The License to target Islam

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The late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s comment about the “impersonal” God of Islam is a dramatic example of televangelical deviation from ethics of interfaith dialogue. Pope Benedict’s unfortunate lecture on Islam and reason illustrates the characteristically condescending stance of the church on the faith of Mohammad. President Bush’s “Axis-of-Evil “framework” on his “war on terrorism” exemplifies misuse of moral analysis in political discourse.

At anytime, without fear of public sanction, any loud politician in the Western world, any ambitious television anchor or any theatrical evangelical pastor, can launch an attack on Islam, as a religion, or as a community. Today, Western media have license to attack Islam and Muslims. Media vulgarity towards Muslims is manifested in careless, crass, phobic and obsessive reporting on Arabs, Muslims and Islam.

In sharp contrast, when a celebrity commits a racial slur or jab on the Black community, retribution hell breaks loose. The media pickup the story, plays it ad nausea, rightly embarrassing the offender and often compelling his or her job resignation. Similarly, when a reporter or a celebrity makes an anti-Semitic slip or jab, the offender is severely reprimanded in public.

A cartoon, a televised feature or a film venomously targeting Muslims is justified as “freedom of expression.” The right to hatefully target certain groups but not others is accepted in the free world. Should not there be a uniform standard in public sanctioning of hate speech?

Endless repetition of hostile and often unjustified criticism is morally reprehensible. Moreover, the public hammering that Muslims receive in the West builds up societal paranoia of “alien” groups in our society.

Here is a sociological hypothesis which could explain the inconsistent sanctioning of public expression of hostility toward minority groups. The greater the social distance from mainline society to a specific minority group, the more the media is free to harass it. The insensitivity of Western media to Muslim pain is growing as political relations worsen between the Muslim world and the West.

Hate speech aimed at Muslims can be grouped into three themes: obsession with national security, spurious political judgment and cultural prejudice. These themes range in subtlety from the simple questioning of the “Islamic demographic bulge” to outright demonizing. The next article in this series will deal with national security, demography and terrorism.

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In a 2006 interview, Glenn Beck, CNN host of a talkshow, looked our Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison straight in the eye and said: “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” Where does Beck get his license to humiliate anybody connected with Islam?

Islamophobia is pervasive in US public forums. Provocative commentary websites, culture-clash literature, biased reporting on the Middle East, end-of-time theological fiction, insensitive cartoons, terror oriented video games and Christian Zionist sermons, all of the above and more, make many Arab and Muslim Americans- especially immigrants- feel alien, if not alienated.

Beck’s obsession with Islam reflects a trend. The Media persist in reporting on the growing numbers of US and European Muslims. These reports raise unjustified public fear of anticipated return of terrorism. Post 9/11 hyper vigilantes proclaim that American borders are “open and unprotected”. Agitated US communicators warn citizens to watch out for Muslim and Arab Americans who may be linked covertly to “terror cells” penetrating the homeland.

Irrational fear of Muslims affects the way they are portrayed and perceived. A negative overload of information about Islam seems to overwhelm and confuse Americans. The compulsion to stereotype, to dissect, to classify, to figure out and to caricature Muslims is strong and growing.

Despite the avalanche of media output on Islam, there is a better way to meet its followers. Muslim Americans want their neighbors to learn about their faith in the simplest way, through firsthand experience; a conversation over a cup of coffee would do it, an exchange interfaith visit would help. What I and others learned about Muslim Americans through exchange visits in our church community in Florida was informative, refreshing and encouraging.

Of the six million Muslim Americans, three million are Arabs. Half of all Arabs in America are Christian. A sizable minority of the US Muslim community is African-American. Muslims come to America from many nations and have varied political opinions on domestic and international issues. There is not a monolithic Arab or Muslim community in America.

There is not a unified or dominant Arab or Muslim American lobby. There are many civic and political tendencies. Muslims resist being on the defensive concerning their fidelity to America; they do not wish to prove that they are patriotic and loyal to their country. Muslims of America try their best to be a bridge between their America and their countries of origin.

Bridge-making with home country is not welcomed by alarmed immigration border-control advocates or outright xenophobes. The demographic rise of Muslim Americans provokes culturally narrow minded politicians to call for a tightly restrictive immigration policy. Proponents of hard line policy immigration mention the alleged “threat of having too many aliens.” In some circles, the debate has regressed to the level of asking “how many Arab or Muslim immigrants can America tolerate?”

Europeans ask the same question about their Muslim emigrants. But, the situation of Muslims in America is different. The unrest of Muslim youth in Europe is a result of socio-economic factors. The unrest of the Muslim and Arab Europeans is not religiously motivated. Many Muslim emigrants who came to Europe as cheap labor never had the chance to assimilate.

In contrast to Europe, America’s Muslims have assimilated. The typical Arab or Muslim American is your real estate man in Miami, your grocer in Brooklyn, NY, your student in North Virginia, your doctor in Dearborn, Michigan, your teacher in Los Angeles, your plumber in Chicago, your insurance agent in New Jersey and your taxi man in New York.

After 9/11 our fear of Muslim related terrorism has remained steady despite the domestic peace we have had since this nightmare event. Yet, the media keep asking endlessly what if an Islamic terrorist hits this strategic port or that central chemical facility, this government office or that public health facility, this target or that. The recurring message for the American people is to remain on perpetual alert and to be conscious of Muslims.

The response of the Muslim Congressman Ellison to Glenn Beck’s verbal assault expresses the sentiments of all Muslim Americans. Ellison said: “Well, let me tell you, the people of the Fifth Congressional District know that I have a deep love and affection for my country. There’s no one who is more patriotic than I am. And so, you know, I don’t need to — need to prove my patriotic stripes.”

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America could better cultivate relations with the six million Arab and Muslim Americans to re-open channels of diplomacy with the 1.3 billion Muslims of the world. Arab and Muslim Americans should not be made to feel responsible for deepening East-West conflict and for the cruelty of politics in their countries of origin.

We seem to be unable to shed our hostility toward Islam as long as we are shocked with oil prices, feel lost in Iraq, seem overwhelmed in Afghanistan and look helpless in our mediation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We resort to theories of spurious social and religious rationale to cover an incoherent foreign policy.

In order to deal with our collective guilt for resorting to war as a primary strategy in resolution of conflict we proclaim that we are fighting just wars. We employ two major defensive strategies to rationalize our aggression.

First, we justify our excessive militarism through a simplistic theory of “culture clash.” Second, we rationalize our foreign policy in the Middle East with political theology.

In his book The Clash of Civilizations, the Harvard ideologue, Samuel Huntington, has popularized the culture clash theory which posits that “Islam” and the “West” are two ideologically contrasting civilizations which are doomed to continuous confrontation. For Huntington, the key source of conflict between the West and Islam is contrast of values. Huntington’s framework of inevitable conflict with Muslim civilization has been refuted by many scholars. The culture-clash theory gives minimal consideration for political variables such as the economic contrast, gender gap, corrupt leadership, poor civic education, greed for resources, hard line diplomacy and scant intercultural exchange.

The Bush “axis of evil” policy is affected by the culture clash-theory. The “clash” theory provides a moral platform to statesmen who advocate hawkish foreign policy, punitive sanctions, extensive troop presence overseas and massive defense budgets. Culture is in Huntington’s view misconceived as political software. But social scientists tell us that culture is a “way of living”, rather than a “way of governing”.

A second emerging strategy of rationalizing aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East is based on a revived church-based Crusader mentality. The Christian Zionists of today resemble the Medieval Crusaders.

This branch of fundamental Christianity ties personal salvation to a belief in the returning Christ, the warrior-savior. Many consider themselves Christian Zionists. They believe that Christ will return to battle with Muslims in Israel when the world ends. And it will end soon, the fundamentalists warn. This theology predicts that a new era of peace will start after Christ and his soldiers win the battle against Palestinian and other Arab Muslim infidels. In preparation for the return of Jesus, this apocalyptic world view demands unconditional support of Israel.

Ironically, Christian Zionists are not clear on what happens to Jews when Christ returns to end the rule of the non-believers. Christian fundamentalists are in a bind to justify their conditional, self-serving and temporary love for Jews.

The cult of Christian Zionism has already penetrated American culture. Extreme evangelicals sell personal salvation and colonial, US-supported Israeli policies in one package; they peddle salvation as a life insurance policy.

A war-oriented foreign policy, a xenophobic political theory, and a theology recasting Jesus as a Crusader have set America on a dangerous political fault line for generations to come. Of the many policies I reject but easily understand in the political conservative agenda, it is not pro-life thinking, it is not a strict immigration, it is not private health care, and it is not the ascendancy of militarism. What I really worry most about in the extreme right ideology of religious America, is the rejection of the validity of other faiths, the blessing of social injustice when applied to Palestinians, and the covert support of wars of choice. Unless we change our foreign policy and the socio- religious rationale that supports it, we are destined to clash endlessly in the future with the rest of the world, not only with Muslim societies.

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