Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Islamophobia in America? So Blown Out of Proportion

America's relationship with Islam has not been the same since September 11, 2001. The last time a foreign entity attacked America was Pearl Harbor. The 9-11 attacks left a mark on the American psyche, one that very well might not heal within my lifetime. Given the magnitude, it should be no surprise that we see some backlash from it, even now. About a couple of weeks ago, Bill Maher goes after Islam and points out how those on the Left tend to have a double standard for Islam and other world religions. For Maher, those on the Left talk about values like women's rights, LGBT rights, free thought, and democracy, but when it comes to Muslims, they somehow get a free pass. Sam Harris went even as far to say that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas." The leftists over at Vox think that Maher is not an anomaly, but rather a reflection of the prevalence of the Islamophobia in America. Is this accusation true? Are Americans fearful of Muslims and/or Islam? And if this fear exists, how does it impact Muslims in America?

Islamophobia is yet another hot-button term that gets thrown around all too freely, so let's define it. The term Islamophobia is a neologism formed with the word "Islam" and the suffix "-phobia," meaning "[illogical] fear of-" or "aversion to-." Put them together, and you have "a fear of/aversion to Islam." Part of the problem is that the term is not merely describing the Islamic religion or a growing concern about Islamic extremism, but extended to the entirety of the Muslim people, as well. I don't say this because I think discrimination against a group of people is a good thing. Of course it's a bad thing! In order to live in a pluralistic society based on freedom, you need to be able to live in a place where people are different from you. Racism and bigotry have no place in the modern world. However, when one conflates a group of people versus religious ideas and the implementation thereof, one can merely cry "Islamophobe" to shield Islam from any criticism whatsoever. The other part of a free society is that in an intellectual marketplace, no ideas are free from criticism. If it's a bad idea, we should criticize it, regardless of origin. With that being said, I would like to see what polls have to say about how Americans view the topic.

Back in July, Pew Research asked Americans how they feel about various religious groups. Jews, Catholics, and Evangelicals were rated the highest, whereas atheists and Muslims were at the bottom of the list. Gallup has an interesting piece on Islamophobia on a more global level. Even those who have no animosity towards Muslims as a people, a third of them still have an unfavorable view of Islam. Yes, ignorance and a lack of education increase your odds of being anti-Muslim. Nevertheless, there are those who have a problem with the religion itself. There is another 2010 Gallup poll shows that the greatest religious prejudice is towards Muslims. The polling over at Zogby Analytics doesn't even show a flattering view of Muslims. On the other hand, the public is divided as to whether Islam is more violent than other religions.

Let's steer away from polling from a moment because it is methodologically limited, partially because polls only measure what they think [or do], not what they actually think. If Islamophobia is so prevalent, we should see institutionalization or at least some form of its manifestation. I'd say that violence against members of a certain religion group is a good place to start. If Islamophobia were that widespread, we would see a lot a hate crimes against Muslims. If we look at FBI Hate Crime Statistics, we can see if Muslims are the most common target. Muslims are 0.8 percent of the population (Pew Research, 2010 estimate), and in 2010, there were 160 incidents. Compare that to the 887 anti-Jewish incidents in the same year. Even when adjusted for population, a Jew in America is almost three times more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than a Muslim. With this logic, America has an even bigger Antisemitism problem, which I don't think even really exists in the first place in America. Although any crime against someone based on their religion is a shame, based on the numbers, would you consider this at epidemic proportions? Hate crime statistics do a fine job of deflating the veracity of Islamophobia. One could argue just because the Islamophobia isn't violent doesn't mean it isn't virulent. Income distribution for Muslims isn't particularly disparate compared to other mainstream religions, and the United States government doesn't implement a tax on Muslims that is comparable to the جزية, a tax levied on non-Muslims under Muslim rule simply for being non-Muslim. Are Muslims being deprived of exercising their First Amendment rights? Considering that there are over 2,000 mosques in this country, I hardly think so.

This is not to say that there aren't any individuals who discriminate against Muslims or feel prejudice towards Muslims because there are. I'm not here to excuse bigotry because it is inexcusable. However, if one is going to lecture about pervasiveness of a phobia, there had better be both context and substantiation. First, is discrimination against Muslims worse than it has been or is against other minority groups in America? Second, how are non-Muslims treated in Muslim-majority countries? Third, how is the quality of life for a Muslim in America versus that of the average, Muslim-majority country? If you're going to bludgeon the American people with charges of human rights violations, try to do so with a more global perspective in mind. Fourth, a phobia is defined as an irrational fear. Is there some rational basis for the fear? Looking at religious and historical context, Islam cannot be considered a religion of peace, which is worrisome for those purporting that it is. Islamic countries are authoritarian regimes that quash civil liberties, limit economic freedoms, and oppress women, non-Muslims, and homosexuals. Plus, when you look at the Muslim support for things such as implementing sharia law (شريعة) or suicide bombings, it's not comforting that these views are a bit more mainstream than merely "being on the fringe." If Muslims want to prove to the rest of the world that Islam can be more open and tolerant, they really need to step up to the extremists and defend their faith to the point where there's a reformation in the Islamic world.

Most importantly, how prohibitive is it in terms of Muslim citizens living the American dream? Muslims are still free to acquire gainful employment, associate with whomever they wish, and observe their religion. The typical Muslim in America lives a higher-quality life than the typical Muslim under Islamic rule. While American governance isn't perfect, the truth of the matter is that America is far from being an Islamophobic country.

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