The Dangers of Defining Islam

 “War on Terror” is a euphemism for the ongoing war on Islam in this country. It is no secret that Muslims are currently amongst the least welcome groups of individuals on American soil. Animosity is mounting towards a monolithic, socially and politically constructed conception of Islam. Essentializing in nature, it derails Muslim American progress. And the results? Repeatedly horrific and tragic acts of terror against anyone even remotely associated or assumed to be affiliated with Islam. According to FBI hate crime statistics from 2016, 24.5% of 1,584 hate crime victims were victims of anti-Muslim attacks, coming in second to anti Semitic attacks. Pew Research Center studies cite 127 reported assaults against Muslims in 2016, far surpassing 93 attacks in 2001. 

In 2019, it is abundantly clear that assault, violence and rampant hatred towards Muslims has not ceased. Mosques are being burned down internationally. Unassuming individuals in a place of worship shot to death in New Zealand. Young American Students at UNC Chapel Hill were shot at the peak of their potential. Additional examples of violence towards Muslims in the United States are unfortunately abundant –  It is clear that tolerance towards Islam is dwindling. Islamophobia is a disease afflicting this country, and endangering the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Its genesis can be traced back to a dehumanizing history of the religion. 

Speaking to Nora Zaki, Bard’s new Muslim Chaplain, I was able to understand exactly how to confront a society so unaccepting of 1.8 billion of its population. Discussing the dangers of a monolithic Islam and Muslim, Zaki described the horrors of the way Islam is portrayed today. She commented on the contradiction included in the social norm that  Islam is not “American”: “Islam is not new… African Americans were some of the first Muslims in this country… ” In direct conflict with the essentialist discourses of Islam today are historical facts. Islam is woven into the very ground we walk on. America was built on slaves, and the largest population of Muslims today remains to be African American. From the TransAtlantic Slave trade came many of the first African American Muslims: “Black Muslim slaves, against their will, built this country.” These are the narratives not allowed to come to light, narratives which would help confirm Islam’s stake in this country. The paradox lies in America literally being built by slaves, “through their sweat and tears,” a proportion of which were bound to be Muslims who were most likely forced, threatened, or pressured to convert. How ironic– America, revered as the melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and religions is the same America bred on hatred, servitude and inequality.  

“What we are seeing in terms of a 21st century, post 9/11 Islamophobia, is not new,” according to Zaki. It has lingered in the soil and stones we walk on today. It can be traced back to European history as well, and the West as a whole “defining itself in opposition” to what they believe Islam stands for. And unfortunately, there are famous individuals who are praised for their islamophobia. For example, Pamela Geller is known for her opposition against “creeping Sharia law,” and is the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), otherwise known as Stop Islamization of America, essentially a glorified hate group. More of her bigotry includes sponsoring offensive “Draw The Prophet” competitions. Thriving and capitalizing off of the hatred of Islam does nothing to aid its status in America. It only reinforces its otherness. With this Islamophobia comes the creation of a monolithic Islam, with the belief that “Muslims are [all] conservative, with hijabs on women and beards on brown men.” 

An inevitable result of this cycle is the racialization of Islam too: “I think that because many of the first Muslims were Black, and that whiteness was built upon a certain identity of otherness– I think that Islam’s monolithic identity has to do with ‘You’re not white, so who are you?’ ‘You’re brown, you’re South Asian, you’re Arab, you’re black…’” Zaki said. The racialization of Islam combined with the generalized fear of the religion makes for a lethal combination. We are a society which remains to judge people implicitly on whiteness. A monolithic idea of Islam obscures the diverse and often unheard voice of all kinds of Muslims: Latinx, White converts, Chinese women, and more. 

The media proliferates off of the creation of a brown bodied Muslim as someone to avoid– our President, so called activists, and individuals alike enforce this line of thinking. Zaki commented on white supremacy being one of the biggest issues of our time, and perhaps a root explanation for the creation of a monolithic Islam: “White supremacy makes it feel like you must fit into a certain mold. [Muslims] are perpetually terrorists and perpetually foreign.” This is the persevering monolith– “It is essentially dehumanizing and makes people suspicious, with false charges on baseless charges of terror,” Zaki said. Furthermore, a monolithic Islam is not confined to the walls of this country: “Monolithic ideas inspire invasion of Muslim countries– do Muslim women need saving?” Once again, stereotypes prevail over respect and comprehension of foreign countries and foreign culture. It becomes assumed that foreigners are somehow culturally inferior and incompetent, somehow unable to understand the language and the world. 

 Where is the media attention on the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in America thriving and loyal to this country? Muslim men and women are a rising cohort of well educated, integrated people. To critique one’s country is not to hate it. For example, African American Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments were misinterpreted as despising this country only to fuel the idea of a foreigner and more importantly, a Muslim not where she belongs. Speaking in passing about 9/11, she said: “that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” Right wing Republicans, instead of focusing on her message, the systemic discrimination that Muslims have increasingly faced post-9/11, decided to pick apart her assumed apathy towards the tragedy of that fateful day. There are conservatives and violent people everywhere, within every religion, race, ethnicity and so on. So why is it that Muslims remain to be crucified for the misguidedly Islam fueled actions of a select few? Is there a hope in sight for changing this? 
“People must see us for how we comport ourselves and see us for our character and our goodness,” Zaki responded. There is no way we can debunk and deconstruct a well ingrained monolithic Islam overnight. However, we can amplify the unheard stories of Muslims that rise above the hate deflected onto them, and help expose the world to an everyday Muslim. She states that we must give African American Muslims more of a voice, in an effort to dissolve the conflation of Islam with an Arab identity.  Zaki suggested that administration should begin to be trained on how to combat their implicit biases and on cultural competence. Similarly, by conducting panels, movie screenings, and talks we at Bard can start to “help teach people that Muslims are human too.”

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