Islam and its Misconceptions
On September 11 2001, I remember staring at TV screen in my high school weight room as part of a morning gym class. I was in study hall when the second tower was hit. We were dismissed an hour later. My mom stayed glued to the TV along with my brother and I. My uncle, a long time New Yorker, called to say he was okay, but that he’d be volunteering his medical care as soon as it was safe enough do so.
In March 2003, we watched the start of the Shock and Awe campaign in my senior year Civics class. CNN supplied the news as we saw explosion after explosion rock Baghdad. Short weeks later, a statue of Saddam was toppled with ropes by jubilant Iraqis. George W Bush landed his helicopter off the coast of San Diego, walking out to a “Mission Accomplished” banner, later becoming the defining symbol of American hubris.
I knew Muslims growing up. There were girls who ran track in their Burqas. I knew a kid named Habib, who had a Hookah we’d smoke in his van. And our school did cover Islamic history and the religion in bits and pieces. Moreover, while we were at war in Muslim countries fighting those who attacked us according to their version of Islam, our President was adamant that we were not at war with Islam or with Muslims.
Still, I went off the college pretty ignorant about Islam as a faith, or what Muslims believed. There was a good chance that I knew many more Muslims back home than I had believed, because not every guy was named Mohammed and not every woman wore Hijab. Thankfully, I became friends with a group of Muslim students early on and decided I would learn what I could about Islam. From these friends, I learned about the centrality of family, the warmth and acceptance towards strangers, and the incredible normalcy of 99.9% of American Muslims. Aside from being part of a minority faith, and (in some cases) speaking a foreign language at home, there wasn’t much of a cultural divide.
From them, and my own learnings, here are some of the most common misconceptions of Islam:
- Islam requires women to wear Hijab. Interestingly, nothing in either the Quran nor Hadith (the sayings of Mohammed) says anything about this. Instead, this was cultural practice – a way of displaying modesty in the Arabian peninsula later adopted throughout much of the Islamic world.
- Islam is not a monolith. Even as the Dar al Islam (House of Islam) stretches from Morocco to Indonesia, there are many Islams. The Sunni – Shia divide is well publicized, but within Sunni Islam there are four major schools of jurisprudence. There is Sufism (or Islamic mysticism). There are Alawites, Alevis, Druze – all of whom consider themselves Muslim, with significant differences in belief and practice. And just as importantly,
- Islam is not a monolithic culture. Even in overwhelmingly conservative nations such as Saudi Arabia, there is considerable debate as to the place and purpose of Islam in society. Many Muslims are very secular. Other Muslims are more observant. Moreover, Islam looks very different in Indonesia as it does in Bahrain as it does in South Africa. Islam has helped shape culture and customs, but every society reflects this diversity and is a product of its own unique history.
- Islam was born in the Middle East, but is not confined to it. Nearly two thirds of Muslims don’t live in the Middle East. The vast majority of Muslims are not Arab. In fact, the most populous Muslim nations: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India are not in the Middle East, nor Arab. Head to any Islamic Center in the West, and you’ll see that diversity first hand.
- The United States has never had a female head of state. Mexico has never had a female head of state. Canada has never had a female head of state. Pakistan has. Bangladesh has. Indonesia has. Kosovo has. In fact, (as of 2015) 31% of Tunisia’s Parliament is women. By comparison, it’s 19% in the US.
- Islam doesn’t reject Moses, or Jesus. Both are major prophets. Islam believes in their role as spiritual leaders who helped bring the word of God into the world. Revelation however, did not stop with them. It continued to the personhood of Mohammed, whose sole miracle was receiving the Quran.
In a climate of fear, there is so much misinformation. If what Guliani said is true, then Trump is hoping to cloak a ban on Muslim immigration through the blanket of terrorism. We now have a President who is at odds with the facts. We know his claim of Muslims cheering on 9/11 in New Jersey was an outright lie. We know he has publicly attacked a Gold Star military family, questioning their loyalty to the United States, when it was Trump who weaseled his way out of the draft on at least four occasions. We know Steve Bannon is in Trump’s ear, and has a profoundly disturbing view of Islam. We know many in his inner circle subscribe to Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” model. This constant stream of fear mongering seeks to disorient and overwhelm us. We must fight fiction with fact.
For those who view Islam as a unique threat to America, I would encourage self-reflection. Why do I believe this about an entire faith and it’s 1.7B adherents? What is informing my opinion – is it from the media or is personal experience driving this outlook? How can I become more knowledgeable about Islam and the American Muslim community from unbiased sources? Quoting Haroon Saddiqui, “Islam-bashing bears all the symptoms of racism. It holds up the most marginal, and fanatical Muslims as representatives of 1.3 billion Muslims. It expects every Muslim to explain or apologize for the actions of the few: ‘What do you have to say about 9/11?’ or about some other terrorist horror, as of he or she is personally responsible for it.” How can we so easily disassociate the acts of the Westboro Baptist Church, Timothy McVeigh, or Dylan Roof away from their firmly held Christianity? Their actions are every bit as driven by their deeply flawed take on religion, but their pathology is assigned to something other than their faith.
As Americans, our enemy is not Islam or Muslims. Our enemy are those who pursue a radical, nihilistic ideology using indiscriminate violence to achieve their ends. We feel acutely vulnerable when Europeans or Americans are killed, and rightfully so. Worth considering however, are the thousands Muslims killed each year by terrorism in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Clearly, war perpetrated by terrorists targets more than just the West. We would do well to remember that our commonalities outweigh our differences.
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