The current U.S. presidential election has placed Islam and Muslims on the center stage of a nasty campaign politics. Fear politics and interpersonal political rancor have ultimately secured Donald Trump the GOP nomination.
Though for the past decade and a half Islam and Muslims were facing vicious campaign of relentless demonization by the right-wing alliance and its media affiliates, never before has Islamophobia become so ever-present in the public square. And unless there is a collective and sustained push-back against it, the current trend could allow a tiny population of bigots to establish Islamophobia as the new normal.
This year, Eid al-Adha, the holiday commemorating Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son as believed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims coincides with the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I have confidence in the American spirit and people’s capacity to cope with any contrasting emotions, but I cannot say the same about the predatory political exploiters. Some of them, if not all, will try to twist this sensitive timing to aggravate the emotional wounds of many, including those who lost loved ones, for political expedience.
Islamophobia has been on the rise in many parts of the world, and in the United States. Aside from numerous incidents of harassment, physical assaults and mosque vandalisms, on a bright afternoon, two New York City Imams were approached from behind by a suspect who shot them, execution style, in the back of the head. “This was a most horrendous and despicable act that can only be described as a cold-blooded, premeditated assassination,” said Assistant District Attorney Peter McCormack.
The impetus driving these polarizing attitudes is two-pronged: Muslim violent extremists who commit atrocities in various countries and office-seekers such as the Republican Nominee, Donald Trump, who keep projecting apocalyptic scenarios and pander to those who had disillusionment predisposition toward the Obama presidency, those who are frustrated by the domestic impact of globalization, and those who are the uninformed excitables within the society.
As a foreign policy critic, a khateeb (one who delivers Islamic sermons), an activist whose political views are spread across the public domain, I cannot think of any other country where I would be able to find a safe space to speak my mind without the threat of having to pay a hefty price for that. However, I must confess that there are many Islamic governments that would’ve thrown me in a dungeon or had me, in one way or another, silenced. That is the sad reality. Not because Islam endorses such repression, but because in those countries, governments or rulers lack the support of their public therefore have zero tolerance for any form of criticism.
How we see each other depend on the lenses through which we see one another. These lenses help us concoct false narratives about each other to create false dichotomies. These narratives help concoct hateful divisions and distrust between East and West, Muslims and people of other faiths that are sustained by relentless fear and smear. Against this backdrop hate is weaponized.
On both sides one could find political opportunists who only pander to the baser and excitable elements of both societies, whipping up people into a frenzy of hate, rage and violence. And it is not difficult when there are layers upon layers of disinformation and misconception.
As I wrote in the tenth anniversary of 9/11 “dialogue cultivates an environment where the common good is evaluated and negotiated; and trust is built and sustained.” I was recently honored with a back-to-back invitation by St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church to present on Islam and engage some of the membership on faith. In order to make the dialogue more substantive, we agreed to not tiptoe around and openly ask questions. So we talked about Shariarh, Jihad, where Christianity and Islam intersect and how human-beings have resorted to reducing God of all creation into a tribal god of their liking.
Our local mosque routinely hosts Meet A Muslim events that attract community members, faith leaders and officials who are interested to know about Islam from practicing Muslims. Unfortunately, some on both sides of the fence are under the impression that these kinds of fellowship are nothing other than a conspiracy intended to dilute and ultimately declare One World Religion under the leadership of Pope Francis. We must ignore these paranoiac elements from the fringes and continue chipping off the wall of suspicion.
These are extraordinary times that demand extraordinary approaches. We cannot afford to be blindfolded by our own biases. We all have much to lose. Life leads us to various intersections; how we get through them ultimately depends on our attitudes and our willingness to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.
Granted, both moral reasoning and political sanity are in short supply in these days, but these shortcomings should never defeat our spirit, morale, and our sense of optimism. Instead, they should motivate us to reach out to others, mend fences with others, and set good examples for next generations to build on.
Our minds have been overloaded with negativities; however, we as human-beings are still capable of coping, especially when we cooperate to overcome mutual threats or enemies. So, as Mahatma Gandhi prudently observed in an era less threatening than our current one: “The future depends on what you (and I) do today.”
Donald Trump may continue to whip up the emotions of his loyal political base into existential paranoia, however, we—those of us who are determined to swim against the tides of violent extremism and schism—should never get weary of detoxifying history by diligently scrutinizing hate narratives. We should tirelessly keep attempting to galvanize the best in our human spirit and inspire our capacity to empathize. For nothing affirms our humanity more than our capacity to empathize. And, as in love, empathy reaches optimal effectiveness when it is a two-way street.