The Moral Hollowness and Futility of Islamophobia

The other day I mentioned to my wife how stressed I had been feeling. Talking to her, it occurred to me that hearing your religion denigrated in all media, all day, every day, for months on end, and having your community placed under unrelenting suspicion for years on end, causes ‘stress’. I have to say that just recognizing that made me feel better.

The environment in which Muslims live today is, indeed, very stressful. It has been absurdly stressful since the rise of ISIS in 2014 and the revving up of the 2016 presidential campaigns. Before that, it had only been extremely stressful since the summer of 2010, when the Park 51 controversy marked the first full broadside from the modern Islamophobia industry. Before then, it had only been very stressful since the 9/11 attacks.

Thinking back on the trajectory of Islamophobia in the United States, my mind often settles on two features that both depress me and cheer me up.

1) The intensity of the condemnation directed at Muslims is often related more to transitory political interests than it is to real moral or even political substance.

Gun violence and mass shootings have, sadly, become part of the background noise of life in the United States. Even in the wake of the horrendous tragedy of the Sandy Hook school shooting, no reform of gun laws occurred. Yet when a mass shooting was carried out by Muslims, Republican presidential candidates called for a ban on Muslims entering the country and, later, the patrolling of “Muslim neighborhoods.” Rampant and intolerable gun violence merits no restriction on Americans’ right to bear arms, but one act of gun violence by Muslims in the US means a real public discussion about curtailing our basic freedom of movement and treatment by the police. All this strongly suggests that the hypervocalized fear permeating the American public sphere is hollow and fruitless. It’s not about taking effective steps to prevent mass attacks or safeguard American lives. It is about projecting fear onto a besieged and embattled minority so that no actual reforms need occur. Similarly, ISIS is a vicious and brutal regime responsible for unacceptable acts of violence. But its body count pales in comparison to the overall casualties caused in the Syrian Civil War, or even to the deaths in Iraq during the ten years after the US-led invasion in 2003 (see also The Lancet study). I don’t find ISIS’ crimes much more morally condemnable than the Egyptian government’s detention, torture, rape and murder of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians since 2013. But the US media has not drawn any real attention to the destruction wrought by our invasion of Iraq, and there is little real outrage at the crimes of the Egyptian government (Ted Cruz even praises Egypt’s leader as a paragon of moral courage). Why? Because Americans were uninterested in the suffering and moral outrages visited upon Iraqis by our own invasion, and Egypt is ostensibly our ally. If tomorrow some political calculus changed, the American media might start bombarding us with images of the cruelty of the Sissi regime. So despite the intensity of public ‘concern’ over the damage that Muslim terrorists could wreck in America or the outrage over ISIS’ crimes, it is superficial and even duplicitous political interests that lie behind both these intense storms of sentiment. If it were really a matter of keeping Americans safe after San Bernardino (or Sandy Hook), the real culprit responsible for violent deaths in the US, the availability of guns, would be the center of attention. If ideologies or religions were truly held accountable for the slaughter, oppression and torture of innocents abroad, Islam and Muslims would not be most guilty party.

2) Anti-Islam polemics is just glorified cheerleading that contributes nothing to solving the problems it claims to identify.

The Muslim Martin Luther/Ex-Muslim Whistleblower industry is mighty in its output. Every year it seems the like of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Zuhdi Jasser has a new tome setting out to the good people of America exactly how awful Islam is and how and what exactly Muslims need to do to reform it. Such figures claim either to be voices in the wilderness, warning Americans of the evil inherent in this foreign faith, or to be ‘sincere’ advisors trying to help Muslims escape the prison of their own benighted tradition. They either believe Islam is irreparably harmful or that, if Muslims liberalize and secularize sufficiently, then some anodyne form of the religion might be refined. But the means these authors have chosen can never achieve the ends they call for. In one moment Hirsi Ali write a book explaining to Muslims why their religion needs a reformation (‘now’!) and what that reformation should look like. The next she reveals that she believes the problem is not “a few rotten apples,” but rather that Islam is rotten to the core. But as a declared ex-Muslim who believes that Islam is an inherently destructive force, why would the ‘unreformed’ Muslims that Hirsi Ali wants to change ever listen to her? As even the conservative Economist noted in its review of her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (and the publication is clearly a fan of Hirsi Ali overall):

“… if there is to be any chance that Muslims can be persuaded to set aside premodern ideas about law, war and punishment, the persuader will not be a sophisticated secularist; it is more likely to be somebody who fervently believes in the divine origins of the Koran, but is able to look at it again and extract from its words a completely fresh set of conclusions.”

But the conservative Muslim scholars that the majority of the world’s Muslims might heed as representatives of their faith are precisely the same group that Hirsi Ali and other Islamophobes make their business vilifying. So the paradox inherent in the Muslim Martin Luther/Ex-Muslim industry is that those who could actually reform Islam are part of its problem, and those who have identified its problem will never be listened to by Muslims. But this is of no consequence to the industry, since its actual purpose is not to effect any reform amongst Muslims. It’s a self-congratulatory cycle of non-Muslims reading about Islam and exchanging exasperated remarks about how backward and awful Muslims and their religion are.

Islamophobia is real, and its effects are crushing the spirits of Muslims in the US. But Islamophobia as an idea is also hollow and substanceless. Outrage at Muslims and at the ‘violent ideology’ of Islam is not really about any profound moral objection or about pursuing a course that would make Americans safer. It’s a heady cocktail of hysteria ginned up by politicians during election years to get out the vote. The polemics of Islamophobes like Ayaan Hirsi Ali keep coming like waves, new ones cresting the displays of bookstores every year. But they’re not meant to reform Islam. They are not meant for Muslims at all. They’re meant for people who want to entertain themselves by thinking how ‘Muslims have just got to understand.’ In the face of Islamophobia and constant criticism of their religions, Muslims in the US must remember that these are just the latter day agonies of a close-minded soon to be ex-majority in the United States. We should try our best to ignore them and work to promote the safety of fellow Americans and to perfect any shortcomings in how we—not Islamophobes—understand our religion.