humanity comes to pass, and that his work, and the work of other Muslims who speak of the true nature of Islam, will win out over the voices that feed American Islamophobia.

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