November 29, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Like Seeing Your Own Reflection

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By RUBIN DANBERG BIGGS

It’s not accurate to say that Islamophobia is new in American life. It was present in 2008, when critics of Barack Obama claimed that he was a Muslim, assuming that it would be damning if he were. So too was it woven into the 2011 opposition to a Mosque planned two blocks from ground zero in New York. It was said that this mosque would honor the ideology of the attackers.  We understood Islam to be a violent faith then, and this sentiment has not changed. The same tenor rang in Ben Carson’s statement that a Muslim could not be president. Rather than to say Islamophobia is new in American politics, it is more accurate to say that over the last few weeks America has caught a glimpse of its own reflection. This is a lucid moment, when fear and anger have brought our ugly image into view. It is an opportunity to reflect.

What is new is how open and explicit politicians have been, particularly on the American Right. In various iterations, presidential candidates have proposed increased scrutiny and surveillance of Muslims and Mosques throughout the United States, and have flatly opposed the admission of Muslim Syrian refugees. They say that these are the sacrifices to individual liberty that we have to make in order to protect our collective security.

This is truly shocking to hear from a party that wouldn’t ask a clerk to process a marriage certificate or a baker to make a cake if it may tread on their religious coattails. It is also surprising to hear rhetoric of safety over liberty from a party whose principled opposition to gun control has been founded upon just the opposite.

Truly though, this is not just a criticism of the Right. There is a segment of the Left that has been just as distrustful and inconsistent in its treatment of Islam. When Bill Maher says, to the applause of his mainly liberal audience, that Islam is incompatible with liberal values, he nurtures fear and distrust. He also betrays an ignorance to a vast amount of Islamic practices and scholarship, and a narrow and prescriptive liberalism that fundamentally misses its own objectives.

Maher asks us only to look at the oppressive Muslim cultures of Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are treated as second-class citizens, and gender and sexual minorities are routinely abused. Of course he ignores similar sexual oppression that exists on the basis of Christianity in Uganda, and the practice among a substantial number of Malian Christians of female genital mutilation. He doesn’t mention Judaism’s long history of gender inequity in its religious leadership, and the vast gender imbalance that still exists in economic and political life throughout the secular Western world. The problem is that oppressive sentiment tends to run a lot deeper than the practice of religion. Individuals and communities bring what they will to their faith; consequently, that faith will be a reflection of the people who are practicing it, not the other way around.

More important to this conversation, though, are the parts of Islam that go ignored by Maher’s Left and Cruz, Trump and Huckabee’s Right. They miss the Islam practiced in the secular states of Indonesia and Turkey. So too do they miss the Islam practiced by American Muslims whose worship is quite simply not their business. Both the Left and the Right are guilty of overlooking the vast majority of peaceful Islam in favor of a view that incorrectly pegs the religion as more likely to be radicalized than any other. Though it is true that radicalized interpretations of Islam have a unique power today, the failure to disaggregate this power from the religion itself and its practice by the rest of the world’s Muslims leads to the discriminatory policies and rhetoric seen in much of the Western world.

Furthermore, although Maher seeks tolerance and choice, he misses distinctly Muslim strands of feminism and LGBTQ+ advocacy seen throughout the Middle East that draw on a religious foundation to ground their progressive agendas. Asserting differing interpretations of the Qur’an, groups from Egypt to Iran have advanced liberal aims. This is where Islam creates goodness in a way that Maher’s Left could never accommodate, and Trump’s Right would never notice.

Really though, the past several weeks have been a reminder of the extent to which we fear lives that we do not understand, and threats from faces we do not recognize. Murder in schools, movie theaters and churches can’t shake us, so long as the killer has a face and a background we can understand. But when terror assumes the name of Islam, or wears a mask of a slightly darker shade, we renege on our promises and turn our backs on the huddled masses. These are the terrible implications of our fear.

What’s vital to remember is that the terror we feel today is not going away. Though I pray otherwise, there will likely be another attack; then there will be another. One may be devastatingly close to home. And the hardest truth to bear is that there is likely very little we can do to make ourselves feel safer. Sure, we can banish refugees, who already passed an 18-month screening process, but it likely won’t have an impact on our safety, both real and perceived. What meaningful steps we take abroad will help, but they won’t be visible enough to assuage the suffocating sense of helplessness that many feel.

This is why an open and compassionate society requires such immense strength and attention. America is genuinely afraid. Much of the country has discerned a difference between itself and the other. Where the Left says Islam is illiberal, the Right says it is dangerous, so we find ourselves gripped with open hate. Meanwhile many seem to turn a blind eye, acting blithely surprised at this “unexpected turn” in American politics. Truly, America has the capacity to offer relative safety, certainty and freedom in a world that is now severely wanting of the three. But to do so we have to martial courage in the face of this oppressive feeling of fear and impotence, and avoid hatred at its most appealing moment.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.