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How Muslim Intellectuals Have Been Forced Into a PR War Against Islamophobia

When politicians rush to demonize Islam and lump all Muslims with terrorists, it falls to a few “go-to” Muslim public intellectuals to try to talk sense into the US.

Conservatives love to demonize Muslims and, all too often, so do liberals. Politicians, law enforcement and the media are complicit in blaming religion for war and violent crime — but only when that religion is Islam. Human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar highlights these double standards and defends his faith in Scapegoats. Order the book today with a donation to Truthout!

The following excerpt is the introduction to Scapegoats:

“Terrorism… The word that means nothing, yet justifies everything.”—Glenn Greenwald

As I was preparing to submit my first draft of this book to my publisher, I began to hear breaking news about the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which ultimately claimed 130 innocent lives. For the next week, I spent all my time running between TV and radio studios here in Washington DC, doing interviews with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Chuck Todd and fellow panelist Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on ABC News “Nightline” and National Public Radio, as well as on overseas networks like Al-Jazeera English (twice in three days) and CCTV, the largest English-language television news network in China. That was just in one week alone.

Then, just as I was finishing my revisions on the book, news broke about the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, where a husband-and-wife Muslim couple named Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people in cold blood during a holiday party for the San Bernardino County health department where the husband worked. As the American public reeled from the latest explosion of mass violence — this one in an otherwise unremarkable suburban California community — the media was once again dominated by discussion of the purported “Muslim” nature of the mass murder. Lost in the all the frantic chatter about San Bernardino was the revelation that the male shooter Rizwan Farook had stopped going to mosque over two years prior to the bloodbath, and that one of his victims was a female Muslim colleague who actually attended the same mosque as the shooter once did. It also turned out that the killer’s own brother, Raheel Farook, is a decorated US Navy veteran, who has been awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

As with the Paris attacks less than three weeks before, I was again swept up in the media frenzy, asked to appear yet again on CNN, BBC World News, Al-Jazeera English, NPR and ABC. Again, that was in just one week alone after San Bernardino.

Welcome to the life of a Muslim public intellectual in post-9/11, post-Paris, post-San Bernardino and post-whatever-comes-next-in-the-world. When irresponsible political leaders and media talking heads rush to demonize Islam and lump all Muslims — all 1.7 billion of us — with murderous terrorists, it falls to a few “go-to” professional Muslim public intellectuals like me to try to talk America down from that precipice ledge of hysteria. We’re not all terrorists, we’re a peace-loving religion, we condemn the destruction of innocent lives. And so on, and so on, and so on…

My life really began at 8:46 am Eastern Standard Time on September 11, 2001. Because that was the exact moment in time when my country was attacked by people who simultaneously also hijacked my religion. Ever since that fateful day, it would be accurate to say that my entire existence has revolved around presenting a genuine Muslim voice in the mainstream media at a time in modern history when so much of the global narrative about Islam and Muslims revolves around olive-skinned, gun-toting bearded men who look a lot like Osama bin Laden. The remainder of my life will probably turn into one big absurd game of TV musical chairs and YouTube video clips, as I sit in one media “hot seat” after the next, trying my best to inform the public that 1.7 billion mainstream Muslims will not be represented by bobble-headed terrorists with idiot names like Boko Haram and ISIS.

During my numerous media interviews following Paris and San Bernardino, I tried to highlight that in the year 2015 alone, there were over 350 mass shootings in the United States and that 99 percent of these mass shootings were not committed by Muslims. There is nothing “Islamic” about acts of vicious mayhem and wanton murder like Paris and San Bernardino, I say again and again into cameras and microphones around the world. Those who have killed innocent people in places like Paris, London and Madrid — as well as in more remote places like Mali, Nigeria and Kenya that the Western media don’t seem quite as concerned about — are nothing more than godless maniacs, who often wantonly kill more Muslims than they do members of other religions. No matter where these terrorists do their sinister work, I loudly declaim whenever I’m interviewed, these brainwashed idiots have clearly lost their bloody minds and are committing irreligious acts of mass murder that have nothing to do with the true mainstream teachings of a 1,400-year-old religion called Islam which over a billion and a half people throughout the world practice peacefully every day.

I have repeated this message again and again, year after year — as do other “go-to” Muslim public intellectuals favored by the media, like my good friend, the best-selling author Reza Aslan. But I have come to despair that anyone is actually listening to us. Whenever some violent lunatic snaps and claims some kind of warped justification for his murderous acts as a so-called Muslim warrior, it’s not his damaged childhood or the flood of assault weapons in America or the climate of unrelenting violence in our country that gets blamed — it’s Islam, an ancient, Abrahamic religion with centuries of civilizational contributions (like the invention of algebra and medical anesthesia) and peaceful coexistence with diverse peoples around the world.

This collective response to atrocities like Paris and San Bernardino has become so reflexive within our Western culture that we don’t even question its fundamental absurdity. To see the obviously unfair and unreasonable terrorism double-standard at work here, all one has to do is compare the coverage of these terror incidents with the explosions of violence perpetrated by madmen like Robert Dear, the anti-abortion Christian terrorist who shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado around the same time as Paris and San Bernardino because of his own warped religious ideology. Dear was known for strongly espousing fundamentalist Christian beliefs. His ex-wife once testified in court that he “claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic…He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.” In his own deranged mind, Dear’s actions were undoubtedly justified by his warped version of Christianist ideology. And, yet, following Robert Dear’s bloody rampage, TV news producers did not feel compelled to book Christian preachers or prominent Protestants and Catholics on their shows and ask them to condemn the Planned Parenthood attack as an act of Christian terrorism.

It should also be noted that Dear’s violent actions were directed against Planned Parenthood, an organization that had been recently demonized in the overheated Republican presidential campaign as a group that peddled “baby parts.” Dear even made reference to this false and inflammatory political charge as he went about his homicidal mission that day. But again, Dear’s murder spree was not covered by the media as an act of terrorism, even though it clearly had a politicized target.

Or consider Dylann Roof— the twenty-one-year-old white supremacist who a few months earlier, on the evening of June 17, 2015, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina with a .45-caliber Glock handgun. After sitting with the black church’s congregants for over an hour during their Bible study class, Roof then proceeded to systematically execute nine African-American worshippers in cold blood, including South Carolina state Clementa Pinckney, whom he specifically had asked for by name before committing this savage act of domestic terrorism.

By his own admission, Dylann Roof’s act was racially motivated since he had stated that he wanted to start a “race war” before his terrorist rampage. Before opening fire, Roof had told his innocent victims, “I have to do it…You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” In a photograph he posted on social media, the gunman wore the flags of formerly white-ruled apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. His friends described him as a person who regularly made racist remarks and his roommate admitted that Roof was planning something like his massacre of black churchgoers for six months before he walked into the Charleston prayer meeting.

But, like anti-abortion religious zealot Robert Dear, Dylann Roof was never called a terrorist in the media either. In fact, after his act of bloody mayhem, Roof was treated with remarkable care by the arresting police officers, who took him to a Burger King before booking him when he complained he was hungry. It is not hard to imagine how the police in South Carolina would have responded if a black gunman or a shooter fitting the “Muslim terrorist” profile had walked into a prayer meeting at a white church and shot up the congregation.

Simply put, the term “terrorism” has come to be applied within our Western societies only when Muslims commit acts of mass murder. And the so-called “war on terror” has come to justify rising levels of violence and persecution aimed at Muslims at home and abroad. But the truth is, whether it is a mass shooting at a holiday party in San Bernardino or a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado or a black church in South Carolina, these are all acts of American terrorism. The perpetrators in all three cases were Americans and their innocent victims represented the rainbow diversity of America, including men and women of all races, religions and ethnicities. The killers were driven to act not just by their own damaged psyches, but out of some warped response to the tensions within American society. And they all were able to commit mass murder because of America’s fatal addiction to guns.

Terrorism is not the exclusive property of those who claim to embrace Islam. Horrifying acts of violence against innocent civilians have been inflicted by a wide range of individuals (and government officials) who claim all sorts of lofty justification for their vile acts of murder. And yet it is Islam that has become exclusively conflated with terrorism in the public mind. This dangerously skewed image of Muslims began to take hold in America after 9/11 and has only become worse, particularly during the savage primary season of 2016 Republican presidential politics, when Muslim-bashing became standard fare on the campaign trail.

A few years ago, the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies released a comprehensive public opinion study entitled “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom, and the Future” which gave a fascinating look at how Muslim Americans were viewed by other religious groups in the United States nearly a decade after 9/11. Since this book posits that Islam is certainly the most misunderstood (and vilified) religion in America today, it should come as little surprise that this Gallup study found that over 37 percent of American Protestants, 35 percent of Catholics, and 32 percent of Mormons across the US believed that Muslim Americans are “not loyal citizens to America.” In contrast, many people might be surprised to learn that over 80 percent of Jewish Americans showed solidarity with followers of Islam, telling the Gallup pollsters that American Muslims are actually loyal citizens and not a threat to the United States.

Furthermore, according to this Gallup study, nearly 60 percent of American Muslims stated that they experienced overt prejudice from other Americans. (Nearly 66 percent of Jewish Americans, who historically have felt the same sting of prejudice, agreed that most Americans harbor some bias against Muslims in general.) In addition, nearly half of the American Muslims polled in the report declared that they had faced some form of “racial profiling or religious discrimination” within the last year alone.

Since this poll was conducted by Gallup in 2011, the situation has only grown grimmer since that time. Following the San Bernardino mayhem, a mosque in a nearby community was firebombed and other Islamic religious centers across the country became targets of a new wave of anti-Muslim violence. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, the average number of monthly hate crimes against Muslims — including arsons and vandalism aimed at Islamic institutions, death threats, and assaults on hijab-wearing women and others —has tripled since the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks. Hours after the shootings in San Bernardino, reported The New York Times, “kill Muslims” became the top Google search in California with the word “Muslims” in it, as well as one of the most popular search requests nationwide.

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Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms

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Because of increased Islamophobia in the West today, many young Muslims in the United States and Europe now feel like “strangers in a strange land” in the countries of their birth — simply because of their brown skin, foreign-sounding names and Islamic religious affiliation. Here in America, at least 30 out of 50 states have proposed some kind of discriminatory “anti-Sharia” legislation, as a result of fear campaigns based on the absurd notion that the American legal system is in danger of being replaced by traditional Islamic laws. We have seen hate campaigns going viral, like that of the publicity-hungry, Quran-burning pastor in Florida who looks like a wild-eyed character straight out of “Sons of Anarchy.” We have witnessed “anti-mosque” movements popping up everywhere from Sheboygan, Wisconsin to Temecula, California, trying to stop houses of worship being built by local citizens. And, most tragically, we have seen death threats and hate crimes directed against Muslim Americans simply because of their faith all across the country.

The inflamed anti-Muslim rhetoric that now fills the airwaves only raises the level of danger. This hate language spews from across the political spectrum —whether it comes from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his outrageous calls for registering American Muslims and banning all members of the Islamic faith from entering the US, or from self-proclaimed “liberal” comedian Bill Maher, who routinely disparages Islam as a backward and dangerous religion, and invites anti-Muslim propagandists on his HBO show, “Real Time,” to do the same.

There is one very simple message that I would like to convey to every Islamophobe on behalf of world peace. Your inflammatory statements only help to increase recruitment for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, because these militants will play your vicious and derogatory video clips to young and disenfranchised potential recruits to prove that the Western world hates Muslims. What do you think you are accomplishing by venting your ill-informed and poisonous opinions? You are certainly not making it any easier for the vast majority of mainstream and level-headed Muslim thought leaders who are trying their hardest to keep an already very heated situation from boiling over. When you make stupid, bigoted and xenophobic statements like “All Muslims are evil” or “Islam is a wicked religion,” you have joined our enemies on the dark side, where you all feel free to wallow in the basest of human emotions.

And by the way, when crazed jihadists do decide to strike out against perceived Western injustices by killing innocent people, it is predominantly Muslim civilians themselves who suffer the most — not the people tuning in to right-wing talk radio in America. Most studies show that over 90 percent of jihadi terrorist victims worldwide are Muslims themselves. This is why it must be shouted from the rooftops and minarets of the world that there is no other group in the world who hates violent Islamists more than mainstream Muslims ourselves. Not only are these self-proclaimed “holy warriors” simply mass-murdering criminals with no sense of humanity, but they have tried to steal a beautiful faith that comforts millions around the world in order to further their perverted agenda. On behalf of Muslims worldwide, I tell my fellow Americans: you simply cannot hate these murderers more than we ourselves hate them.

As a prominent Muslim journalist, this is why I am so determined to shift the narrative away from these killers with their repulsive spectacles of violence and focus on the achievements of our diverse Muslim communities around the world. We need to highlight the many Muslims who do amazing things — like Malala Yousufzai, Shirin Ebadi, Mohamed El-Baradei, Tawakkul Karman and Mohammed Younus, who have won five out of the last 12 Nobel Peace Prizes.

We need to highlight the work of the next generation of forward-thinking Islamic religious scholars like Egypt’s Moez Masoud, Khalid Latif and Suhaib Webb from the United States, and Yemen’s Habib Ali Jifri — thinkers who can effectively speak to the new generation of Muslims. We also need our Western Muslim celebrities, athletes, and entrepreneurs — such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Dave Chappelle, Aziz Ansari and Salman Khan — to help show our alienated Western Muslim youth that there are many different ways that you can contribute to society without having to join dystopic death cults posing as true believers.

As one of these diverse, mainstream voices from the new generation of Muslim thought leaders, I will continue to do my part. I will continue to take my proverbial hot seat in frigid television studios, where I will keep countering the messages of hate and intolerance coming from all directions, including the illiberal left and the neoconservative right. And I will continue to wonder if God will ever forgive us for what we have done to each other.

Copyright (2016) by Arsalan Iftikhar. Not to be reposted without permission of Skyhorse Publishing.

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