Religion in the public square: When did I become the “other”?

Religion in the public square: When did I become the “other”? October 19, 2008

Being the “other” is a fairly new concept for me. While I’ve never liked being referred to as “the other daughter”, I’m accustomed to the label of “the other Fed Fund trader”, “the other parent volunteer” or “the other Sunday School teacher” and I’m certainly proud of the fact that I’ve never been “the other woman” or “the other wife”.

But do I want to be the “other” when it implies that I’m somehow less trustworthy, less American – even less human? I read Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent editorial titled “The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama” with equal parts horror and dismay. While I realize that politics is a dirty game, the latest dirty tactic of “turning the candidate into a Muslim, maybe even the Antichrist” strikes me as wrong on so many levels that I’m left speechless.

Now that I’ve taken a deep breath and digested the implications of the current social environment in which the “M” word is the new “N” word, I realize that I can’t afford to be speechless any longer. Being identified as a Muslim is now officially considered a smear. Why should I have to speak out against this new form of religious prejudice? Well, if I don’t, then I can’t blame anyone for misunderstanding me. And there’s plenty of willful misunderstanding going around these days.

The human tendency to “otherize” those whom we fear is nothing new, historically speaking. We just have to examine our treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, Japanese during WWII, Jews, Catholics, each successive wave of immigrants – the list is a long one and unfortunately growing longer by the day. So it seems that today it’s the turn of Muslims to receive this “preferential” treatment – this time singled out as a religious group based upon the extremism of a few fanatics.

Identity is a combination of how we see ourselves as well as how society at large views us. Social anthropologists expound on the importance of group identity/tribal affiliations as a historical safety in numbers – it took teamwork to bring down the bigger mammals as well as bring in the autumn harvest. Once you were ostracized from the group, your chances of survival were greatly diminished.

Peer acceptance remains a factor in today’s society, even while the innovative leaps which arise from individuals who break the mold remain a key to our dynamic economic growth. Individuality has increasingly become a prized attribute once the basics of food, shelter, & clothing have been accounted for.

So why should I be troubled by this push to single out American Muslims? Well, because it’s not being done to applaud our ingenuity or intelligence, but rather based upon the notion that “otherizing” us will make it easier to discriminate against us. If we’re not American enough, then we don’t deserve the civil liberties accorded to each citizen under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But whose definition of American are we using? Even when I showed my US passport prior to check-in at an airline ticket counter in Arizona recently, the ticket agent earnestly advised me to obtain a visa in order to re-enter America upon my return journey (to & from Canada.) “But I’m an American,” I kept insisting to her. “I have a US passport.”

The level of anti-Muslim hysteria in America seems to be growing rather than diminishing post 9/11. In the past year of participating in book presentations associated with the publication of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, my teenagers & I have had the unique opportunity to field questions from a cross-section of Americans – from students to seniors, from religious youth groups to lawyers, from interfaith activists to cynics.

The number one question asked by my fellow Americans is always the same: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against/condemn the acts of 9/11?” Seven years later, this question remains the biggest complaint against Muslims. Irrespective of our continual response – “Muslims did speak out, you just never heard us” – what more can we do to convince the average American that Muslims did not condone 9/11, that Islam is a religion of peace, that American Muslims believe in democracy and civil rights for all people? It’s clear that mainstream America hasn’t heard us, even though many of us continue to emphatically denounce 9/11, but we need to move beyond the definitions of who we are not in order to better articulate who we are.

More troubling is the latest round of e-mails which seek to invalidate any Muslim spokesperson based upon the vastly misunderstood notion of “taqqiya”. I’m a Muslim, and I had never heard this term until last year, when someone from the audience during a book presentation said, “I know you’re lying because your religion tells you to deceive non-Muslims until you’ve taken over the world.”

Hmm, where in the Qur’an is this claim made? Verse 16:106 – “Whosoever denies having once believed, unless he is forced to do so… will suffer the wrath of God” – is twisted to support the claim that the Qur’an encourages Muslims to lie, though the intent of this verse clearly states that the act of concealing one’s belief in Islam is only permissible under threat of torture/death.

If you Google this term, it’s illuminating to find a string of (anti-Muslim) websites which distortedly explain this concept in a manner intended to instill fear of all Muslims in the reader. Even Wikipedia and the Britannica encyclopedia weakly define this term, but still imply a level of deception on the part of Muslims. Yet no Muslim I’ve encountered believes that their religion condones, let alone demands, mendacity in any form.

Unfortunately, this rumor currently making the circuit only serves to cast suspicion upon the average Muslim who is asked to take part in an interfaith panel discussion or offer a presentation on Islam. So first, we were blamed for not speaking up. But clearly someone heard us, because now we’re being accused of lying. Talk about a Catch-22. It’s enough to make conspiracy theorists out of even the most naive optimists among us.

The mainstream media is largely silent on this topic. Maybe it hasn’t hit their radar yet. Maybe it’s just too confusing, especially to an outsider. Or maybe they’re still stuck on the first “W” of journalism school (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) Instead of blaming al-Qaeda, somehow the entire Muslim population is in the cross-hairs. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to reduce the misconceptions about Islam which abound across America.

The excuse that “I’m not a scholar” or “I don’t know what to say will no longer suffice. People are clamoring to hear from a Muslim – any Muslim – so speak up! Explain what little you know and admit what you don’t. The important thing is to begin the dialogue. Because if we remain silent much longer, we’ll find it’s too late. All of us, especially Americans, given our history, should be concerned about attempts to polarize the populace – you never know when you will become the “other”.

As Frederick Douglass so aptly put it, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” And no, I don’t believe Barack Obama is a Muslim (he says he isn’t and that’s enough for me), but then again, when did passing a religious litmus test become a requirement for the highest office in our country?

Dilara Hafiz is a retired investment banker, Sunday school teacher, and interfaith activist. She has recently published The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook along with her daughter Yasmine and son Imran.

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