Americans And ‘Islamophobia’

This post is inspired by an article written by MJ Rosenberg.  It was posted on the opinion section of the Al-jazeera news website, and on Foreign Policy Matters before that. You can read it here.

It discusses the gross generalizations that many Americans are making nowadays, mainly likening extremist terrorist Islamic groups with the broader Muslim community, the former of which barely makes up an iota of the Muslim population.

It’s a great column, not because of the brisk and to-the-point writing (that’s a given), but because of the dark humor it carries.

Consider this section where Rosenberg points out the hypocrisy behind Americans’ discrimination against Muslims:

Then there is David Harris, president of the American Jewish Committee. Under his leadership, the American Jewish Committee issued a study “proving” that, contrary to the commonly used estimate of six million American Muslims, the correct number is 2.8 million.

And why is Harris worried about Muslim population estimates?

“Six million has a special resonance,” Harris wrote in a May 21 article in Jerusalem Report magazine. ”It would mean that Muslims outnumber Jews in the US and it would buttress calls for a redefinition of America’s heritage as ‘Judeo-Christian-Muslim,’ a stated goal of some Muslim leaders.”

That is some scary “stated goal”.

Even more, Harris is worried that the perception that there are as many Muslims as Jews would give Muslims additional political clout, leading Congress to occasionally actually pay attention to them (but unfortunately, that is not how it works).

This quote exemplifies the level of stupidity and ignorance many Americans possess when it comes to understanding Islam. What is scary is that even major elected officials and media pundits are also in on this misleading notion of Islamophobia.

I took numerous courses on the history of Islam and of Muslims (distinctly different) when I was at University and I believe it’s safe to claim that the religion is every bit as complex as Christianity and Judaism, and its history every bit as rich and fascinating.

The history of a religion differs greatly from the history of the people who follows that religion. This is quite clear within the context of Islam, a religion that was born in the 7th century and spread like wildfire. Within a few hundred years, the religion of Muhammad had grown to becoming the main competing religion against Christianity, culminating into a crusades that lasted over two hundred years.

From a demographic perspective, Islam spread throughout the Middle East, a region that was ethnically immensely diverse. Muslims lived on land that stretched from India to central Europe. For quite a long period of time (14th to early 20th century), the epicenter of the Muslim community arguably resided in the Ottoman Empire, the capital city of which was Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), while the center of the Islamic faith remained in Mecca.

At the same time, the two main denominations within Islam, Shii and Sunni, began to take hold of different parts of the region. Note that the antagonistic nature (note that the two sects were often not in conflict at all) between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that has been discussed by the mainstream media within the context of the Iraq war has been ongoing for hundreds of years.

Fast forwarding to the 20th century, we see the internal conflict between Muslims visibly expand from the religious into the ethnic realm. In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, envisaged and adopted the concept of Pan-Arabism, the notion of unifying the entire Arab world. A few decades later, Shiites in Iran overthrew the pro-Western Shah and established an Islamic Republic. Interestingly, though, many Iranians today prefer to refer to themselves as Persian rather than Muslim of any kind.

Of course, cramming over a thousand years’ worth of history into a few paragraphs doesn’t do it justice, but what I am arguing is that the histories of Islam and of Muslims are so dynamic that generalizing any topic concerning them can seriously mislead the reader into jumping onto the wrong conclusions.

On this note, I would assume that many Christians, even those who are devout and study the history of Christianity, would humbly say that they know very little about the history of their centuries-old religion. So what makes the politicians and media pundits think that they have the knowledge or credibility to make the utterly unreasonable assumption that radical Islam is Islam?

An ignorant population doesn’t just materialize out of thin air, and it certainly won’t suddenly disappear, either. Ignorance can only be tackled through education; and only by studying history, that is, history of religion and of people, will people cease to make damning generalizations and assumptions.