17 February 2015

Islamophobia Sows Fear

Written by 
On twitter, ArabVoicesSpeak: here's my translation of the Arabic, “Amazing gathering of students from the university of the American Muslim student Deeah Barakat in spite of the cold weather” On twitter, ArabVoicesSpeak: here's my translation of the Arabic, “Amazing gathering of students from the university of the American Muslim student Deeah Barakat in spite of the cold weather” https://twitter.com/ArabVoicesSpeak/status/565657035531100160/photo/1

We may never know exactly why one angry white man burst into his neighbor’s apartment and “executed” three Muslim students with shots in the head.

We do know, however, that it shook up the whole region and, in fact, much of the Muslim world too, if the social media are any indication. Two days after, the Turkish prime minister chastised President Obama personally on the phone for saying nothing about it. The next day Obama said in a written statement,


“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship.”


Of course, such a vile act seemed even more tragic in light of how exemplary these three young people were. Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was a second-year dentistry student who had served the homeless in town and the needy in Syria. His new bride, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister who was visiting them at the time were also model students and proud American citizens. Their families had emigrated from Syria and Jordan respectively.

Hundreds of students gathered for the vigil on the UNC campus the next evening (see picture above). Over 5,000 attended the funeral. But whatever the motive of this grievous crime, it brought to the surface an all-too-familiar fear within the American Muslim community. In fact, that fear never left them since 9/11. Dean Obeidallah wrote last year in The Daily Beast that the percentage of Americans holding a favorable view of Islam was 47 percent in October 2001. Today it is only 27 percent. No wonder incidents like this send shivers down the spines of our Muslim neighbors!

What’s even more appalling is that 45% of Protestant pastors believe the “Islamic State’s” Ideology represents true Islamic doctrine. And about 14% of Americans generally believe a majority of Muslims worldwide support its aims.

So was this a hate crime? Several investigations are underway. Middle-aged Craig Stephen Hicks was an angry man, as many of his other neighbors have attested. Angry about parking issues in their apartment complex, yes, but just angry in general. We also know from his presence on the social media that he was a proud supporter of Atheists for Equality (who like other such groups immediately broadcasted loud condemnations of this crime). But the killing came as no surprise to the father of the two young sisters, a local psychiatrist. According to CNN,


“Though Abu-Salha is in shock, he's not surprised. His daughter Yusor Mohammad had told him about the neighbor a few times before. He would appear mad about this or that, and at least twice, he had a gun in his belt, she had said.”


Then one evening, as they and some friends were playing a particularly animated game of Risk, Hicks appeared at the door yelling about their noise and the extra cars in the parking lot. He was also holding a rifle. Deah knew that the parking issue was a big issue and he had tried to be proactive about it, as his father-in-law told CNN:


Deah's brother, Farris Barakat, said Hicks had repeatedly harassed Deah about parking rules. Deah checked with the condo office more than once, and was assured Deah was following the rules.

“They gave him the clear and said, 'If Mr. Hicks bothers you again, please call the police.' And maybe they should have," Barakat told CNN's ‘New Day’ on Thursday.


My purpose here is not to rehash the details of this crime, nor even to weigh in on whether it was a hate crime or not. The sisters’ father immediately (and understandably) said it was. But even if the weight of initial evidence points in that direction, I believe there is a more important takeaway here. My Muslim readers, just by reading the title and knowing this fear in their gut, can guess where I’m going with this. This is an opportunity for my non-Muslim readers to experience just a bit of what it feels like being a Muslim in America right now.

I just want to make a couple brief points on this issue of Islamophobia.


Islamophobia and a bigoted media

I was driving along the other day listening to NPR, when this topic came up and Professor Omid Safi (formerly at UNC) was interviewed. Safi was recently appointed as director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Though the specifics in this case will take some time to settle out, Safi declared, what is clear is that this incident strikes fear in the heart of American Muslims who day in and day out have to live within a society that is mostly uncomfortable with their presence, if not hostile. And Islamophobia is on the rise. [“Islamophobia” is the term that was coined for anti-Muslim prejudice – the equivalent of “anti-Semitism” for Jews. And because it is so prevalent, there is already an abundant literature on the topic.]

For American Muslims, Islamophobia begins with the news media. In another interview (transcribed here) Mohammad Abu-Salha, the psychiatrist, emphasized this negative role of the media:

“They both, my daughters, wear the scarf. There is not a single week that our daughters don’t share with us their fear of walking down the street because of what the media is saying about us. Inflammatory media all the time. . . . They pick up the bad apples, and they magnify the picture, and they dwell on it day and night. We’re sad. We’re distraught. We’re shocked. We’re angry. We’re—we feel we were treated unjustly.”


Mohamad Elmasry, communications professor at the University of North Alabama, points to a number of academic studies about how Muslims are stereotyped “as a homogenised body, lacking diversity and difference, with other analyses showing that news coverage of violent conflicts in the Muslim-majority world ignores context and circumstances, implying that Muslims are inherently violent and prone to conflict.” So when non-Muslims are killed by Muslims, the stress is on how Islam is a central factor. When by contrast it is Muslims being killed by others, “the religious identity of the violent perpetrators is downplayed or ignored.”

The media outlets are notoriously selective, too. Consider the persecution (some would say “ethnic cleansing”) of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar the last few years at the hands of the Buddhist majority. The Dalai Lama pleaded in 2013 with the Burmese monks to end the bloodshed and forced emigration as refugees. Have you even heard about it?

Likewise, when topics like al-Qaeda and ISIS come up, pundits wax eloquent about how Islamic doctrine is to blame, while Muslim scholars are rarely consulted. But there is a wider context that is even more relevant to the phenomenon of terrorism, as Elmasry remarks,


“Ignored in these analyses, of course, are the facts that Muslims in many Muslim-majority countries are often preoccupied, battling brutal dictatorships (which are often propped up by western nations, including the US), acute poverty, and regular bombing campaigns, all of which have helped create the conditions under which groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL - both of whom kill many more Muslims than non-Muslims - thrive.”


Yale professor Zareena Grewal highlights another side to the media biases. Author of the forthcoming book, Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority, she sees the Chapel Hill killings as connecting the two hashtags, #MuslimLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. Grewal notes that this crime does not come as a surprise to her community: “We know and expect ‘lone shooters’ to be white, heterosexual men; we know and expect their victims to be men of color, women, youth.”

Omid Safi, who also blogs for Krista Tipett’s NPR website On Being, agrees with Grewal. Deeply influenced since his college days by Martin Luther King Jr., Safi argues that it’s cathartic for the US Muslim community to mourn in a public way (“Let Our Suffering Speak and Be Public”). So many attended these students’ funeral that had to be held in the athletic field adjacent to the mosque.

We mourn, yes, writes Safi, but we don’t abandon hope:


“I want to believe, I choose to believe that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. I want to believe that light overcomes darkness and that hatred is bound to vanish before love. These nights make it harder to hang on to that faith.”


Then toward the end of his piece, he rejoins Grewal in linking this murder with other grievous crimes in our country. Though “Muslims are among the most vulnerable communities . . . we do not have a monopoly on suffering.” He cites the poor, the undocumented migrants, women, gays/lesbians, and African Americans. But Muslims, he adds, are among the few “who are routinely demonized by mainstream media.” For all these reasons, a new civil rights movement is needed for all of these causes. Then he comes back to link Islamophobia in the press with this incident:


“In some ways, this vile and heinous crime is the strange fruit of 15 years of the demonization of Islam and Muslims from the most public airwaves in this country. It’s a vicious combination: repeated dehumanization of Muslims and association of Islam with the worst of violence on one hand, and the sad reality of America being a nation with 300 million guns for 300 million people. It doesn’t take a systematic institution or movement to produce this kind of violence, only a few people here and there who ‘snap’ and actualize the violence that is in our public discourse. That broader discourse of Islamophobia — along with sexism, racism, assault on the poor — has to be addressed now.”


Islamophobia is real and it instills fear

In the above quoted article by Elmasry, we have to ponder his two questions, “But what if acts of anti-Muslim violence are consistent with at least some strands of current western ideology? What if Islamophobia has become so commonplace, so accepted, that it now represents a hegemonic system of thought, at least for relatively large pockets of people in some regions of the West?”

I won’t try to substantiate all the acts of intimidation, harassment, and even violence that Muslims experience in our country. I have dealt with this subject elsewhere (see for instance my blog, “McCarthyism Returns in the 2000s”).

I’ve written, for instance, about the years of legal battles before the mosque in Murfreesboro, TN was finally built. Then too, many mosques have been desecrated and even torched, like the Houston Islamic Center a few days ago.

I was disappointed to read that it was mostly Franklin Graham’s opposition that led Duke University to cancel a three-minute call to prayer on Fridays from the bell tower for the 700 plus Muslim students on campus. Regrettably, that could have been such an encouraging sign of interfaith cooperation and freedom of religion!


From fear to solidarity

Still, Safi points to signs of hope. These three students, after all, were proud Americans and Muslims. But this allegiance isn’t without challenges.

Today the White House opened a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” Though many American Muslim leaders were invited, they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, they want to have a say on the issue of curbing militancy. On the other hand, one of the two most prominent Muslim American civil liberties advocacy organizations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a statement that included the remark, “Credible community voices who are not viewed as ‘being in the government’s pocket’ are needed.”

In light especially of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, organizations like CAIR are hard put to find a balance between promoting American values and national solidarity with the need to represent their constituency’s unease with some US foreign policy choices. So in a press release CAIR thanked President Obama for his condolences about the Chapel Hill murders and for the launch of an FBI investigation into this crime.

At the same time, they are glad that beside the common concern for the radicalization of certain Muslim youths the summit will address the more general issue of “lone wolf” terrorism – which in cases like of Timothy McVeigh can be devastating. The Christian Science Monitor reported that in Craig Hicks’ condo “the police found four handguns, two shotguns and six rifles – one a military-style AR-15 carbine – and a large cache of ammunition.” The same article tells of a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the basis of sixty domestic terror incidents (including the radical right and homegrown Islamic terrorists) in the US. Nine out of ten of these incidents were carried out by one person only.

This is important in view of the fact that Islamic terrorism is not Homeland Security’s greatest challenge. Last summer the federally funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism issued a report on the top security threats in the US. Out of the top five threats, writes Mary Zeiss Stange, a Skidmore College professor, four are “in one way or another affiliated with the Christian Identity Movement, a hodgepodge of anarchist and white supremacist politics dedicated to white Christian activism. It's all about God vs. government, and shoring up the rights of Anglo-Saxon Americans.” Islamic terrorism is second, but the first place went to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sovereign citizen movement.

I’m not trying to underestimate the danger posed by Islamic terrorism. The rise of IS in the Mideast and al-Qaeda’s wanting to prove it’s not to be outshined are bound to increase terror threats at home. But along with Omid Safi and Muslim American organizations like CAIR, I want to emphasize that as Americans (sorry, I don’t mean to exclude my international readers!), we face a number of challenges, including “sexism, racism, assault on the poor,” and more.

I truly believe this North Carolina tragedy could become a teachable moment for all of us Americans. Along with these other challenges, let’s remember that “all lives matter” and that we Christians in particular can do a better job in reaching out to our Muslim neighbors. Instead of pressuring a university to cancel an initiative to honor Muslims’ Friday worship in a symbolic way, could we instead reach out in friendship to our Muslim neighbors like my friend Rick Love does with his organization Peace Catalyst International across eight urban areas?

A first step would be to read through Safi’s blog carefully and watch the short videos embedded. Trust me, you will grow to love and admire Deah, his wife Yusor, and her talented artist sister Razan, and you will begin to mourn their loss, as I did. Labels divide and create barriers. We are all people created by God and, as I like to write, we are trustees of his good creation and trustees of the peace and love essential to the welfare of our earthly community.