Friday, July 18, 2008

Islamophobia: The New Acceptable Prejudice

A recent poll stated that 12% of Americans, more than one in ten, believe that Senator Barack Obama is a Muslim. It's quite a large percentage, given the publicity of Obama's former pastor, the now notorious Jeremiah Wright. For many months, the Obama campaign has been furiously trying to explain that Obama is not a Muslim. Then, a brilliantly satirical caricature of Obama and his wife Michelle appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. Both the Obama camp and the McCain camp called the cover offensive, but the folks at The New Yorker stuck to its guns and defended its satire. The least problematic of this incident was that they had to explain that their cover was satirical, and everyone knows that when you have to explain a joke, it's no longer funny. It's Comedy 101. Granted, it's The New Yorker, hardly that funny to begin with. But that's an entry for another time.

How did Senator Obama himself feel? In an interview with Larry King, Senator Obama stated that "when you're running for president for almost two years ... you get a pretty thick skin. And, you know, I've seen and heard worse." He then added that "this is actually an insult against Muslim-Americans, something that we don't spend a lot of time talking about. And sometimes I've been derelict in pointing that out. You know, there are wonderful Muslim-Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult or to raise suspicions about me I think is unfortunate." King then immediately switched topics and discussed the war in Iraq with Senator Obama.

In addition to treating the magazine cover with a grain of salt, Obama brought up a point that I've been aching to hear raised: what's wrong with being Muslim?

During this campaign, Obama's secret Muslim past is an accusation that has been tossed around by the ignorant, playing on fears of another 9/11. As a consequence, the Obama campaign has tried to distance itself from the Muslim community, even going to far as to remove two Muslim women wearing headscarves lest they appear in the same vicinity as Obama. The Muslim world is so feared and stigmatized that American Muslims are treated like second-class citizens. Fortunately, the Obama campaign immediately apologized, and that was that. If only that could be true of all apologies.
Racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are the top three prejudices that are taken advantage of in order to discredit an opponent's argument. Since there is no way to successfully defend oneself against charges of these three prejudices without sounding like an ignoramus, these prejudices are the standard go-to for argumentative tactics. They work, because they evoke feelings of oppression, from slavery to the Holocaust. The fear of resembling an oppressor is so grand, no self-respecting person can afford to make a remark that is even close to sounding racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, bringing about obvious benefits (less outward prejudice) and drawbacks (free-speech is stifled).

But Islamophobia is not pounced on with the same outrage that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and even homophobia are. Even before 9/11, Hollywood and the mainstream media almost always portrayed Muslims in an unflattering way. Muslim representation has ranged from the sexist oil sheik, to the racist cab driver, to the womanizing Persian, to the airplane hijacker. Granted, these Muslims exist, and they're not just a few people, but we've barely even seen token "good" Muslims. The consequence is that many people are less aware of what Islam really is. They watch movies like "Executive Decision" or TV shows like "24" and assume that Muslims are just a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists who pray to their mysterious god "Allah" and honor-kill their daughters because their holy book the Koran commands them to do it. Every single time a nutjob Muslim commits a crime, the stereotype is reinforced. The reinforcement turns into resignation and acceptance. The acceptance manifests itself as prejudice.

Consequently, anything that is related to Islam is now tied to terrorism. From Rachel Ray's scarf to Barack Obama's name, fear has overtaken reason. Apathy has been substituted in place of the pursuit of knowledge. Theology and dogma now explains the behavior of all Muslims, even though theology and dogma have little place in everyday American life.

And where are the so-called "moderate" Muslims? Where are their voices? If they are so moderate, why are they not doing more to condemn the actions of extremists? Several months ago, I gave my answer to those questions. Since then, little has changed. Muslims and non-Muslims alike don't talk. The silence breeds further acceptance of negative stereotypes, and it continues from there.
One of the causes of this silence is the sad fact that no one really knows where to go to find answers to their questions. While political correctness has its place, the fear of being un-PC too often dampens people's reasonable questions. It's risky to sound unaware, lest being unaware becomes tantamount to ignorance. I disagree. Ignorance, to me, implies the knowledge of something's existence, while consciously ignoring or seeking out the truth. Being willfully ignorant is a redunancy. Not being aware of something is different; at least it's somewhat excusable.

So where does one go for answers about Islam? The most obvious answer is, well, Muslims. And when you talk to Muslims, you'll find out that their way of life is not all about reading the Koran, or praying five times a day, or even abstaining from pork and alcohol. Dogma may be the foundation of belief, but because Leviticus says that homosexuality is forbidden doesn't mean that there aren't gay Jews.

Communication is the foundation of all learning. Once communication has been established and the facts have been ascertained, we can then make our judgments. Any conclusion made without all the facts is premature judgment, hence the term prejudice. And that has to stop.


Sam said...

Very well written. This should be published somewhere

Anonymous said...

That was very thought provoking.