By Dr. Alfonse Javed
There are many ways to define Islamophobia, but in a general sense any verbal, written, or expressed negative notion pertaining to Islam or Muslims is considered to be Islamophobic in today’s society. The same case can be made for other religions, including Christianity but here the focus is Islam and Muslims in America. It would be fair to state that in the U.S. there is a growing anti-Islamic sentiment very similar to the anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany in pre-WWII times. Very similar to the Jewish community in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, Muslims have become very much a part of American society. They are serving in every field as proud citizens of America and many of them came here under the same promise that brought the first wave of immigrants to the U.S, that everyone has the right to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all. This is perhaps the most endearing virtue of our society that has allowed the United States to avoid religious conflicts that may have otherwise torn her apart.
Some of these anti-Islamic sentiments are based on a rational fear of ISIS and its affiliates that have vowed to destroy America along with her democratic views, and enforce theocratic governance of Shariah Law, which believes, “there is no religion acceptable to Allah except Islam” (Quran 3:19). In regards to the Islamization of the West and the fulfilment of the Islamist agenda, Europe presents a grim picture for Americans. France, Belgium, and England are a few examples of places which have been victims of home grown terrorist attacks that carry out the wishes of ISIS. These men were born and raised in Europe, and in some cases converted from Christianity. Moderate Islamic scholarship is also struggling to present a unified position on the acts and teachings of Islamist organizations like ISIS. It would not be too farfetched to say that Islam is at war within itself for its identity. The outcomes partially depend on the treatment that American Muslims receive. If they are perceived as enemies then the enemy has already won the war, but if they are protected and loved, then the war on terror will come to an end with a better future for Muslims, and for the world.
The term Islamophobic has two extremes, one is so broad that almost anything that is not expressly pro-Islam, makes a person Islamophobic. This means, if you have ever thought and expressed any negative opinion towards Islamic teachings or practices, regardless of whether such teachings and practices are sanctioned by mainstream Islam, you are Islamophobic. This extreme feeds on stirring conflict and intentionally making everything regarding Islam and Muslims relate to Islamophobia, as in the case of the recent murder of a Muslim teen girl in Virginia. This also includes the fear of terrorism by the ever increasing number of Muslims in the United States. The other extreme seems to hold Islam and all Muslims responsible for terrorism in the world. Both extremes feed on the fear and hate that causes division and confusion and neither extreme is helpful, the resolution is somewhere in the middle.
In the United States the term Islamophobia was popularized by political forces in the aftermath of 9/11. In a way, the terms owes it existence and fame to the 19 Islamists from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon who struck fear into the hearts of Americans on 9/11 while at the same time creating confusion about Islam and division among Muslims. At home, in order to eliminate the fear of Islam, two tools were acquired mostly by the political forces within the U.S. to protect Muslims in America.
- Generating a narrative that fits the political, cultural, and social environment of America, thus the rhedoric “Islam is the religion of Peace” was introduced.
- Presenting Islam and Muslims as equal victims of terrorism as any other Americans by creating the slogan that ‘Islam has been hijacked by Islamist terrorists.’
It was a well-intentioned global effort to forge a new identity of Islam without addressing some of the fundamental teachings of Islam that enabled the American, Saudis, and Pakistanis in 1980s to build an army of volunteer Jihadis who were inspired by extreme Islamic ideology and managed to do what Americans could not do, defeating the USSR in Afghanistan, thus destroying the Russian mandate as a global power. This erupted the volcano of sectarianism and terrorism within Muslim countries. Some Muslims sided with the Jihadis and their interpretation of the Qur’an, and others considered their interpretation to be false and outdated. The former saw the “Islamist terrorists” as heroes of Islam, who were selfless, willing to follow Islam to its purist form and die for it if necessary. Jihad has always been a central theme of Islamic teachings. It has always been considered the “Spirit of Islam.” As a matter of fact, Islam is an Arabic word which means submission—submission to Allah. Historically, Islam has carried a militant notion. The latter group saw the Jihadis as self-centered, illiterate, and power hungry people who were killing their own Muslim brothers and sisters, violating the teachings of the Qur’an and the prophet Mohammad. To date, since the war on terror began, more Muslims have died as a result of the ongoing war on terror than any other group involved.
A realist view demands some deep retrospect as a nation free of any political bias. America is divided politically and racially already, and if not dealt with properly, Islamophobia will divide this nation religiously as well. A recent protest against Sharia law in New York City on June 10th was just the beginning of such division. The protest was met with an even larger group who considered the anti Sharia law protest as an anti-Muslim rally, therefore they were labeled as Islamophobic. The American media didn’t help to mend the situation and initially reported the opposition rally as anti-Muslim versus pro-Muslim protests. When asked if they considered themselves to be anti-Muslim, the participants of the anti-Sharia law protest rally vehemently denounced such assumptions.
The most critical need of our time is not to define and redefine the term Islamophobia so that we can find out who is Islamophobic and who is not, rather it is to address the origin and the misuse of the term Islamophobia to ensure the protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Americans the right to articulate their opinions and ideas. This is the very reason why millions of people left the Islamic world, and other places to make the U.S. their home- so that they can speak their minds. This includes both non-Muslims and Muslims. Stifling the voices and opinions of those who consider the Islamic teachings or a way of interpreting the Qur’an to be the root of terrorism and violence is not going to resolve the problem of Islamophobia. Only a healthy argument and discussion regarding Islamic teachings, and its history by members of Muslim and non Muslims communities can forge a path that can protect our rights and remove anti-Muslim sentiments from our society. Indeed, such sentiments must be kept in check lest we become so consumed with our fears, no matter how rationally justifiable they are, that we end up running the risk of hurting the Muslim community in America.
Dr. Alfonse Javed is Author of The Muslim Next Door, and the co-founder of The Heart For Muslims, an annual conference in New York City that focuses on eliminating fear of Islam and promoting love for Muslims. He blogs regularly at Voice For Truth, and pastors a church in Midtown Manhattan where he also teaches at New York School of the Bible.