Islamophobia: An irrational fear for the religion I hold dear
by Professor A.L.I.
As a Muslim educator and artist, times like this past week, which included terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris and Nigeria are especially challenging. I find solace in the fact that I can be there for young people, who are still navigating their identity while that identity is being stereotyped by these events, homogenized with its perpetrators, then marginalized and attacked. I rather I be the face of Islam in these moments than them and I rather I be the target of hate, then them. However, I know it is a burden, that all Muslims have to share—especially those who live in the West.
Recently, Donald Trump who campaigning for in the Republican primaries made the assertion that Muslims should wear identification badges. Sadly, in the xenophobic reality that is present day America, ones American identity is questioned by ones head covering or facial hair. Ask any practicing adherent of the Sikh faith and they will affirm this truth. The assertion made by Trump was made in an effort to connect with voters, since it is a feeling held by many. People in America look at Paris and they don’t feel safe. They look at Paris and remember the Boston Marathon and 9/11. I know this because when I look at the events of Baghdad, Beirut, Paris and Nigeria, I remember Boston, New York and D.C. I remember how I felt, violated as an American and how I felt doubly violated, when, my fellow Americans began to associate me with those who had carried out these disgusting acts.
If you are not a Muslim or Sikh or can pass for not being one due to your ability to blend in, then you may not know the fear we feel in these moments. It’s caught in the eyes of Alia Ansari, a 37-year old mother of six, in between the flashes of gunshots, as she was gunned down in front of her home in Fremont, California, in 2006.
Her only distinguishing quality, the headscarf she wore. I live in the Fremont area, an area known for a large Muslim population and I feel the fear. I live here with my wife and children, and the fear is real, everyday and its heightened after global tragedies.
The fear I feel is responsive. It’s fear in response to the irrational fear, i.e. phobia that grips my nation in times like this. It isn’t the irrational fear of the stranger (i.e. Xenophobia) alone, but the irrational fear of Islam and Muslims, known as Islamophobia. I use the term irrational to juxtapose it with rational, in order for people to distinguish between groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Al Qaeda versus people like me. You should fear ISIS and their ilk. I fear them. This is a rational fear. They’re stated goal is to create fear through terror. They want to kill you and me and they have carried out gruesome acts of violence to showcase their resolve. This fear is like the fear of a venomous snake. It makes sense. When you combine this fear with ignorance, however you get phobia, or irrational fear. Irrational fear is the fear of any Muslim or of Islam in general. It’s the fear mongering of presidential hopeful Donald Trump. It’s the motivation behind the profiling of Sikhs and Muslims. It’s the compounded tragedy found the tragic death of Alia Ansari.
Fear of “any old Muslim” is like fear of “any old snake” and not just the venomous ones. It is irrational fear and its irrationality holds me hostage in my own country for my constitutionally protected beliefs. The only way to combat irrational fear and hate is by diminishing the ignorance that fuels it with knowledge so one can discern between the ISIS’s of the world from the vast majority of Muslims who are just peace-loving average citizens and by washing away hate with love—loving those who are doubly impacted by these tragedies and who have to fear for their lives because of the way they are perceived in times of fear.
This is a challenging thing to do. The challenge is that ISIS and its ilk claim to do what they are doing in the name of Islam emboldened by their interpretations of the faith. People ask me all the time, how they can tell the difference between these extremist groups and the average Muslim. I can respond to this question by breaking down a movement that began in the latter half of the 18th century called Wahhabism and how it morphed into Salafism in the 20th century and how its from this octopus that the tentacles of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. have come. I can break down the motivations and the global realities that have created these groups and even take it further to analyze mental illness, the lack of education, poverty and unemployment that helps fuel the zeal of its adherents. I can break down how such an interpretation of Islam ever truly began and breakdown the event of Karbala, which is a clear delineation between the Islam (characterized as a religion of peace) and the Islam of ISIS, which is clearly one of war and conquest. However the simplest way to discern is to know that Islam is an Abrahamic faith and that the killing of innocent people is a fundamental no-no—“Thou shalt not kill” is a universal belief shared amongst the majority of Muslims—and not of ISIS.
ISIS isn’t even a logical extension of faith. It is faithless. I find the best description of this false consciousness in the words of my brother Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “For me, religion—no matter which one—is ultimately about people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship with those outside the religious community. Any religious rules should be in service of this goal. The Islam I learned and practice does just that.”
I hope the people who need to read this read this and I invite you to share it. I need my fellow Americans to understand it for the sake of young people growing up in a world filled with fear, who share “my look”, if not my faith. I pray that my children can grow up in a world filled with love and knowledge, so that hearts and minds can stay connected in moments of tragedies as opposed to divided at odds with each other
I leave you with two spoken word pieces I wrote to be read at the Athenian School, for students and colleagues in my role as an educator there. I read the first part, which I wrote during and shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. I never intended to publish it and it is provided here, unedited—capturing the angst I felt at the time. I was moved to tears as I read it in front of the entire school and I have not edited since. I didn’t intend to write a second part, but after this last week, I felt the need to do so again. Perhaps it’s the spirit of Kurt Hahn that pervades the Athenian Campus that compelled me to do so, to speak out against terror again—or maybe its my way of engaging in therapy to set myself whole, but I shared it the second part with my colleagues and students and I share it with you for I truly believe that I am you and you are me and that only together are we PEACE.
Who Am I?
By Professor A.L.I.
(Unedited and written less than 24 hours, after the Boston Marathon bombings)
I am an American as the news flashes:
“Boston Marathon, Bomb blasts!!!”
Cell phone in hand, I call and text,
My friends in Boston; slow, cold sweat.
Are you ok? Is everything all right?
Fingers twitch nervously as I type.
Sadness and anger grip the nation:
Social Media, Twitter Feed speculation.
I am a Muslim, that’s all the world sees.
A news correspondent tweets:
“Yes they’re evil, Kill them all!”
I scroll up, he says Muslims, kill them all?!
140 characters of vitriolic hate.
Muslim is trending. My insides ache.
I am not the Muslim runner or the Muslim spectator.
I am not the Muslim imam who opened his door for those affected.
Boston PD on the look out for dark skin and an accent.
A tweeter tells me to go back to the desert.
Expletives, and expressions of anger;
Yesterday, I was an American; today I’m a stranger?
The sun reflects off of my iPhone screen,
But instead of my own reflection I see,
The image of the words defining me;
I am the terrorist they want me to be,
For “they” cannot see me;
I am a just a human being.
And our humanity cries for those innocent souls;
But should our creed be a reason for our innocence sold?
I am the Sikh or Hindu mistaken for a Muslim during these times.
I am the Pakistani-American kid killed for foreign crimes.
I am you,
And you are me.
And together, we are PEACE.
Who Am I? (Part II)
By Professor A.L.I.
(Written 2 days after the ISIS terrorist attacks carried out on Paris, Beirut and Baghdad)
Refugees on rough seas, with smugglers rolling dices;
Irrelevant in our newsfeed, do we only care about oil prices?
When reflecting on the Middle East, the riddle of social media.
Muslim is trending again, for Paris lays bleeding and
Beirut the day before; Baghdad on previous weekend.
The news chooses its stories, as broken families are weeping.
All attacked, innocents killed and the culprit signals crisis,
Practicing a fundamentalist interpretation and called ISIS.
Like Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and the Taliban,
These organizations, attack the image of Islam,
So now every Muslim, of a billion, is seen as a threat,
And yet, these groups also mark innocent Muslims for death.
They kill them in the Middle East and then they kill them here.
They kill me, by filling my children’s future with fear.
The weight of labels and prejudice create Islamophobia.
And what is the definition of a phobia?
It’s an irrational fear.
Islamophobia is an irrational fear of a religion I hold dear.
Yes, I am a Muslim; it is the faith I practice.
So I look upon bomb blasts as doubly tragic:
The loss of innocent lives; where innocence dies.
I also brace myself for impact of a stereotype.
This is why, like my colleagues, I became an educator.
To end the debate between “us” and ignorance and hate.
By extinguishing ignorance with knowledge,
And washing away hate with affection and love.
That’s why we teach, so we can live in a world full of light and hope.
We are like Kurt Hahn facing Hitler, like David facing Goliath;
And we will only survive as people, if we can stay United.
I am you,
And you are me.
And together we are PEACE.