What’s behind negative characterization of Muslims?

The false characterization of Islam as monolithic is being amplified by the increasingly common denial that Islam is a religion at all.

After two months of traveling abroad, Imam Rauf, the Chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and the leader of the Farah Mosque in Lower Manhattan, returned this week to the American mainland. His return and subsequent defense of the initiative mark the unfolding of a new chapter in the ongoing saga surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and the general fear-mongering and emotional hype that has characterized public discussions about Muslims in America lately.

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.

This “otherizing” process 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. For a long time, Muslims have been bemoaning the false characterization of Islam as monolithic. Now this characterization is being amplified by the increasingly common denial that Islam is a religion at all.

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 U.S. 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 its 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.


Image courtesy of Viktor Nagornyy.

Asma Uddin
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  • brahman

    The heading of the article is: what is behind

  • areyousaying

    What’s behind negative characterization of Muslims?Their subjugation of women including whipping and stoning them, their persecution of gays and their general failure to denounce their murderous terrorists and high-fiving each other on the original 9/11. Any other obvious questions?

  • abrahamhab1

    Asma asserted:The people of the USA “otherise” you because you set yourselves as the “other”, apart and worst yet as superior. You put extra effort to distinguish yourselves by your mode of dress, your foods, your demeanors and worst your supremacist attitudes. You abandoned your failed societies and you and your imams are preaching the same ideology that distinguished your ancestral societies with poverty, ignorance and corruption. You risked life and limb to reach our shores, and now you try by mostly primitive means to make us look like those who you ran away from.

  • Carstonio

    The nation that I love has long been obsessed with foreign menaces. The bashing of Muslims that Uddin describes is a rerun of the 1920s bashing of Jewish and Catholic immigrants. And, to a certain degree, of the 1950s Red Scare where many people were suspected of being Communists simply because they were Jewish or because they favored civil rights and labor unions. Even Pennsylvania colonists in the 1700s feared being overrun by hordes of German immigrants.

  • responsiblepublic

    In Washington DC at 2 PM on September 11 at Freedom Plaza, those in support of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and our Constitutional rights will hold a community public gathering. See 911Freedom.com

  • inmyhumbleopinion1

    Come on, Ms. Uddin. You didn’t say anything about Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, or any of the other officially Muslim nations, with their terrible human rights abuses, such as the prohibition of free speech and freedom of religion, based on their enforcement of some kind of Islamic law. Add in the radical terrorists, and you have plenty of reasons for the negative characterization of Muslims and for mainstreet Americans to feel nervous.

  • AKafir

    Muslims do object to Islam being called merely a madhab (religion).Inam Khawaja writing in a newspaper article [3] in July 2005 states, “In the Quran, Islam is always referred to as Deen and not as Muzdhab, the Arabic word for religion. Deen means a complete code of life and is inclusive of religion (Muzdhab).”Allama Ghulam Ahmed Parwez continues: “These Laws of Allah in their final and complete form are given in the Quran, and are called Ad-Deen.”Abu Ala Maududi (Four Basic Qur’anic Terms Translated by Abu Asad, Islamic Publications, Lahore, 1979) quotes from the Qur’an 64:65, 39:2,3,11,14,17, 16:52, 3:83, 98:5 to assert that “the word has been employed to signify the vesting of the Supreme authority in Allah alone,… that there should not be even the slightest element of association and treatment of anyone else have(ing) sovereignty or authority and being entitled to obedience and submission of independent right.”The verses (Qur’an 3:19) and (Qur’an 3:85), Maududi declares, state that only Allah’s Laws and religion are acceptable. The third verse proclaims that the “it was the primary purpose of the Prophet’s mission that he should make this Deen prevail in their stead and triumph over all other ways of life”. And in the fourth verse “the believers have been ordered to fight all non-believers until every system of thought, belief, and action which is not based on recognition of Allah as the Supreme Authority, and which therefore will perpetually remain the source of all strife and unrest- has been wiped out, and the entire humanity adopts the approved way of life, Allah’s Deen.”In Do you know this man? (The Revival, Official newsletter of Muslim youth league (UK), July/August 1998) the editors state: “The Prophet gave mankind the idea of an all embracing Deen. The Prophet did not give mankind a religion but the Deen of Islam. If he had given a religion then there would have been spiritual guidance from the religion of Islam and secular guidance from other sources. The prophet managed to combine both secularism and politics in an all-embracing Deen. In the West, the Church deals with religion and the secular guidelines come from the state. Religion only deals with the life hereafter, acts of faith, spiritual rituals, worship and morality. Deen deals with religion, law, culture, civilisation, politics, economics, international affairs, war and peace, individual to international; these are all dealt with in the Deen of Islam.”

  • AKafir

    For example, some of these pundits hailed a 2008 lawsuit brought against the U.S. 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.” Are you saying that big business around the world that wants to get into the Islamic Banking is simply making it up? Why do these companies institute Sharia complaint banking? Because there is a demand for it especially in the Muslim market. What is Sharia complaint Banking? Here is a muslim in UK trying to make it clear for you:Muslims will only eat Halal meat because that is sanctioned by Islam. US Government has no business supporting or prohibiting Kosher or Halal. How do you think Americans would react if the US Government decides that only Kosher or Halal meat is to be served in Public schools? Now notice that the student spends a considerable time quoting the Quran against “interest” and “usury”. Most Muslims consider normal banking where interest is paid or received as against the Quran and hence the need for “Sharia Complaint Banking”. US Government has absolutely no business in supporting or being against it. As long as AIG was a private company, it was no one’s business, but as soon as US Government became a partner then people have a right to ask whether Federal Funds should be used to support Islamic Banking.

  • woodstock-41

    Dear Fellow Americans, Hark:

  • rodraj

    Ms. Uddin, you talk so much about “hate” from Americans but you have failed to address all the hate speech in your holy book, which characterizes Jews as worse than “Apes and Pigs” and calls to “slay the idolaters”… why has the “Americanization” of the religion not addressed these hate-filled verses? Until you and your co-religionists categorically reject this hate speech which is the so-called word of god, then you will never be accepted in the western world…