Unfortunately, life in our modern world comes with it’s own set of difficulties. We all struggle to provide for our own, do the “right thing”, survive (maybe even thrive), and we all have our own answers when it comes down to how. In these United States, we take most of our cues from the Western European, protestant, Eurocentric mindset that spawned and formed the foundations of this country. It is difficult to avoid being an Ethnocentrist, and most Americans don’t. The sad fact of the matter is that most Americans have certain strong and highly biased opinions about people from other cultures, as well as the cultures themselves: Whether this is due to a lack of exposure to other cultures, a lack of education, a predatory media community, or a fearful government (perhaps a combination of them), The American people are, and have historically been, rather unaccepting of any people that were for lack of a better word, different. Currently, there is no better example of this than the phenomenon of “Islamaphobia”. Muslims have been living in the United States as citizens for a very long time, and only after the 9/11 attacks did we see the beginnings of this damaging (and also dangerous) trend. Islamaphobia, or, the “fear of Islam” has grown to epidemic levels in the last twelve years, culminating in social unrest, conflict in communities over religious issues, even burnings of the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam by fundamentalist Christian community leaders. Tension is felt overseas as well, with thousands of American troops stationed all over the Middle-East, living with and around Muslims in their own, occupied countries. This tension, as mentioned before, finds it’s cause with many different contributors, some social, some political: Journalist Steven Barbosa brings us an interview with Harvard Professor Ali Asani, himself a Muslim-American, on what he believes are the factors contributing to Islamophobia, and the problems facing Muslims in America today. His answer? There are a few, all seemingly as significant as the last; but to categorize them all, I believe his answer would be: A lack of communication.
Asani’s first example is of the historical interactions between Islamic countries and Western-European countries. He explains that through interaction over time with Western Europe, Muslims and Islamic countries came to be viewed as extreme in their devotion to faith and additionally, that Muslims and the countries they inhabited were only motivated by their faith. Asani’s point is a very poignant one; essentially, when a western country makes a move on the chess-board of international politics, including acts of aggression towards foreign actors or states, it is seen as political, whereas the same action when perpetrated by an Islamic country, is motivated by Islam. Not politics. He goes further by stating that there is a sort of deep-rooted fear and paranoia of Arab countries (who are automatically Muslim countries) by Western European countries: “Arabs conquered North Africa and went all the way into Spain. They ruled spain for seven centuries. Then you had the Turks much later on who were a threat to Eastern Europe. So I think Europe was always conscious of the fact that there were these groups who were Muslim coming at them from both sides”. (Barbosa, 37) Essentially, even the political actions of a nation-state that might not even be Islamic are seen as motivated only by Islam, and it has a way of making your average Muslim or Muslim country seem like fundamentalist. The mindset leads to people associating the religion with zealotry.
His next theory concerns the “de-humanization” of Muslims through the aforementioned process: through acquired stereotypes, the humanity of the person stereotyped is masked, making them seem barbaric: “So if you think of them as barbaric, you don’t think of them as human beings…hence, you can get away with treating them the way you want”. (Barbosa, 38) This makes a lot of sense, both from a logical standpoint and an experiential one. There is a certain level of de-humanization that occurs when one stereotypes a group of people: in many ways, it brings the level of respect you have for that group of people down, and affects the way you treat them. So: using stereotypes of even the most (seemingly) benign variety have a profound effect on the social fabric of a society.
Professor Asani talks of an Imam that took one of his courses at Harvard, who he was rediscent about at first. He feared that the Imam would approach the article with an overwhelming level of skepticism or close-mindedness, He was pleasantly surprised to find that the Imam excelled as a student, and wrote “some very good papers” (Barbosa, 40). He focuses, however, on a specific comment that the Imam made: “He said one of the most useful things was that he learned how to talk about Islam to a Western audience” (Barbosa, 41). He states that, having seen the Imam speak in interviews with the media, that he does a great job at effectively speaking and representing the muslim community to the media. Here we see the emergence of another significant issue facing muslims today; predatory media. The American media machine has grown so thirsty for sensationalism and fear that they pounce on any opportunity to further demonize a group of people who are not very popular to the public. In the case of Muslims, Asani argues that there are a great deal of Muslim-American representatives and community leaders who simply do not know how to effectively communicate and represent the ideals and values of the muslim community: “They’re always giving out the wrong image, or the wrong message. And of course the media loves it, because it confirms all of the stereotypes.” (Barbosa, 41) Combined, this makes for a hostile environment for Muslims, and one in which it would seem, stereotype is inescapable.
Asani then segways into how another issue facing American Muslims: That people have a difficult time making a “distinction between Islam the faith and Islam the Political ideology” (Barbosa , 42). After leading a group of Yale and Harvard alumni on a guided trip through the Middle East called “The Great Trade Routes of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea”, Asani experienced a disheartening moment outside a mosque in Jedda. The tour guide on their bus pointed out the mosque, and the courtyard that sat in front of it. According to the tour guide, there is a public execution held there every Friday, and that the only reason they had missed it was because it happened to be Ramadan, the only time the executions were not held. “Too bad we didn’t come on bloody Friday”(Barbosa, 42), were the words out of one alumni’s mouth as the mosque and it’s courtyard rolled by. This greatly upset Asani, as he felt that not only had his work the last two weeks teaching these educated people about Islam and the Arab world been completely for naught, but that in the eyes of most westerners, that’s all Islam is: A courtyard in front of a mosque, stained with blood and rich with the cries of zealots.
As we can see, Ali Asani lists many contributors to why Islamophobia exists: the deeply-engrained paranoia of the Islamic state, the stereotypes that de-humanize and standardize dehumanization, the predatory media, and quite simply, a lack of awareness, education and willingness to see past the acts of few. We can be sure that all of these are contributing factors to why it is difficult to be a Muslim in the United States, and that there are many other factors as well: The only way forward is to spread awareness, understanding and education, in hopes that through exposure and interplay, people of the Islamic faith can find a warmer home here in their adopted country, and perhaps in the future, can help ease tensions between two parts of the world that could, for lack of a better phrase, really use a break.