Eliminating This Form of Bigotry
Speaking truth to power has never been easy. Anyone who objects to Islamophobia or points out anti-Muslim prejudice often assumes personal risk in doing so. The Islamophobia network responds with smears and reputation attacks against anybody that counters their bigoted messaging with calls for religious tolerance, equality, and justice. This is a sad fact. While a person can choose to be a bigot or not, there should be a social consequence to holding and expressing such bigotry. Just as anti-Semitic or white supremacist speech is looked down upon in society, there should be a similar response to Islamophobic speech. It should be the case that association with the Islamophobia industry or agreeing with their rhetoric would be a discredit to that person’s participation in mainstream public speech. We are not there yet, but there are positive signs that despite the widespread acceptance of the Islamophobic rhetoric in media and social networks, community and political leaders are pushing back against the false narrative to support Muslim Americans as they take more prominent positions in society and advocacy.
For example, there has been significant strides in American Muslim inclusion in the political landscape. The Democratic Party featured Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father, as a keynote speaker during its 2016 convention. Since that time, two American-Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, have been elected to Congress, Representative Andre Carson of Indiana enjoyed an easy reelection to his House seat, and former Representative Keith Ellison became the country’s first Muslim Attorney General.
The Necessary Conditions for Islamophobia to Subside
One road map of how the Muslim community can navigate their way out of the Islamophobic narrative was pointed out by John Esposito, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He wrote that the history of prejudice against Catholics in the United States and how that prejudice was eventually defused and defeated serves as a template for other religious minorities, including Muslims, to follow. Catholics in America created several institutions that served the larger population, not just their own. This is the real outreach that contributed to greater acceptance in America of the Catholic community.
Charities, universities, and hospitals ended up benefiting many non-Catholics, so obstacles to understanding and tolerance were removed and the Catholic institutions began to be perceived as part and parcel of the American community landscape. Muslim Americans have yet to build institutions on the scale of the Catholic ones; as a result, there are much fewer opportunities for positive relationships to be formed between Muslim civic organizations and the non-Muslim majority. This one of the most important necessary paths to the Muslim community’s normalization with the American people and its organizations. Muslim leaders should prioritize putting down these institutional roots and invest in such civic organizations so as to benefit all Americans, not just Muslim Americans. These positive relationships between Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities will refute the Islamophobia network’s misinformation claims and marginalize prejudice and bigotry
It is these alternative narratives, formed by real inter-personal relationships between Muslims and their neighbors, that can debunk and put to rest the vitriol of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Western Ontario and former president of the Islamic Society of North America, notes the distinction in Islamic law between “simple ignorance” and “complex ignorance.”
The former refers to inadequate knowledge on a matter resulting from a lack of information. The latter refers to assumed knowledge on a matter even though one is mistaken or has faulty information. With complex ignorance, one has cognitive frames that will not allow correct information to enter the mind and to transform one’s thinking. This means that an entire deconstruction process must take place before one can be open to receiving correct knowledge.
Mattson argues that complex ignorance explains why simply providing the larger public with correct information about Islam is ineffective. Mattson’s observations on complex ignorance of Islam explain why my personal experiences of responding to Islamophobia by presenting straightforward facts has had minimal impact. The narratives and assumptions at work in the industry and in larger segments of Western societies must be deconstructed first in order to effectively counter Islamophobia.
Mattson continues that a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is critically important to reducing Islamophobia. In her words, this continuing conflict “will continue to fuel Islamophobia as long as they persist and as long as there are people who have political and economic interests in generating Islamophobia.” Broad brush characterizations of Islam as inherently violent are conveniently invoked to absolve American foreign policy in Muslim-majority countries. By presenting the image of Islam as fundamentally incompatible with America and Western values, it is easier to justify disenfranchisement of Muslims around the world, whether politically, culturally, or economically.
Even though Islamophobia is entrenched in American society at the structural level, like other forms of systemic oppression and discrimination, extensive perseverance, commitment, and resources are needed to combat this bigotry. Islamophobia can be defeated by accomplishing three primary tasks: 1) revealing its history and bigotry and connections with the pro-Israel lobby 2) exposing and discrediting its financial supporters as fronts for Zionism, and 3) highlighting alternative narratives based on grassroots civic engagement and coalition-building.
Muslims must recommit to advancing and advocating Islamic principles that benefit the greater society and humanity, not just their own religious group. Muslims must engage in compassionate discussions of the issues that affect other communities, building coalitions that advocate for equal participation and protection in society. Muslims must get more involved in U.S. politics and civic engagement, showcasing a range of diverse Muslim voices and viewpoints, each legitimate and each authentic, to counter the image of an Islamic Monolith.
While it may be impossible to fully stamp out Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism or white supremacy, even if individuals and groups continue to spew their bigotry, they will do so from the fringe of society. It will become another form of prejudice that is discredited and dismissed by public officials and the majority of the US population. By committing to equality and justice for all communities and combating prejudice and bigotry in all its forms with vigilance and solidarity, Muslims, blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other groups that face systematic discrimination will be able to stand together and finally fulfill the ideals of that “more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
 (CAIR 2019, 11)
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 (Wiki 2013)