9/11-Era Ignorance of Islam is Infecting the Age of ISIS. We Should Know Better.

Originally Published with The Guardian

In the last two months, three major hate crimes have hit New York City, the most ethnically diverse place in the United States. Last week, a man chased a Muslim American woman into oncoming traffic in Brooklyn while threatening to behead her. Earlier this month, a group of teenagers physically assaulted a Sikh American while hurling racial slurs like “terrorist” and “Osama”. In late July, a man shouted similar epithets at Sandeep Singh before running him over with his truck and dragging him nearly 30 feet.

In the nearly 13 years since 9/11, and now in the three months since the Islamic State (ISIS) broadcast its brand of fear to the West, a new de facto racial category has crystallized: “the apparent Muslim”. The “apparent Muslim” has physical features supposedly similar to those associated with terrorism – brown skin, facial hair, turbans – but those who use the presumptive discrimination end up conflating racial and religious features. Anyone who makes assumptions about “the apparent Muslim” – and that is a lot of people, whether consciously or not – is effectively subsuming a number of communities, including Arabs and Sikhs who do not identify with Islam.

The accounts of the three individuals attacked in New York City reflect the typical hate-speech deployed during America’s “War on Terror”, which unleashed a new derogatory epithet for the apparent Muslim – “terrorist”. Other terms reflecting our current political situation have been regularly hurled at targets, including “Osama”, “al-Qaida” and “Taliban”. The victim of the hate crime in Brooklyn was threatened with a beheading – a threat that clearly reflects an angry and vengeful response to the inhumane beheading of American journalists by ISIS.

The media plays a role in all of this, as hate crimes tend to spike following events receiving significant media coverage:

In 2001, the FBI recorded 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes, over a 1600% increase from the year before.
In 2010, the media closely covered the Islamophobic resistance to the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in New York City, and the Southern Poverty Law Center documented a 50% increase in hate crimes against apparent Muslims.
In 2014, violence linked with Muslims has been featured prominently in the news, from Syria and Benghazi to ISIS and Hamas.
So it comes as little surprise that a recent study released by the Arab American Institute found that American attitudes toward Muslims and Arabs are becoming more negative.

Islamophobia related to current events is nothing new to this nation’s Muslims and “apparent Muslims”. Over 30 years ago, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, Americans suspected and targeted “apparent Muslims” of harboring anti-American sentiment and supporting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Images of Khomeini and anti-Iranian rhetoric abounded in American media, and that political context informed the Islamophobic slurs that my Sikh-American father endured throughout the 1980s, including “Iranian”, “towelhead” and “Khomeini”.

As tensions increased in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular, in the 1990s and the 21st century, people subjected to xenophobic sentiments, like me, noticed a shift in the derogatory names. Instead of being “Iranian”, like my father, I was called “Iraqi”; instead of being a “towelhead,” I was a “sand nigger”; instead of “Khomeini”, I was nicknamed “Saddam”.

The hateful comments directed toward people who look like me are divisive, and they are alienating. But the real problem is how it continues a cycle of other-ing – how Americans treat each other as guilty until proven innocent. Our ignorance leads us to lump together people from entirely different parts of the world (South Asia, the Middle East) and people who practice entirely different religions (Islam, Sikhism). We also fail to understand that not all Muslims interpret Islam the same way.

Just like every other religion, the extremists make up a small minority of the Muslim population; it’s not just unfair to take them as representatives of the Islamic tradition – it’s downright inaccurate.

The lack of nuance in our understandings of global cultures reflects the overly simplistic rhetoric of our media sources that feed us this information. Reporters are constantly skimming the surface to give us macro-level views, and while this broad-based approach has its advantages, it leads to misunderstanding serious issues, from white supremacy and domestic terrorism to Boko Haram and ISIS. Until and unless we begin precisely accounting each challenge, we will continue to misidentify each other.

Politicians need to consider the impact of their rhetoric on more than their polling numbers – on the way it can, ultimately, foster violence. And the media needs to gauge how to report on conflict and use images to explain both the news and illuminate the truth. Otherwise, many more innocent Americans will become targets for hate by those swept up in nationalistic or militaristic sentiment based on little more than xenophobia. The blame will start with the people we’re supposed to trust, but it will hurt every one of us.

Image  courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “9/11-Era Ignorance of Islam is Infecting the Age of ISIS. We Should Know Better.

  1. I totally agree with you that the media has a major responsibility in representing Islam in a more balanced way. However, the media reflects the popular culture and won’t change its way unless the culture changes. Otherwise, the media will lose trillions of dollars. The American culture is obssessed with violence and confict (like in video games, movies, …) Hence, we need to change the culture and turn it into a tolerant one that appreciates knowledge and diversity. Religious leaders and intellectuals must do the effort to educate the masses for a cultural revolution to happen.

    Lastly, Muslims in America have the burden of going out in public and introducing themselves to more Americans. Those who have negative views of Islam and Muslims usually have never met a Muslim before. Being about 6 millions Muslims in this country, we need to make ourselves available as much as possible to change the popular view about us.

  2. The final paragraph of this insightful article is a call for action. Humanizing “the other” is a critical principle for effective interfaith engagement. During a recent primary election campaign, a courageous Muslim member of a local community chose to be a candidate to educate this mostly white, Christian, working-class region. He openly stated that he was running in order for his neighbors to meet a Muslim. The rival candidate (not Muslim) used anti-
    Muslim inflammatory language against his Muslim opponent. The latter’s response was an invitation to his home for dinner with his Muslim family. The invitation was accepted and the white candidate told the media after the dinner that he had a wonderful experience. “I never met a Muslim before,” he exclaimed. He went on to remark that he really likes this family and is inviting them to his home.

  3. This piece truly hits home for me. I grew up in the American South, deep in the Bible Belt, and had never met a Muslim until I went to college. My only knowledge of Islam was what I saw on TV and the nasty stereotypes I heard thrown around by other people. When I got to college, however, I majored in religion and took classes on Islam where I learned about the deep complexities and realities of the faith and of the people who practice it.

    Yet when I go back home, I hear those same slurs and that same hateful attitude. I still have relatives who are convinced Obama is a “damn Muslim” and hate him for that. I try to use my time around these people to open their minds and to share what I have learned with them, but it is difficult. Hatred is deeply ingrained and unconsciously absorbed through multiple sources.

    I agree with that you say in your piece, then, about both politicians and the media needing to work on how they present Islam in order to stop promoting hate and Islamophobia. Yet the effort needs to go much deeper.

    The curriculum for teaching about Islam and Muslim countries in schools needs to reflect the diversity and depth of the religion. Studies, after all, have shown that hate and prejudices start breeding young and are defeated most effectively if we teach our children to be open-minded from the start.

    Religious communities (and not just Muslim ones, though people seem to always like to blame Muslims for “not speaking out enough”) need to educate their members and teach the love so many profess as part of the foundation of their faiths (Christian churches, I’m looking at you especially).

    Community organizations and local governments also need to get in the game, promoting community engagement across religious, cultural, and ethnic boundaries in order to create better civic life (as the previous commenters pointed out, person-to-person interaction is one of the most effective ways to end hate).

    Fighting Islamophobia will be a long and difficult task, requiring many people and communities to commit to such transformation. It is a struggle that will have to happen on multiple levels in many ways. Yet I still have hope that with time and dedicated effort, we can build a more interconnected and open-minded society.

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