November 29, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Like Seeing Your Own Reflection

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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 The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

  • Jash

    [So called Islamophobes] “miss the Islam practiced in the secular states of Indonesia and Turkey.”

    “While Indonesia has long been recognized as a relatively moderate Muslim country, available data point to a far darker picture of religious tolerance than the sunny one Kalla suggests. To take just one example, according to a cross-national study on religious restrictions published by Pew in September 2012, Indonesia was actually one of the world’s most religiously restrictive states. Specifically, Indonesia was one of only five out of the 49 Muslim-majority countries in the world to register “very high” ratings in both metrics used in the study – government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion. The other four countries were Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – hardly good company in this respect.”

    Whatever Turkey’s level of religious tolerance, it occurred after they had almost completely exiled or killed their populations of religious minorities. It’s easy to be tolerant of other religions when you don’t have any left.

    • Arafat


      So true.

      It is amazing to think that Istanbul was once known as Constantinople and after Rome was Christianity’s second most important seat.

      Today Turkey is 99.2% Muslim. That is right, less than 1% of Turkey’s citizens are non-Muslim.

      It turns my stomach when people like Rubin suggest Turkey is a moderate Muslim country.

      • Arafat

        “Although Indonesia, “the world’s largest Muslim country” with an 87% Muslim population, was once considered a moderate Muslim country, day by day it has been leaning more and more towards conservative Islam and Sharia laws. Initiated in 2009, bylaws in the light of Sharia rulings were implemented that conflict with the values of human rights, and are creating a difficult land for minorities to live in.

        Indonesian Aceh province authorities recently launched an initiative, despite opposition from human rights activists, to ban women from straddling motorcycles when riding behind a man. Suaidi Yahia, mayor of Lhokseumawe, the second large city of the province, said to the Associated Press, “It is improper for women to sit astride. We implement Islamic law here.” He later said, “women sitting on motorbikes must not sit astride: it will provoke the male drivers.” Instead, they allow women to sit sidesaddle, which is dangerous on a motorcycle.

        The objectives of the local authorities were apparently to prevent “showing a woman’s curves;” it is against Islamic teachings, Yahia went on to say, unless it is an emergency. In a notice distributed to the government offices and villages of northern Aceh, they added that women are not allowed to hold onto the driver.

        Last year, the mayor of Tasikmalaya in West Java proposed to veil all women, including non-Muslims. Mayor Syarif Hidayat vowed to implement Sharia law, to repay Muslim leaders who backed his election victory. The President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is serving his second term, also relies on the support of Muslim political parties.

        Sharia law is spreading throughout all of the provinces of Indonesia; citizens are enacting their own variations of Islamic laws, and applying then to non-Muslims as well.

        Although Western leaders have praised Indonesia as a model of “Muslim democracy,” as Muslims become more intolerant of its Christian minority, the increased Islamization of Indonesia renders these Christians more vulnerable. A few days ago, six Catholic schools in East Java finally gave in to a local ordinance that requires all Muslim students to be able to read and write Koranic verses, and said it will provide Islamic lessons for their Muslim students…”

  • Please look up opinion polls of Muslims (even in Western countries) on things like stoning women for adultery, executing apostates, etc. I think you will find that your claim about Islam being peaceful will be incompatible with the statistics you find

  • Gene Ralno

    This administration’s penchant for continuously increasing points of division have created an unusually high degree of distrust. And distrust leads to phobia. Consider the number of light skinned people who, unlike ten years ago, now cross the street in lieu of passing near two or more dark skinned people. Consider how many will politely find an excuse for their children not to join school associations with “too many” from the other side, persuasion, color or whatever. In times past, we referred to divisive leaders as rabblerousers but have found a less familiar term and now label them Alinskyites. I’d just say to the Muslims, welcome to the party pal.

  • Abdullah

    “Points of division” are not the creation of “This administration.” Rather, the hateful minority in this country has taken it upon themselves not to accept a “black” president. And the Republican leadership has added fuel to that fire of hatred, for political gains.
    Islam is as peaceful, or as violent, as Christianity or Judaism. All of the major wars and killings in last 500 years have been perpetrated by the Christians. Jews are killing the Palestinians for last 60+ years. Just open the Torah or Bible, and you’ll see abundant numbers of violent verses, just like the Quran.

    • Professor

      Just one typo, it should read: “Muslim Palestinians are killing jews for last 60+ years”. Other than that I totally agree.

      • Abdullah

        Oh, yeah, I forgot that the Palestinians went to that land from Europe, took over the land by hook and crook, blackmailed England with guilt to carve out a country in the land of those native people (’cause they had a 3,000 year old deed from the real estate of G-D) and then terrorized and drove those native people!!!
        Got it? Professor(!)

    • Arafat

      The Muslim Game:

      Bringing other religions down to the level of Islam is a favorite tactic of Muslim apologists confronted with the spectacle of Islamic violence. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? How about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer? Why pick on Islam if other religions have the same problems?

      The Truth:

      Because they don’t.

      Regardless of what his birth certificate may or may not have said, Timothy McVeigh was not a religious man (in fact, he stated explicitly that he was agnostic and that “science” was his religion). At no time did he credit his deeds to religion, quote Bible verses, or claim that he killed for Jesus. His motives are very well documented through interviews and research. God is never mentioned.

      The so-called “members of other faiths” alluded to by Muslims are nearly always just nominal members who have no active involvement. They are neither inspired by, nor do they credit religion as Muslim terrorists do – and this is what makes it a very different matter.

      Islam is associated with Islamic terrorism because that is the association that the terrorists themselves choose to make.

      Muslims who compare crime committed by people who happen to be nominal members of other religions to religious terror committed explicitly in the name of Islam are comparing apples to oranges.

      Yes, some of the abortion clinic bombers were religious, but consider the scope of the problem. There have been six deadly attacks over a 36 year period in the U.S. Eight people died. This is an average of one death every 4.5 years.

      By contrast, Islamic terrorists staged nearly ten thousand deadly attacks in just the six years following September 11th, 2001. If one goes back to 1971, when Muslim armies in Bangladesh began the mass slaughter of Hindus, through the years of Jihad in the Sudan, Kashmir and Algeria, and the present-day Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, the number of innocents killed in the name of Islam probably exceeds five million over this same period.

      Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 innocents in a lone rampage on July 22nd, 2011, was originally misidentified as a “Christian fundamentalist” by the police. In fact, the killings were later determined to be politically motivated. He also left behind a detailed 1500 page manifesto in which he stated that he is not religious, does not know if God exists, and prefers a secular state to a theocracy. Needless to say, he does not quote any Bible verses in support of his killing spree, nor did he shout “praise the Lord” as he picked people off.

      In the last ten years, there have been perhaps a dozen or so religiously-inspired killings by people of all other faiths combined. When such a small handful or loners act in isolation, it can legitimately be chalked up to mental illness or (at best) genuine misunderstanding.

      By contrast, Islamic terror is organized and methodical. Islamist groups span the globe with tens of thousands of dedicated members, despite intensely targeted counter-measures, and supporters numbering in the tens of millions. They are open about their religious goals and they kill in the name of god each and every day of the year. Verses in their holy texts arguably support them. There are none who will even debate them.

      No other religion is doing this. So while some Muslims may pretend that other religions are just as prone to “misinterpretation” as is their “perfect” one, reality says otherwise.

  • Forget Indonesia and Turkey

    I think we can all agree Maher is spewing junk out of his mouth.

    Looking closer – “Maher asks us only to look at the oppressive Muslim cultures of Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are treated as second-class citizens”.

    Let’s stop there. Are women second-class citizens? In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive but they comprise 60% of their college population. Iran’s women also around 60%, both beating the U.S. Is this second-class treatment? Maybe it’s a more complicated picture than what reaches us. Just maybe.

    Saudi Arabia also sends more of its people to get an American education than any other country in the world (per capita) and provides its citizens with tuition-free tuition. Is that really second-class treatment? Of course, their leadership is entirely male, but still, have you seen a picture of Obama and his advisors lately?

    • Travis Cuvelier

      The last time I saw Saudi Arabia in the news, they were going to crucify and then behead (possibly in reverse order) a teenager for participating in a protest. Oh and now they run the UN human rights commission. Freedom and liberty are good things, and we should be proud that we have them. My main problem is that our foreign policy enables such oppression with “our friends in “. We need to start calling things like we see them- and we need to do this in a lot more places than the Middle East.

  • Arafat

    Rubin writes, “We understood Islam to be a violent faith then, and this sentiment has not changed.”

    And then there was this…


    Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria on Islam

    “I am afraid that God has sent these men to lay waste the world”.


    Gregory Palamus of Thessalonica on Islam

    “For these impious people, hated by God and infamous, boast of having got the better of the Romans by their love of God…they live by the bow, the sword and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting themselves to murder, pillage, spoil and not only do they commit these crimes, but even – what an aberration – they believe that God approves of them. This is what I think of them, now that I know precisely about their way of life.”

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