Perhaps now more than ever, society is debating about Muslims and the Islamic faith. The Republican Party frontrunner in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, is calling for forced registration of all Muslim citizens and a ban on all future immigration by Muslims. On the other hand, some Americans, mostly on the Left, have insisted that any criticism of Islam or Islamic religious culture is wrong, offensive, or even racist. While the debate has been ramped up, it is hardly a new one. I have a proposal that I believe would go a long way to addressing the debate, but first I want to make a related point. There is no such thing as an Islamic race. No one race is entirely Muslim, and there are Muslims of all races. Also important is the fact that, for the purposes of the U.S. Census, Americans of Arabic descent are considered Caucasian. Therefore there is no reason for criticism or even disdain and mockery of Islam to be automatically labeled racist anymore than mocking Christianity is racist against WASPs. (It isn’t.) This is not saying that forwarding around videos of Muslims being tricked into eating pork, making blanket disparaging remarks about Muslims, requiring Muslims to register with the government, or banning Muslim immigration is at all acceptable. It is blatantly unacceptable and discriminatory. But it is not, in and of itself, racist. (Certainly, however, many Islamophobes, including Donald Trump, are also racists.)
Trump’s recent statements showcases the fact that Islamophobia is a real thing. Too often, people have used atrocities committed by Muslim individuals and groups to justify denigrating treatment of all Muslims. There are bigoted, even evil people in all religions–as the considerable number of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic Christians in this country demonstrates. Just twelve years ago, a number of states in the U.S. banned homosexuality, a policy endorsed by plenty of conservative Christians, including multi-time presidential hopefuls, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. More shockingly, there have been twenty-first century American Christians who have written books defending/condoning slavery on Christian principles, including Antebellum Slavery: An Orthodox Christian View by Gary Lee Roper. But of course, it would be wrong to use these facts to make assumptions about the large number of Christians who strongly condemn bigotry. Similarly, there are Muslims who support separation of church and state, religious tolerance, civil liberties, and equal rights for all people regardless of faith, race, gender, or sexual orientation and are appalled by acts of terrorism by fundamentalists. For example, back in June, The Daily Beast ran an excellent article on American Muslims who support marriage equality. And a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute earlier this year suggested that although a majority American Muslims do not support same-sex marriage, they are far more likely to be supportive than Mormons or evangelical Protestants. It is absolutely appalling to suggest that all Muslims should be stripped of freedoms because of what some Muslims do or think.
Now for an equally important point. There is compelling evidence clashing with claims that only a tiny minority of Muslims support intolerance. In a study published in 2009, sixty-one percent of British Muslims polled stated that they supported laws against homosexuality. Equally disturbingly, the poll did not suggest more gay friendly attitudes among Muslims from younger generations. While “only” fifty percent of British Muslims age fifty-five and over stated their support for banning homosexuality, a staggering seventy-one percent of Muslims age sixteen to twenty-four favored a ban. There is not a single Middle Eastern country where same-sex marriage is legal, but there are many that ban homosexuality. According to a Pew Research Center poll, the majority of Muslims in a slew of countries support sharia law being legally enshrined. Among Muslims who support sharia being the law of the land, majorities in at least six countries state that leaving Islam should be punishable by death. No traditional branch of Islam allows women to lead mixed-gender congregations in prayer. According to traditional doctrine, men may have four wives, while women are forbidden from taking multiple husbands. In an interview that has received a great deal of notoriety, Islamic scholar Reza Aslan rightfully pointed out that Saudia Arabia’s human rights atrocities have often been downplayed but cited Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey as paragons of women’s rights. Ex-Muslims Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider wrote a rebuttal, pointing out that, “Indonesia has increasingly become more conservative. (Notoriously anti-women) Sharia courts that were ‘optional’ have risen to equal status with regular courts in family matters. The conservative Aceh province even legislates criminal matters via Sharia courts, which has been said to violate fundamental human rights.
Malaysia has a dual-system of law which mandates sharia law for Muslims. These allow men to have multiple wives (polygyny) and discriminate against women in inheritance (as mandated by Islamic scripture). It also prohibits wives from disobeying the ‘lawful orders’ of their husbands.
Bangladesh, which according to feminist Tahmima Anam made real advancements towards equality in its inception, also ‘created a barrier to women’s advancement.’ This barrier? An article in the otherwise progressive constitution which states that ‘women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and of the public life’ but in the realm of private affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody), ‘it acknowledges Islam as the state religion and effectively enshrines the application of Islamic law in family affairs. The Constitution thus does nothing to enforce equality in private life.'” It is worth noting that Turkey was ranked at number 125 by the Global Gender Equality Index. Iceland it is not.
Syed and Haider also took aim at Aslan’s assertion that female genital mutilation is solely a problem of Central Africa and has nothing to do with Islam, pointing out that, “The idea that FGM is concentrated solely in Africa is a huge misconception and bandied about by apologists with citations of an Africa-focused UNICEF report which showed high rates of FGM in African countries. Apologists have taken that to mean that it is *only* Africa that has an FGM problem — even though FGM rates have not been studied in most of the Middle East or South and East Asia. Is it an academically sound practice to take a lack of study as proof of the non-existence of the practice? Especially when there is record of FGM common in Asian countries like Indonesia (study) and Malaysia? It is also present in the Bohra Muslim community in India and Pakistan, as well as in the Kurdish community in Iraq .. Of the four major schools of thought in Sunni Islam, two mandate FGM while two merely recommend it. Unsurprisingly, in the Muslim-majority countries dominated by the schools which mandate the practice, there is evidence of widespread female circumcision. Of particular note: None of the major schools condemn the practice.”
I would also be remiss if I did not critique the recurring depiction of Islamic culture as colorblind. There is a long, ugly history of enslavement of black people in the Middle East, as in the United States. David Brion Davis, one of the preeminent historians of slavery, lamented in 1990 that, “Ironically, the very “orientalism” that enabled nineteenth-century Europeans to project their own fears and longings upon an unchanging, exotic, and antipodal ‘East’ also led many anti-Western Westerners to romanticize or defend black slavery in the Islamic world.” According to Davis, the Ottoman Empire fought its own over war over slavery in the 1850s. While the proslavery forces were defeated, “the Turkish government granted a major concession to the slave traders who had long made the Red Sea and the Hijaz a central route for transporting African slaves to the Middle East … the sultan’s government exempted the Hijaz from its 1857 decree outlawing the trade in black slaves throughout the rest of the Ottoman Empire.” While it is true that slavery in the Middle East was not racialized to the extent that it was in the United States, scholar Bernard Lewis has described the ways in which enslavement of blacks in the Middle East was blended with anti-black racism. And news outlets from the right-wing FrontPage Magazine to the Atlanta Black Star have run articles on anti-black racism in the Arabic world.
So what is the obvious solution to this issue? The solution lies in judging all people as individuals without regard to their religion. We should not expend energy defending Islam or Islamic culture but rather insisting on equal treatment for Muslims. We should not make assumptions about people based on their religion, and we should discourage others from doing so. We must combat discrimination, persecution, and violence done in the name of Islam while also praising good things done by Muslims. And we must acknowledge the reality of Islamophobia in America without conflating it with racism or bandying the term about to shut down criticisms of Islam or Islamic culture. Islamophobia should be understand not as disparaging Islam but rather as making blanket attacks on Muslim people. And finally, “cultural relativism” should never be used to defend bigotry or other bad behavior and attitudes by certain Muslims. It is discriminatory and wrong for the Catholic Church to refuse to ordain women, and it is equally discriminatory and wrong for mosques to refuse to allow women to lead mixed-gender congregations. Similarly, there is no defense for the idea that a woman is obligated to wear any kind of head covering because of her gender. In short, Muslims should not be singled out for special treatment–positive or negative.