Will the Real Islam Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Islam Please Stand Up? December 1, 2016

Yesterday a journalist called me. Billboards have appeared around Dallas with a message about Islam – basically asserting that there is no racism in Islam. The journalist had talked to the people who put up the billboards. Now she wanted an informed Christian view. Is it true that there is no racism in Islam?

Journalists always want short answers. They are working on a deadline and a word limit. But answering any question about a religion isn’t simple. Islam, if you mean the teaching of the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet, clearly says that God makes no distinction according to race. Of course the same can be said of Christianity. And Buddhism. The ideal of universal religions is to regard all humans universally as spiritual equals.

But if you are thinking of becoming a Muslim, or a Christian, or a Buddhist you shouldn’t just ask “what does the religion teach.” You need to ask, “what will I experience if I join this community.” And immediately the answers are more complex and idiosyncratic. Some Christian communities are racist to the core – whatever the teaching of Jesus and Paul – and no “person of color” would feel welcome.

Are Muslim communities any better? Yes and no. (Journalists hate this kind of answer) The history that created Christian racism in America aren’t part of American Muslim communities. Inter-ethnic relations are likely to play out differently. Muslims participated in the slave trade out of West Africa for centuries, but Islamic justifications for slavery were different, and weren’t tied to emerging Enlightenment ideas of race.

Islam does recognize one important ethnic difference, and that is between Arabs who have a claim to descend from the prophet Muhammad and all other Muslims. It is common in the Muslim world for Arabs who have a claim to such descent to be treated with particular respect. And at least when I lived in Malaysia there were frequent complaints by Malay Muslims that on the Hajj they were looked down on by Arabs and even abused.

Nor is there any love lost between Turks and Arabs, or Persians and Turks, or Pakistanis and Arabs, and on and on. There has been a long history of conflict between rival ethnic groups within Islam and such conflict inevitably results in the kind of long-standing attitudinal changes that give rise to prejudice.

And prejudice plus power equals racism. Wherever there is a significant power differential between ethnic groups who have  history of conflict and prejudice then racism is to some extent inevitable, regardless of religious ideals. That said, anyone attending a local Dallas mosque will be struck by the racial diversity and what appear to be easy relations between the different ethnic groups. Muslims are doing better than Christians with racial diversity, but we shouldn’t be misled into thinking Muslims, or any other religious group have managed to overcome the problem of racism.

In a way it isn’t surprising that Muslim communities have become ethnically diverse. Charles Taylor points out that immigrant communities in the US have foregrounded religious identity and downplayed ethnicity. Their religion, whether Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism makes them players in the triumvirate of God, Country, and Family that defines American identity. Ethnic identities are far more fraught and foregrounding them can be dangerous and disabling. Attacks on all Muslims after 9/11 only  increased a sense of religious solidarity across ethnic lines. And problems around ethnic identity and diversity have become even more fraught given the rhetoric of president-elect and his rapidly developing cabinet.

Which gets to the second question the journalist asked, “Do Muslims want to convert people to Islam?” And here there is a simple answer, and one that is more complex. The simple answer is yes. Muslims, like Christians and Buddhists believe that their revelation gives them a uniquely valuable insight into the nature of reality and God’s will. So of course they want to convince others to join them in living out this insight. But conversion isn’t the only goal of Muslims. They do want their religion to be better understood. And like all of us they want it to be seen in a positive light. They want to be taken seriously as part of American society. And they want their own community to feel proud and confident – particularly now that they are under attack from within the US government.

Billboards on the highway fulfill all these purposes. They strengthen Muslim identity, tell others what Islam stands for, announce that Muslims are Americans and part of US social life. What is more American than an ad campaign played out on billboards!!

“Will people convert?” she asked. A more difficult question. I know that since the election that there are a number of people who once called themselves Christian who will no longer do so. The wiling identification of Evangelical Christians with Donald Trump has made the Christian community seem to many like a community unfriendly to persons of color, LGBTQ persons, women, the disabled, and anyone who values freedom of speech and the constitution of the United States. For those who don’t personally know a Christian church and can’t see that the caricature above isn’t representative, then Islam, or Buddhism, or almost any other religion is going to appear attractive if you are inclined to be religious at all.

But my answer was that I doubt these billboards will lead to conversion. Christians have waged billboard evangelistic campaigns frequently over the decades. I can remember the “One Way” campaign of the 1970s. And in the last decade the “I Am Second” campaign around Dallas. Any drive through the country will show you billboards inviting you to believe in Christ or face damnation. And yet Christianity continues its long decline in America. Because we all know that a billboard is an ad, and an ad never tells the truth: which is too complex for words mean to be read at 60 mph, or on a bumper sticker.

(A personal aside, if it were possible I would never do business with a group that used billboards. I regard the very form and its ugliness an affront to human decency, much like telephone solicitations.)

And that is why when the real Islam stands up it will be on two feet, or many pairs of feet, and not billboards. Which is why if you want to know about Islam and Muslims its better to meet them face to face than read a billboard. Visit a mosque – you would find yourself welcomed.

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