Islamophobia: An Inquiry at Chicago
By Dr. A. Khan
Chicago , IL
An eminent group of thinkers from several faiths discussed the causes and implications of Islamophobia in America at the Elmhurst College in Chicago. “Islamophobia: An Inquiry” is part of “Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith,” Elmhurst College’s yearlong series of dialogue on faith— its varieties, contradictions and influence in the modern world. The discussion was moderated by Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization building the global interfaith youth movement. Patel also served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The panel of thinkers included Scott Alexander, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Jane Ramsey and Inamul Haq. Scott C. Alexander is director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program and associate professor of Islam at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. He is the author of The Race to Goodness: an End to Triumphalism in Christianity and Islam. The Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and served as its president between 1998 and 2008. She writes a weekly column for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” online section and is a frequent media commentator on religion and public policy. Jane Ramsey is the executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs ( JCUA), which combats poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. Through JCUA, Ramsey works to address problems such as immigration, homelessness and community displacement, police misconduct, government accountability and bigotry. Inamul Haq is an adjunct professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Islamic Studies Program at Elmhurst College where he leads the College’s development of an Islamic studies emphasis. He has served as principal of two Islamic day schools in the Chicago area, and also is an adjunct professor at Loyola University and Catholic Theological Union.
Alan Ray, President of Elmhurst College, welcomed the participants and said that this discussion was a part of Elmhurst College’s yearlong series of dialogues on faith to promote interfaith harmony. Eboo Patel introduced the panelists, and then explored his local roots to Elmhurst. He reminisced about his childhood in Elmhurst; learning swimming at YMCA, and discovering about fasting in Ramadan when his mother took a 10-minute break during her night classes at Elmhurst College.
Patel started the discussion by talking about early days of America when the leaders of many minorities were worried about persecution. He presented an example of a letter that George Washington received in 1790, in which the leader of a minority group had inquired, “Will my people be safe?” Eboo Patel then showed a video clip of Congressman Keith Ellison’s (Minnesota 5 th district) passionate testimony at King's Hearing, in which Congressman saluting Salman Handani, a victim of 9/11 tragedy, said: “ Every American, including Muslim Americans, suffered on 9/11…Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be defined as a member of an ethnic group or a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow citizens.”
Eboo Patel said that we need to acknowledge contributions by all. Patel mentioned the incident when Congressman Keith Elleson was criticized when he expressed his desire to take oath of Office on a Qur’an. He said that Keith Elleson went to the chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress and got a Qur’an that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson's. He mentioned that the first Iftar dinner was also hosted by Thomas Jefferson. Eboo Patel also mentioned that Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States. He then invited panelists to express their views on Islamophobia.
Scott C. Alexander started his segment by sharing with the audience an excerpt of 1856 book “The Growth of Papal Power by Thomas Whitney.” He read the following passage of the book: “[Speaking of the probable subversion of the institutions of the United States, the Duke of Richmond, Charles Lennox, British Governor of Canada from 1818-1820) used the following language]: The Church of Rome has a design upon that country, and it will in time be the established religion, and will aid in the destruction of that Republic. I have conversed with many of the sovereigns and princes of Europe, particularly with George III, and Louis XVIII, and they have unanimously expressed these opinions relative to the government of the Untied States…But what a change has taken place in the demeanor, and the numerical power of that Church, since the foundation of the Republic! Its humility has been changed to defiant audacity; a bold, commanding ostentation has taken the place of its retiring simplicity. It builds it nunneries, its Jesuit colleges, its churches, in every nook and corner of the land, and it consecrates them in all the pomp and formulae of its ancient pride, surrounded by the drawn swords and bayonets of its marital legions, who are organized, commissioned and armed as a part of the militia of the State. It baptizes its bells amid superstitious trappings and ceremonies adapted to the palmist days of its benumbing power.” Scott Alexander then showed the audience a video clip titled “Radical Muslim Snacks” by Stephen Colbert (2011).” The video showed Pat Robertson promoting the fear about Halal food and Sharia laws. Scott Alexander said that a change in the demographics by 2040 will make Whites a minority in the United Sates so the bigots --- on the fringes of our society--- are promoting fear mongering and demonizing Muslims by talking about “Sharia Creep.”
Jane Ramsey started her segment by saying that in the context of Jews of the world, today is the second to last day of Passover, we share the stories of children and grandchildren. She said that we remind them that once we were strangers too, we remind them of our history of slavery in engaging oppression. In respect to Islamophobia, she said that it touches us as Semantic people; in order to deal with the anti-Muslim sentiment and future of America we need to take actions to push back the tide of hate. She said that she recently worked for getting zoning approval for the establishment of Mecca mosque in suburban Chicago. She reminisced about the old days when her parent wanted to live in the North shore area. But she said that in those days Jewish families were not allowed to live in the community due to restrictions. In her concluding remarks she said that we must actively push back the agents of bigotry.
The Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite started her segment of discussion by showing a video clip about the ugly face of Islamophobia in Orange County, California. The video showed protestors hurling abuse at attendees at an ICNA fundraising event. After showing the video Susan Brooks asked the audience, “What did you see?” Some people in the audience replied: “Go back home…flag waving… USA, USA…local tea party in action…stupid behavior…bigotry in action.” Then Susan Brooks showed the video one more time. After that Susan Brooks again asked the audience: “What did you see?” She answered that this is an example of a symbolic and a cultural war. She explained that the real cultural war depicts struggle over meaning, stress of pluralism reactivity, frames significance, and establishes alien identity (Go back home). She also cited the First Amendment - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” - and concluded her views by stating that for everyone’s common good we have to protect America’s freedom.
Professor Inamul Haq started expressing his views by first defining Islamophobia. He said that Islamophobia is a new term which represents a distinctive form of intolerance practiced towards the people of the Islamic faith. In the mind of an Islamophobe Muslims are violent extremists, anti-Christian, averse to democracy, oppress women, culturally backward, and dedicated to establishing sharia around the world. When such beliefs shape government policies they result in gross violations of Muslim human rights domestically and unjust wars abroad, especially when the citizenry has no knowledge of Islam or relationship with Muslims, except in the form of a real or imaginary conflict. An Islamophobe does not differentiate between a small criminal element which happened to be Muslim and the collective body of Islam.
He said that Islamophobia fits in the traditional forms of prejudice based on race, ethnicity or class. In this regard European Muslims for a long time were seen primarily in the light of ethnicity. Turks in Germany, Africans in France, and South Asians in the United Kingdom were considered inferior races, and subjects of the former colonies. Their religion was not a major concern, however, we must make distinction that at times the fear of Islam may not be irrational or unfounded. When FBI investigates young Muslims suspected of terrorism or a charity related to an extremist group, they do not consider themselves the Islamophobe, and rightly so. Here Islam is seen as politico, militant ideology, much like communism rather than race and ethnicity. When Islamophobia pertains to Palestine it is usually focused on Middle East. The eighty-six percent of Muslim population is seen from the prism of the Arab world.
He said that Islamphobia is a new concept, but reality indicates that it is very old, as old as Islam itself. The rise of Islam in the 7 th century, with similar claims as Christianity, using similar vocabulary posed a challenge to Christianity. The early years of Islam’s expansion were seen in secular terms, and the relationship between Muslims and Christians was friendly, as Christians made alliances with Muslim rulers and sought positions in bureaucracies created by Muslim empires. It was Pope John the 8 th who warned against building relationships with Muslims. He singled out Muslims as the chosen enemy. Later, crusades consolidated the image of Muslims as the focal point of Christian animosities.
He said in the medieval age European identity was shaped, in part by the opposition to Islam. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, chasing Turks out of the empire became the highest goal, and “Reformation” did not make any difference in the Christian attitudes towards Muslims. At times Luther accused the Pope of being a Muslim. Likewise, nowadays the Christian right wing accuses President Obama of being a Muslim.
Professor Inamul Haq reflecfled back in time, and said that in the 17 th & 18 th centuries, with the birth of a modern age, a new order emerged in Europe. The Europeans embraced democracy and scientific development. Even though Europe rejected its medieval past, its crusading spirit did not fade away. European colonial powers consolidated their nationhood states at home and started “mission civilization” abroad. They colonized ninety percent of the Muslim world. Again in the 19 th and 20 th centuries the crusading spirit did not die. Modernity did not attenuate old sentiments.
After the First World War, when the French general Allenby visited Saladin’s tomb he said, “Saladin, we are back.” More recently, the New York Times celebrated the liberation of Jerusalem from Muslims after six centuries. French historians declared that finally the Crusades have come to an end. But the tragedy is that it did not end in the Muslim mind. In colonization, they saw the victory of crusades. President Bush used theological terms like continuous struggle against evil, Satan, etc., when waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the world saw another crusade in the form of the Bosnian war. Europe is Christian; it can not accept a Muslim state. Turkey has been trying to acquire membership of the European Union but its attempts have been futile as the Union is a Christian Club. Professor Inamul Haq explained that modernity in reality did not change attitudes towards Islam. In fact Muslims face a double jeopardy: they are considered to have wrong faith (anti-religion) and they are seen to resist modernity (anti-civilization). One can see these two standards of civilization viz- a-viz the statements of Pat Robertson, Jerry Farwell and others. They wonder why Islam has not modernized and declare it to be a creation of Muhammad. They declare Islam as antichrist and Muhammad a demon figure. They see Islam, through the eyes of medieval Christianity, which they defeated. Wars have come and gone but hostile imagination has continued. In the context of the 9/11 tragedy, a very important fact is ignored that 9/11 came out of the politics of the cold war.
Professor Inamul Haq said that political Islam, which is seen as the ideology behind recent terrorism, grew during colonial rule, and it did not materialize overnight. During the Cold war there was selective use of Islam against the Soviet Union and spread of communism. Many Muslim countries were used as the bulwark against communism. At the fall of communism the world saw the Iranian Revolution. Then in the 1980s, Islam was declared as the green menace. But in today’s context green is good, it is environment-friendly, so the phrase green menace cannot be used. Also starting in the 1980s we see the negative stereotyping of Islam, Muslims, and Arabs, in the media, press, cartoon, Hollywood, video games, Church, think tanks, and the government.
Professor Inamul Haq in his concluding remarks said that Islamophobia is a weak tradition. Western and Christian traditions present a big hindrance in understanding Islam. Long enduring prejudices hinder the understanding of Islam, Muslims, their culture and history, and create blind spots in the struggle against violent extremism.
After Professor Inamul Haq’s observations, Eboo Patel posed a question to the panelists: What can we do to reduce Islamphobia? The panelists answered that we can reduce tensions by following the humanitarian tradition, by educating each other and making an effort to know each other better at personal and community levels. A Q & A session followed. The level and depth of questions asked by the audience validated the claims of many recent surveys that many Americans remain very ignorant about Islam and Muslims.
After the Q & A session, Eric Bhaimia, President of the Muslim Students Association, thanked the audience and panelists for their participation in a dialogue to promote interfaith harmony. The discussion on Islamophobia was concluded by a prayer offered by the Chaplain, the Reverend Scott Matheney.