In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama made mention of American values that stand as “pillar[s] of our leadership,” one of which was the respect for human dignity.
“It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims,” he stated, “The vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace.”
But despite the presidential rhetoric calling for tolerance, the American public has done the opposite: attitudes toward Islam have worsened in the wake of 9/11 and have continued to do so in recent years. Last year’s study by the Pew Research Center on how Americans perceive religious groups found that public perception towards Muslims was the most negative among the groups covered. Similarly, a recent poll conducted by the Arab American Institute (AAI) found Arab-Americans and American-Muslims had the “lowest favorable” ratings, with only 27 percent of Americans having a “favorable” view of Arabs and Muslims. Furthermore, 42 percent supported racial profiling against Arabs by law enforcement. It should be noted that the ambiguous language of their survey should be read with a critical eye. What does it mean to be “favorable” towards a minority group, and in what context? However, the numbers nonetheless revealed the innate prejudice against American Muslims and its social repercussions.
The attack on 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and more recently, the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris have created an atmosphere of unease regarding Islam and its doctrines. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, whose perpetrators were reportedly tied to radical Islam, anti-Muslim fervor abounded online and even led to acts of physical violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported multiple incidents of verbal assaults against Muslims on the streets in Massachusetts, while various political figures voiced their passionate opposition to the religion of Islam.
“The initial response [to the bombing] was just shock,” says Abdurrahman Abdurrob, president of Muslim Student Association at Tufts University. He recalls his immediate fear for the safety of his friends at the marathon, then his ensuing anxiety over what implications the attack would have on him and his fellow Muslims.
“It didn’t hit me for a couple of days after, I guess, the fallout that would happen. Because, for me as a Muslim, when another Muslim commits an act like this, I don’t associate it with my faith. It’s the complete antithesis of what our faith is.”
Anti-Muslim sentiments can, in part, be attributed to the mainstream media’s perpetuation of a reductive binary of the Muslim identity. Perhaps the greatest lapse of judgment by news outlets during the coverage of the bombing was prematurely labeling a missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as a possible suspect on the grounds of speculations that originated on Reddit. This shrouded a completely separate tragedy and its victim in false accusations and incriminating language. The immediacy with which the Internet and news outlets accepted the assumption that Arab-Americans were at fault demonstrates their inclination to promote an easy-to-digest explanation of a far more complicated history of conflict.
Words typically associated with Muslims in popular news sources are “militant,” “fanatic,” and “violent”—words that paint a grim, sensationalized picture of an entire religion and its believers. Such labels eliminate the historical and geopolitical context that plays a greater role in engendering acts of terrorism, and frame the isolated attacks under a misconstrued delineation of a broader ideology. Some news outlets like Fox News extrapolate what they deem to be the barbaric, fundamental principles of Islam from the actions of the extremists. This allows them to capitalize on outlandish and sometimes fabricated portrayals of Muslims to construct a polarized narrative of “us-against-them.”
Of course, there has been pushback by both progressives and conservatives alike to reject the efforts of anti-Muslim propagandists. The Center for American Progress’s “Fear Inc. 2.0,” a 2015 report investigating the false claims made by Islamophobic pundits and newscasters, reported that the general public largely rejects such biased views. Indeed, the majority of the American public seems to be averse to outright prejudice. However, the report states that the rise of radical groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as individual attacks made on Western soil in the name of Islam, “[offer] the Islamophobia network a new opportunity to leverage unrelated geopolitical events in order to create a caricature of Islam, foment public anxiety, and push discriminatory policies against American Muslims.” Based on the statistics from Pew Research and AAI, fanatic voices—rooted in misinformation and acting under the guise of patriotism—have largely been able to shape the public discourse of Islam and help solidify detrimental viewpoints.
“The problem here is the way the media spins a story,” says Abdurrob. “Regardless of which outlet it is, the news is never going to be unbiased, and you’re never going to just get the facts. There’s no point for them to run a story that’s not going attract people.”
But in spite of the forms of denouncement that Fox News and the like have adopted, there still exists a need to examine the underlying reasoning for anti-Muslim sentiments. Notable author Sam Harris has repeatedly condemned Islam as “especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse.” He vehemently argues on his blog that Islam compels its believers to fully commit to the use of violence, calling for “a simple acknowledgement that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas-–jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder[.]” Eradicating infidels, he states, is the central message of the Qu’ran, and classifying the actions of Muslim extremists as independent from the scripture is misleading.
Abdurrob, however, disagrees.
“Islam roots itself in the word for ‘peace,’ and it means to peacefully submit to God,” he says. “Jihad isn’t going out and killing anyone who isn’t Muslim, but the more common form is your own personal struggle with your faith. For instance, trying to wake up and pray at 5 AM everyday—that’s a personal jihad for me. And that’s where words that media twist can really blow out of proportion.”
Fundamentally, the debate revolves around the question of whether Islam is, in fact, violent by nature. A sensible debate can only take place if both parties are willing to grapple with facts that examine the entire picture. Unfortunately, mainstream media has failed to act as a platform for substantive discussions and instead, has submitted to surface-level analyses and sweeping accusations.
The crux of the dilemma, then, seems to be unfamiliarity with the religion and history. “Muslim” as an identity has become distorted to the point where reality is conflated with satire.
Extremism—meaning both the violent attacks carried out by certain members of Islam and the fanatical assertions broadcasted across the US—has trapped American-Muslims in the middle, stripped of agency to truthfully represent their own identities. This lack of power to define and self-represent is difficult to address, especially as the emotional toll of extremist attacks overshadows the bias it inevitably creates. But grief and outrage should not have so much clout to bind the public’s ability to reason and challenge the representations on the news.
“I think if you really want to learn about Islam, [the resources are] there for you,” says Abdurrob. “But if you’re not looking to go farther than what the media portrays…you’re only going to find what you’re looking for.”