Back when I lived in Ethiopia, I used to criticize Islam for fun.
On social media and within my social circles that included Muslim friends, I argued the faults of Islamic Banking, Sharia Law, Islamic governments and (given Saudi Arabia’s regional influence) why Wahhabism was a concern for Ethiopia.
Despite the debates with my friends, I’ve never found Islam or Muslims threatening.
Born and raised in Ethiopia (which is mixed 64 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim), I was exposed to all sorts of “Muslim culture” in my formative years.
The relationship between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia involves doing business together on a daily basis. But it also includes social interactions like attending weddings, funerals and even religious functions together. We didn’t have to agree on even the most fundamental things to be tolerant of others’ way of life.
Still, I did and said some stupid and bigoted things in my schools and neighborhoods when I was a kid. As a 10-year-old I tricked a Muslim friend to touch Haram “Christian” meat. Another time I stubbornly tracked a Muslim woman’s hand for a handshake she was clearly trying to avoid. The second incident was unintentional, but I hid my embarrassment with condescending comments about how silly it was of her to think such innocent contact was sacrilegious.
Of course, I apologized for my intolerance then. These were the experiments of a teen testing the boundaries.
But as an adult, my attempt at ideological debates sometimes slipped into bigotry when I borrowed a line or two from Richard Dawkins and other harsh critics of religion.
That was before I moved to the U.S. and gained some perspective. I saw how quickly such debates here can veer into racism. When discussing global terrorism and Islam, I realized that I had been taking part in spreading islamophobia, and arguably racism, something my Muslim friends had tried to tell me when I was in Ethiopia.
Then the fun was over for me.
Anti-Islam criticism, in its apparent racist form, is threatening not just Muslims, but all sorts of people at once: skeptics, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus. It’s not just a matter of abstract intellectual exercise; the negative impacts on people are real.
But it’s also impacting non-Muslims. In Washington state alone recently the Bothell Hindu Temple and SkyView Junior High were vandalized in seemingly related incidents that appeared to be misdirected hatred of Muslims. Later a man yelled the n-word and to “get out!” at the temple’s members in the parking lot. A Hindu Temple in Kent was also vandalized.
It isn’t hard to imagine the reason for this increase in highly visible attacks “Gross and racist” anti-Muslim rhetoric, that could also affect non-Muslims, is all over American media.
As a former fan, I don’t want to believe Sam Harris, one of the leading critics of Islam, meant to sound racist when he wrote (and later defended!) this sobering statement in an essay:
“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.”
I expect such bold statements only from people who can’t conceive their impact because they don’t have any people from other cultures who they can call friends. Maybe Sam Harris is among those people.
The Internet and Cable TV is full of influential liberals like Harris who can be found gleefully criticizing the lifestyles of others using passive-aggressive or coded “politically correct” language in order to avoid appearing overtly racist. They don’t have enough exposure to diverse cultures and religions to differentiate fair criticism from bigotry.
Overzealous scrutiny of a perceived fault or weakness of a disadvantaged group not only undermines their quality of life, but also puts them under a threat. This age-old tactic, used in the past to spread myths like the one about minority groups benefiting from food stamps, is now being used against Muslims under the guise of intellectual criticism of religion.
For many disadvantaged ethnic groups, religion is huge part of their identity. Nasty anti-Islamic rhetoric could actually be more hurtful than offensive ethnic epithets.
In this public forums, Islam gets singled out for being the source of terrorism; Muslims are mercilessly dogged by the “terrorist” label. Then they’re criticized for not expressing enough “outrage” against terrorist attacks. I was taken aback hearing this argument from a liberal friend of mine recently, but it’s apparently a common theme all over the internet too.
These types of selective biases against Muslims in the media happen despite the fact that over 94% terrorist attacks in the years 1980-2005 on U.S. soil were perpetrated by non-Muslims, according to FBI’s stats. This rate is even higher in Europe, averaging 99% yearly, between the years 2007 and 2012, according to Europol.
But those non-Muslim perpetrators’ faiths are rarely a subject of discussion, points out Arsalan Bukhari, Executive Director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations’ Washington chapter.
I agree. The press’ penchant for using the problematic term ‘Islamists’ to mean extremists, elevating terrorists to the status of “defenders of Islam,” and in the process undermining all Muslims, is strange. No one conspicuously calls Anders Behring Breivik’s of Norway, the KKK or the LRA in Central Africa “Christianists”
According to Bukhari, whose organization strives to create awareness about Islam and Muslims through “professional” activism, anti-Muslim rhetoric and its associated conspiracy theories are being broadcast but rarely challenged in the mainstream press.
In a follow-up email, Bukhari wrote that there are well-funded groups that spread misinformation to the public through written materials and media appearances, posing as self-styled experts.
If they aren’t equating all Muslims with terrorism, they’re spreading other blanket criticisms of certain stereotyped aspects of the religion. For instance that all Muslim women are oppressed.
A 2009 report by Gallup shows that Muslim women are actually the second most educated religious group in the U.S., after Jewish women. Not only that, the same report shows Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group, and that they have a negligible wage gap between genders.
Bukhari says high-profile news events often fuel anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes. For example, hate crimes had increased during the 2008 election cycle in response to baiting controversy about candidate Obama’s religion.
In 2010, hate crimes spiked again during the Park51 controversy (you might have heard of it by the emotionally loaded label “The Ground Zero Mosque”). A more recent surge might be attributable to increased news coverage of ISIS.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes remain five times higher than pre-9/11 annually, according to Washington Post, and Bukhari observes that the situation is now possibly “worse than after 9/11.”
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, the U.S. Public has the “least warm” feelings for Muslims, among other eight religious groups (and worse even than their feelings toward atheists!) In a recent Reuters poll, 25% of Americans believe that Islam poses imminent threat, even more than the percent who believe the same about climate change.
“In 2014, our office in Seattle received over 300 complaints (About 10 or so of them were hate crimes), mostly from WA state residents. Our offices nationwide, received around 3,000 cases from American Muslims nationwide,” Bukhari reported in an email.
But he cautions these numbers are underreported, because victims fear revenge and perceive a lack of redress by law enforcement.
Arslan explained that CAIR, which reaches out to “Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims” victimised by anti-Muslim hate crime and prejudice, is determined to make sure that law enforcement response is “effective” and applied “in its full force.”
But for that to happen people have to report incidents without fear.
My motivations in exploring this issue aren’t entirely selfless. It’s no longer as exciting as I initially thought that ethnic Somalis in Seattle often mistake me for one of their own and tell me I look like them.
Who else is going to confuse me for a Muslim, based on my appearance? What business do I have debating ideological aspects of Islam if the result is for me to be potentially profiled and get harassed for my mere physical similarity to traditionally, predominantly Muslim communities? (Not that it’s okay that Muslims experience such harrasement either, of course.)
Anti-Islam rhetoric doesn’t only feed hate crimes. It’s also dangerously simplistic and parochial. It almost always has racist undertones, placing targets on less powerful ethnic groups, including my own.
So as much as I value a healthy intellectual debate, I no longer partake in what criticism of Islam has become: a malicious campaign with dangerous consequences.