Separating Church and Hate: Irrationality and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

– MK Gandhi

Within minutes of learning that last November’s Fort Hood shooter had an Arab name and an Islamic background, commentators at the major media outlets were engaging in wild speculation that the killer’s motive was “jihad” and that the murders fell into the category of political terrorism. For many Americans, these reflexive conclusions also confirmed what they’d decided long ago: that Muslims want to do them harm. Although it is more appropriate to try and understand perpetrators of terrorism by their political (rather than religious) identifications and grievances, the tenacity with which interchangeability of the concepts of Islam and terrorism holds on – and is perpetuated in mainstream discourse – is doing damage to the idea that the United States and its people represent the most open, tolerant society the world has to offer.

Awhile back, I attended a conference at Boulder’s Naropa University on “Human and Women’s Rights in Islam,” at which we discussed the most persistent stereotypes about Islam and Muslims held by Westerners generally – and Americans particularly – that demand closer examination. Individually, these misconceptions are the source of grave misunderstandings between individuals. Collectively, they form the basis of a worldview so distorted that it drives some of its proponents to openly and brazenly call for the use of violence against their fellow citizens, including, in the most stunning cases, the president himself (who, although not Muslim, is regularly and pejoratively cast as such by his detractors.)

Let’s just be frank. The demonization of Islam as a religion and of its adherents as individuals has reached the level of hysteria within the United States. Although the fear of Muslims is usually cloaked in condescension or indignation, the source of this most recent version of bigotry is transparent and utterly predictable. There must be a nameless, faceless, sinister “other” upon whom we can hang our deepest anxieties and frustrations as a people. This kind of paranoia is not unique, but as its perpetrators on right-wing radio, FOX “News” and the far-right blogosphere can attest, it still works like a charm.

I would offer to Americans that if you’ve come to believe that it’s Islam that’s the source of our problems, you might as well pack it up and go home because the terrorists have already won.

Both religious and political extremists operate from the same modus operandi: they find those issues around which people hold deep core beliefs – beliefs that, generally speaking, cannot be articulated nor defended through logic – and they exploit them. It’s a terribly simplistic strategy – tell people that “those people” are out to get them, that their own cause is righteous, and that without a militant – even violent – defense of one’s core beliefs, their livelihood and lives are threatened. Then the manipulators – ambitious political tacticians and unprincipled sycophants – stoke the flames of hysteria until they’ve engulfed rational thought entirely.

Choked off by reflexive fear and rage, truth struggles to breathe. The following is my contribution to the intellectual atmosphere. I’ll examine the three most pervasive (although by no means only) misconceptions that Americans hold about Islam and Muslims. These are the deeply-held stereotypes that must be salved by conscious, rational thought, lest the hysteria about religious difference lead us directly down the path most desired by the violent extremists (both “Muslim” and “Christian”) who are the primary sources of this disinformation.

Misconception 1: Islam is a religion of violence.

The term Islam means “submission”, and the words “Islam” and “Muslim” share a root (found in Hebrew as well as Arabic) that means “peace.” On their own, these facts don’t do much to assuage the misconception under examination, but taken in their larger context, they are highly relevant to understanding the nature of the religion, which is that it’s major tenets (the “five pillars” of Islam) revolve around the call of the faithful to piety, discipline and compassion – the very same virtues called for by people of Christian faith.

An integrated perspective would accept that in order to make the claim that Islam is violent, one must admit that Christianity and Judaism, the other two monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, are also violent. Unbeknownst to most Christians, Muslims generally view Islam as in the same tradition of Christianity (and Judaism) and often refer to followers of those faiths as fellow “people of the book.” All three religions claim a lineage back to Abraham and thus, the followers of these three Abrahamic religions see themselves as a kind of extended (if estranged) family.

There is nothing about Islam in particular – even in the text (especially when compared to the Old Testament Bible) – that makes it more violent than other religious faiths. With a simple search, one can find isolated verses from the Qu’ran (or Bible) to illustrate the violence inherent in the stories. But should either of these religions be understand solely on the basis of its most violent imagery, or should they be considered in their larger contexts, in the spirit of the respective majorities of the faithful? Few Christians would submit that the faith could be adequately understood by a simple reading of the violence in Leviticus and Psalms, for example. Yet when asked what they know about the Qu’ran, many Americans cite the meme repeated daily on cable news for years after 9/11 that the book calls for the murder of “infidels” through the requirement of “jihad.”

But the term “jihad” needs rehabilitation. Literally translated, it means “struggle” and moderate (non-extremist) Muslims widely understand that the “greater jihad” (the more accurate meaning of the term) is that of the internal struggle – the struggle of the individual Muslim to submit to the faith and resist calls to greed, temptation and violence.

Every religion appears violent when extremists commit murder in its name. President George W. Bush once informed a group of Palestinian ministers that “God told [him]” to invade Iraq. For an innocent Iraqi civilian on the receiving end of that message, how is the phrase “God is on our side” – parroted on billboards, bumper stickers and by White House staffers – qualitatively different from the words “Allahu Akhbar” when yelled from a lips of a Muslim about to commit murder? It’s an indication that the person endorsing or engaging in the violence believes it to have been sanctioned by God. And there is nothing more divisive than telling someone else your violence against them and their people is righteous.

Additionally, it is logically invalid to make inferences about a group based on the actions on a few individuals, and in particular when evidence is excluded to bias the result (in statistics, this is called the fallacy of exclusion). The success of demonization and otherization of Muslims by American mainstream media and key political officials and observers depends on the audience’s willingness to engage in hasty generalizations, which – when driven by fear – they are more prone to do. Interestingly, when analyzing the political significance of Islam, pundits and critics tend to focus on behavior of individuals who call themselves Muslim. Most do not bother to study the texts. Those same critics, however, tend to look past the (sometimes horrifying) behavior of people who call themselves Christians, and instead focus on the teaching of Jesus as the benchmark of piety for Christianity. In other words, when extremist Christians engage in heinous acts, the default is to condemn the individuals. But when extremist Muslims engage in heinous acts, the default is to condemn the entire religion. There is no way to explain this bizarre double standard other than for political convenience.

Furthermore, to characterize violence as “terrorism” because the person committing it is Muslim has implications for millions, maybe billions, of people within and beyond the United States. But the concepts of “Islam” and “terrorism” have become so closely linked in the mass consciousness that although the crimes of terrorism and murder are equally abhorrent, there is a dangerous perception (trumpeted by right-wing sycophants like Rush Limbaugh) that using the term “terrorism” stamps the crime with a special level of moral heinousness and therefore justifies a degree of righteous indignation- and a corollary violent response- beyond the norm. Not surprisingly, although Islam has no monopoly on terror, Christianity has never suffered a PR crisis in the West as a result of its extremists (such as Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City) who’ve committed violence in the name of the religion.

Misconception 2: Islam calls for the oppression of women.

As with the first misconception, this one is based partially on an incomplete understanding of the Qu’ran, and is reinforced by the policies and practices of some Islamic theocracies, such as the government in Iran. However, within Iran (as elsewhere) there is no universal acceptance of discriminatory laws as acceptable or consistent with Islam. In fact, Iranian women, led by Nobel Laureate and human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, have repeatedly used the Qu’ran and other Islamic texts to fight for the rights of women unjustly arrested by the Iranian regime. In an interview last October, Ebadi told me:

“The most important event that has occurred in Iran is that women have been able to interpret Islam correctly in order to obtain their rights. When the One Million Signatures campaign (in promotion of equal rights for women) started, the [organizers] brought me a draft to review. I reviewed it to make sure it was legal and credible and that the women’s demands were reiterated in the document. And I also provided necessary documentation to show that the demands were supported by Islamic faith and jurisprudence, because I was sure that at some point, we would be forced to appear before the courts. And that’s exactly what happened. A number of our volunteers collecting signatures were arrested. The government tried to charge women with acting against Islam. I agreed to defend their cases. I copied all the [religious] documentation I had put aside and gave it to my colleagues and when we appeared before prosecutor we put it on his desk and said ‘Tell us, are we right or are you?’ And we asked him to consider that what he is saying is not the only interpretation [of the Qu’ran]. They dropped the charge that the women were working against Islam [and] they brought up a new charge that the women were acting against national security. And in the defense I asked the prosecutor ‘If a woman simply doesn’t want her husband to bring in a second or third wife, how exactly does that threaten national security and convince the United States to attack Iran?'”

Ebadi’s example is illustrative of the real challenge to equality for women in Iran, which is not the Qu’ran or Islam, but the selective and self-interested interpretation and manipulation of the faith by a minority of male clerics, judges and policymakers.

Around the world, Muslim women are organizing forcefully on behalf of their rights, and argue that it is they who are interpreting Islam correctly. All of the world’s religions share a claim to advocate on behalf of the qualities of love, compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence and equality. Although some members of the faiths don’t adhere to those principles, it does not mean the texts or faiths themselves justify oppression.

And even if the above were not the case, I have yet to hear of a Muslim woman in a repressive country who appreciates being used as the justification for a military attack on her home, family and society.

Misconception 3: Moderate Muslims enable radicals by tolerating their behavior.

Although the story was never covered in mainstream American media, after 9/11, there was a major fatwa (religious decree) issued by five of the world’s most prominent Muslim leaders and scholars which gave permission to American Muslims to fight in Afghanistan on behalf of the United States and against their Muslim Afghani counterparts. The justification given was religious – the fatwa said that, as Muslims, they could respond to an act of terror against their country, the United States. Why, in the anti-Muslim fervor following the attacks of September 2001, was this story of a remarkable act of solidarity by Muslim leaders not made available to the American media public? Perhaps because it complicates the black-and-whiteness of the policy perspectives towards the Muslims and Islamic countries of the world.

Islam is actually a very democratically-structured faith, and that creates one serious liability, which is that it is difficult for those outside of the faith to ascertain the perspectives of the masses. No one person speaks for Islam, and therefore apostates can claim to be spokespeople for the faith without outsiders questioning that authority. But in truth, there are many Islamic and interfaith groups around the world working to reclaim the image of Islam and to heal the wounds created by the last decade of especially hostile confrontation between extremist Muslims and anti-Muslim reactionaries. Some of these associations include the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality and the Interfaith Alliance.

The United States is less threatened by Islam than by religious extremism in all its forms. Extremist Muslims and extremist Christians have more in common than moderates of either faith have with their extremists. There is a conventional wisdom that separation of church and state was included amongst the first amendment rights was not because the United States’ founders wanted to protect religion from the state, but because they wanted to protect the state from religion. Indeed, they understood the power of religious dogma to permeate and distort democratic politics and to drive otherwise rational human beings to endorse horrifyingly inhumane policies. When we find ourselves justifying public policy with religious language or imagery, we have already violated this central tenet. If both American democracy and civilization are to survive, we must find a way to help enlightened reason transcend our religious dogmatism.