Islamophobia Rises

On Wednesday, March 9th, Anderson Cooper of CNN conducted an interview with the leading candidate in the Republican primary race for President. This is a small (and oft-repeated) snippet from that conversation:

Anderson Cooper: “Do you think Islam is at war with the west?”
Donald Trump: “I think Islam hates us. There’s something, there’s something there
… that’s tremendous hatred … There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”
Anderson Cooper: “In Islam itself?”
Donald Trump: “Uh… You’d have to figure that out.”

Later, after Cooper probed further, asking Trump if what he meant was, in fact, “radical Islamists”, Trump did say that he meant “radical Islam”, but then immediately noted that “sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.” The obvious implication is that we must mistrust all Muslims.

Of course, Sometimes it’s also difficult to tell the difference between Trump bluster and Trump reality: we can’t be sure if his statements are honest or pandering or simply his mouth getting ahead of his brain, and from statement to statement, as in the excerpts above, certain of his statements are seemingly contradictory with others uttered only minutes or days earlier. But the fact is that Trump’s utterances are similar to those of other Republicans in regard to the interface between terror and religion. Also typical, unfortunately, is the common rallying cry of paranoia: “they hate us.” And if they hate us, we must reciprocate.

In the GOP debate on March 10th Trump was asked to clarify the mixed sentiments in his CNN interview. Asked if he was talking about all of the more than one billion Muslims in the world, Trump replied vaguely that “there’s a lot of hate out there.” When in doubt, fan the flames. It should be said, on a positive note, that all of the other three Republican candidates in that debate issued moderating statements, noting that we cannot reject all of Islam, that we need to retain good relations with moderate Muslims because we need their assistance in solving world problems, especially in the Middle East. Nobody, however, broached the subject of restricting Muslim immigration into the United States—a subject all had largely agreed on in the past—perhaps because none of them wanted to offend the large majorities of GOP voters who want to block all Muslims from entering our country.

Overall, conservative positions are no less dangerous than Trump’s. They continue to insist that President Obama, and other leading Democrats and administration officials, must always state that our enemy in the “war on terror” is “radical Islam”. In this demand they are not putting the emphasis on the first word of that phrase (in fact, a number of influential talk show hosts intentionally leave it off). They clearly want to highlight the word “Islam”. This is because most of them believe that our current worldwide conflict is, without question, a cultural battle between the forces of Islam and the forces of Christianity (or democracy or civilization, which they often tend to conflate with Christianity). They claim that it is the religion of Islam itself that is the threat, and want everyone else to recognize their perception of reality. Is it any wonder that hate crimes against Muslims have more than doubled in the past year?

It would be bad enough if it were only certain groups of conservatives and radical Republicans who demand this specific item of political correctness, the recognition of Islam as the enemy. There are also some prominent leftists who join conservatives in what must be considered a verbal crusade against Islam. The most notable of these is Bill Maher. On his weekly HBO show Maher often goes on tirades against Islam, and the arguments he makes are similar to what you hear on Fox News or on conservative talk radio. Islam, he claims, is a backward, violent religion driven by the Qu’ran, which supposedly justifies all forms of attacks on, and discrimination against, non-Muslims (“infidels”). In Maher’s defense, it can be said that he also frequently questions Christianity and other religions, but his statements about those others never reach the same level of passion that he directs against Islam.

To attack Islam, Maher and his fellow travelers pull out many examples of specific practices that they associate with the religion. They include the many things that women are prohibited from doing in some Muslim countries, such as voting, going to school, driving, and going out without a male chaperone and without a hijab (or burka). They include female genital mutilation and honor killings. They include the destruction of religious artifacts and monuments. And, of course, they include the actions of radical groups such as the Islamic State, the group that, as many conservatives like to point out, “beheads people and drowns them in cages” in the name of Islam.

The problem with their argument is that these practices are not necessarily or universally connected to Islam. They are largely regional practices that are specific to localized cultures. The people who perform such actions justify them through references to Islam and/or the Qu’ran, but in most cases they are not followed by Muslims in other regions. And except for those examples where requirements are enforced by government power, such as controls on women’s behavior in Saudi Arabia, most of these practices are not even accepted by a majority of the Muslims in the regions where they are common, and efforts to reject such practices are growing among Muslims worldwide. Judging Islam by reference to such anachronisms and localized outrages is akin to judging Christianity by the misogynistic platforms of recent Southern Baptist Conventions, the conservative teachings and protected pedophilia of the Catholic Church, the recent genocidal actions of Christians in Bosnia and the Central African Republic (among other locations), or the homophobic bigotry of certain Christian denominations. None of these things are entirely representative of the religion or its followers, but in almost all cases they have been justified by reference to passages in the Christian Bible.

Those who condemn Islam as a violent religion also almost universally fail to recognize this fact: The Christian Bible contains many more exhortations to violence (and to genocide) than the Koran. They also should pay attention to the words of a few prominent people who are very familiar with both Christianity and Islam:

“What’s really hurting me, the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved, and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. Islam is not a killer religion. Islam means peace.” – Muhammad Ali.

“If ISIS represents Islam, then the KKK represents Christianity.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“Not only did the terrorists hijack planes and destroy life, but they also hijacked the peaceful religion of Islam and split the brother- and sister-hood of mankind.” – Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)

“In a world where people are surrounded by darkness, ignorance, and fear, it is a sign of hope to be celebrating Islam’s message of peace and light.” – Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)

Yes, there are radical groups that are “hijacking” and misrepresenting Islam. There are also, unfortunately, many other groups in this world that are hijacking other religions to promote their misguided agenda and their divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. That would include the many so-called leaders in Christian societies who ignore the Christian message of hope, acceptance, and peace on earth in their self-serving drive to demonize all Muslims. They are the radical mirror image of the “radical Islamists”.

In this way, extremists on both sides work tirelessly to distort both their own religion and the religion of “the other” in order to foment fear and hatred. They do this to spread fear and hatred, primarily to augment their own popularity and power. We should reject them, their message, and their methods.

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