Perceptions of Islam: What’s behind negative characterizations of Muslims?

Perceptions of Islam: What’s behind negative characterizations of Muslims? September 24, 2010
Defining us?

The general fear-mongering and emotional hype that has characterized public discussions about Muslims in America lately has reached new heights, as a process of “othering” Muslims continues to gain traction in the public discourse. For a long time, Muslims have been bemoaning the false characterization of Islam as monolithic, which obfuscates the inherent diversity and world religion status of Islam. It also hides the fact that Muslims disagree among themselves over a good many issues, religious and non-religious. Now this characterization is being amplified by the increasingly common denial that Islam is a religion at all.

Perhaps one of the most telling chapters of that story came during an episode of comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Stewart revealed the astonishing truth behind a Fox News commentator’s accusation that partial funding for the project was coming from an anonymous “man” who supposedly funds radical Islam around the world. Stewart pointed out that this “man” also happens to be the largest investor in Fox News after Rupert Murdoch. This in turn led to heated accusations by many of baseless fear-mongering, and the emotional pitch of the conversation inched even higher. This is by no means to deny that some Muslim projects are connected with problematic individuals and groups. Some clearly have been. But there are serious ramifications to the intentional fabrication of such connections with the intention of creating fear of an entire undifferentiated religious group. This dehumanized “other” is no longer merely different, but in fact dangerous and worthy of being hated.

A prominent Tennessee politician recently stated at a campaign event that the First Amendment right to religious freedom may not apply to Islam because it could be considered “a cult.” A recent New York Times article on protests against mosques across the nation cited a member of ACT! for America, a group created to “defend Western civilization against Islam,” describing Islam as a “political government” that is “100 percent against our Constitution.” Still others take a common Muslim description of Islam as a “way of life” and misuse it to imply nefarious things about Muslims–overlooking the multitude of faiths that also consider their religion a “way of life,” with the belief in God and the afterlife informing their every action. Many defenders of Muslims unwittingly reinforce this narrative by acting as if Islamic beliefs are essentially impervious to reason and debate. By treating Muslim religious beliefs as inherently “private” and thus off-limits to public discourse, they shut down true dialogue. As I have argued elsewhere, this unwarranted discomfort with publicly-articulated religious beliefs can be downright dangerous.

The mischaracterizations do not stop with denial of Free Exercise rights to Islam as an un-religion. Some anti-Islam pundits are just as eager to use the First Amendment’s other provision on religion–the Establishment Clause–against what can only be called a caricature of Islam. For example, some of these pundits hailed a 2008 lawsuit brought against the US government for the government’s bailout of American International Group (AIG). The claim in that case is that government ownership of shares of AIG, which offers Sharia-compliant homeowner insurance, constitutes an establishment of religion. The religion in question? “Sharia-based Islam.” This is reminiscent of the spurious claim that the Pledge of Allegiance establishes the hitherto-unknown religion of “Monotheism.”

The phrase reveals another common fear-mongering tactic–using the term “Sharia” as a bogeyman. Conjuring images of Taliban human rights abuses, those who wield the term against Muslims reduce an entire corpus of religio-spiritual legal principles to the misguided actions of a few. Similarly foreign-sounding systems of religious law, such as the Catholic “corpus juris canonici” or Jewish “halacha” are no longer portrayed as despotic monsters, or even exoticized, the way “Sharia” is today.

The rhetoric of demonization is not without consequences–indeed, there are reports of harassment, vandalism, arson, even murder. In recent weeks, a New York taxi driver was stabbed by a passenger for simply answering “yes” to the question “are you Muslim?” A black construction worker was attacked in New York during anti-mosque protests because he “looked” Muslim. Signs posted by vandals at a California mosque read, “No temple for the God of terrorism at ground zero,” and, “wake up America, the enemy is here.” And a fire at the future site of the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was likely the result of hate-motivated arson.

Much of the hatred is apparently premised on the false notion of the “Islamization” of America – an idea that somehow Muslims are trying to take over the country and co-opt its essential character. The reality, from my vantage point as a participant in the debates within the community, is quite different. For starters, American Muslims constitute a tiny percentage of the American population and are hardly in a position to “Islamize” America. More importantly, instead of seeing an Islamization of America, I am witnessing – indeed, consider myself a part of – the Americanization of Islam.

This is not to imply that the religion is somehow becoming watered down. Rather, Islam is, as it always has been, thriving and melding with its surroundings – acquiring their flavor. Taking very seriously what one American Muslim scholar, Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah of the Nawawi Foundation, calls the “cultural imperative,” young Muslims are in the process of finding an expression of Islam that is both authentically Muslim and authentically American. This includes, among other things, creating uniquely American-Muslim film, comedy, literature, and theatre; training Muslim religious leaders specially attuned to American society by opening an American-Muslim seminary; and developing American Muslim civic leaders through initiatives like the American Muslim Civil Leadership Institute


Additionally, an essential element of the “cultural imperative” is foundationally American: actively giving back to the broader community. The M100 Foundation is taking steps in this direction with the 30 Nights, 30 Grants call to service drive. Through the drive, 30 grants are given to 30 charities in 30 categories. The grants have benefited not just Muslim organizations but non-Muslim ones as well, such as Lutheran Social Services and the secular non-profit Children Incorporated.

In creating an American Islam, American Muslims must continue to find a way to reconcile their beliefs with American society as other faith groups, such as the Mormons and Catholics, have done in the past. Once feared and reviled by the broader community, each group was able to find its place in the American fabric – all while remaining true to their faith. Genuine integration requires that Muslims refrain from identity politics and engage in public debate from a religiously honest perspective. By the same token, those who speak out against anti-Muslim bias should make sure to treat Muslims as equal and reasonable participants in dialogue, open to argument and persuasion, rather than treating Muslim motives and beliefs as inscrutable.

American Muslims are making authentic efforts to interweave their religious beliefs with American culture, but these efforts are undermined by broad-brush portrayals of all Muslims as either incapable of rational discourse or, worse, nothing more than the enemy. We cannot take our equal station alongside our fellow Americans in this country that we too cherish as long as the otherizing process holds sway.

Asma Uddin is editor-in-chief of and associate editor of A version of this article was previously published in the Newsweek/Washington Post’s On Faith.

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