Islam today is one of the most widely misunderstood and feared religions by non-Muslims around the world. This fear is especially prevalent within the United States post 9/11. While fear of fundamentalist Muslims are valid due to their vitriolic rhetoric which includes wishes to implement strict shari’a law within an Islamic state, moderate Muslims and non-Muslims who support them must work within their communities at a highly active level in order to limit and combat the growing trend of Islamophobia. This paper will study the causes of Islamophobia by concentrating first on historical instances, the different interpretations of the Qur’an by radicals and reformers and the rhetoric of fundamentalists in their writings and actions that causes fear and the moderate Muslim responses. There will also be some focus of the role of American media in perpetrating misunderstanding of basic Islamic tenets. In addition we will explore examples of Islamophobia that have occurred post-9/11. We will then proceed to examine the essential steps to combat Islamophobia. This paper will conclude with a study on the importance of education, dialogue and interaction and media influence in ending the fear and misunderstanding that has become a significant part of American culture regarding the Islamic faith.
It is very important to note that at this point that Islamophobia as well as the anti-Western feelings portrayed by fundamentalists are the products of significant events that have caused great pain on all sides. In order to construct a method of combating Islamophobia we must first understand why and how it occurs. Instances of prejudice and violence toward practitioners of the Islamic faith can be traced to the time of Muhammad, beginning shortly after his initial revelations. One of many instances of this is prejudice is illustrated in Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources. Muhammad is praying one night at the Ka’bah and encounters other members of the community who “raised their voices in slanderous calumny against him.” Many other events are also recalled throughout the text. It is human nature, generally speaking, to fear and even revile things we don’t understand or that are new to our worldview. Hundreds of years later, Arabs, Christians and Jews battled over control of the holy land. At the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online edition The Crusades are defined as “expeditions undertaken, in fulfillment of a solemn vow, to deliver the Holy Places from Mohammedan tyranny.” This definition is implicit in suggesting that the Islamic faith is unreasonable and full of terror, enhancing the fear that many feel in regards to their fellow Muslim citizens and illustrated by various news cases around the world.
Cases of current Islamophobia are evident within news stories and a variety of independent Internet sites, including Facebook. A blog entitled “Hurry Up Harry” frequently posts articles and advertises events that are designed to support anti-Muslim sentiment within the United States. A very recent article cites the organization “Stop Islamization of America,” which has repeatedly “denied the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica” by insisting “that Muslims self-killed in order to blame the infidel.” The group is also a prominent voice against the building of a new mosque near the Ground Zero site in New York. I should also note that “Stop Islamization of America” also speaks out very plainly about many of the injustices practiced in the Muslim community toward women, including the practice of honor killing, one of the significant points of contention between Islam and the West. Most of the groups and individuals supporting and writing for these sites consistently capitalize on the fear of the literal interpretation of the Qur’an combined with implementation of strict shari’a law within the United States, in order to spread their philosophy of prejudice.
In 2010 a new version of the Qur’an was released. This “reformist translation” was designed in order to counter the fundamentalist interpretations of the text by offering a “non-sexist, non-sectarian understanding of the divine text…by using logic and the language of the Qur’an as the ultimate authority in determining likely meaning.” By comparing oft quoted suras that radical Islamists use to support implementation of shari’a law the text offers a new and intriguing look at the possible different interpretations, offering an alternative to literal interpretation. For example, Q 4:34 in the Pickthall translation claims “Men are in charge of women…As for those from whom ye fear rebellion admonish them…and scourge them.” In other words this translation could be interpreted strictly as beat a wife who does not obey your commands. Several other translations are comparable to the Pickthall translation. However, the Reformist Qur’an reads “The men are to support the women…As for those women whom you fear disloyalty…abandon them from your bedchamber and separate from them…do not seek a way over them.” From the exploration of older and stricter translations of the holy book one could easily conclude that Islam supports the beating of wives and the mistreatment of women. Fundamentalists, in their rails against the West, often use these literal interpretations of various suras, while at the same time anti-Islamic groups are using them in order to support their philosophies.
These literal and often contradictory interpretations of the Qur’an and hadiths are often seen in the writings and speeches of Islamist activists throughout modern history. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote “We have…no choice but to destroy those systems of government that are corrupt in themselves and also entail the corruption of others.” Other writings by Islamist philosophers condemn the work of teachers, textbooks that are not written from the jihad period or by leaders of their movements, like the Taliban in addition to explicitly stating that the agreements between Saudi Arabia and the United States are unlawful and that it is the “legitimate right” to fight while occupation of the Holy Lands by Israel and the United States occurs.  These are precisely the words that Islamophobics latch onto in order to continue their own prejudicial philosophies. In many ways anti-Muslim groups do not want to face the fact that there are many Muslims who not only do not follow the teachings of Islamists but also seek to find ways to bring their people away from the vitriolic rhetoric of both sides.
How then, with the growing trend of hate toward Muslims due to fundamentalist thought and action, do we begin to change the mindset toward moderate and reformist Muslims? The first essential step is to cultivate a willingness and courage for moderate Muslims to stand up and speak out against what is wrong with the fundamentalist interpretations of their religion. In other words as Irshad Manji continually stresses in her writings and television appearances Muslims must give people a reason to think differently about Islam. The question is how can practitioners of the Islamic faith do this successfully? We are already seeing a great deal of courage and willingness to step up to challenge authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Protestors are risking injury and in many cases their lives in order to demand political reform in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere throughout the region. They must act, in many regards, as role-models for moderate and reformist American Muslims to come together and begin to tell the nation what they truly feel is at the heart of their faith. In many ways this is the same situation faced by Catholics wishing to reform the practices of the faith in the fifteen hundreds but at the same time Muslims face a global audience with fast and far-reaching means of communication. The mind-set of many Muslims must be transformed in order for moderates to be able to reach not only their fellow practitioners but also the world at large. This could easily take place with the essential second step, education.
Truly educational experiences require open minds. Educating the American public, therefore, could be incredibly difficult since there is already such strong public opinion against Islam in the first place. The simple fact is that Americans know very little about Muslims and their faith. The key is reaching out to educational platforms and organizations that are willing to take the leap of faith in working with moderate Islamic organizations to develop a curriculum for varied levels of learning. The Middle East Policy Council, an organization that I was fortunate to intern with following the completion of my undergraduate degree, has designed an Arab Studies curriculum designed for K-12 education in a workshop type of forum. These workshops offer education on topics from stereotypes and realities to history, art, music, gender and current issues, among others. Institutes of higher learning must also increase the number of events and convocations on issues of Islam with an open door policy to welcome the public into the realm of expanding their horizons. All of these activities, however, must take place under the guidance of respected, moderate Islamic groups, including mosques. These activities and experiences open the door for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.
There is always a chance for debate and dialogue to snowball into rhetoric and shouting matches between followers of the faith and non-followers but it is essential that all members of the community participating attempt to listen and accept critique. It is also important to recognize that many minds will never change regardless of the amount of evidence introduced and discussions taking place. Without the dialogue no monolithic organization or belief can change. Dialogue between groups must then lead to increased organized interaction and community action. There is a persistent thought in the American psyche that Muslims, writ large, hate America because we are free and democratic. Political activists of all faiths must come together in order to participate in the democratic process of the United States in order to challenge this belief. One of the key political issues that must be addressed is unfettered U.S. support of Israel, which causes great pain for many who follow the Islamic faith. We need to view Islam and it’s followers as allies and partners rather than political enemies. The populous of the United States must acknowledge our own faults that have contributed to much of the disdain of the West. Muslims must also dialogue with members of their own faith in order to counteract the hatred. A way to do this is to create political working groups that are active at the local and national levels. These groups must be designed to continually educate the public and politicians on serious issues that effect relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Finally, the media and social networking sites can have a great impact on helping to fight Islamophobia. Modern media is known for looking for and publicizing the stories that sell, i.e. violence, sex, drugs, etc. It is time that media outlooks share news of Muslims that are doing more good then they are harm. News outlets must seek out stories of good will, charity and faith that is prevalent within the Islamic community instead of promoting the violent stereotypes that promote American fear of Islam. Yes, the news must also tell the stories of violence as they can act as a potential motivation for Muslims to counteract the terror that those who claim to follow the faith enact on the world. Social networking groups can come together to enhance the potential for positive education, dialogue and interaction by promoting activities and discussion designed to combat Islamophobia and educate the public. We have seen the effect of social networking on reform movements in the Middle East during the past few months. Facebook is a powerful tool for change on many levels.
These changes must occur quickly and they must occur soon. Islamophobia will continue to spread at an exponential rate if moderate Muslims and their counterparts of other faiths and political persuasions do not immediately stand up to counteract the philosophies of fear. Groups must come together to discuss and invalidate the negative practices and ideologies of Islamist groups perpetrated by literal translations of the Qur’an and other texts. At the same time anti-Muslim groups must be reached out to in order to educate them on the realities, both good and bad of Islamic practices and the changes that moderates are attempting to make. Through the use of education, dialogue and interaction groups and individuals hoping to change the prejudicial practices of both sides can come together and act, politically and socially to create the necessary changes that will effectively combat Islamophobia.
Barnett, Adam, Hurry up Harry, “Blame Pamela,” http://hurryupharry.org/ 13 Jun 2011.
Euban, Roxanne and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2009, pg. 168, pg 410-454.
Lings, Martin, Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2006.
Manji, Irshad, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003. Kindle Edition, Location 51/3344.
New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia – Online Edition, “Crusades,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04543c.htm. Accessed 11 Jun, 2011.
Stop Islamization of America, http://sioaonline.com/ Accessed 11 Jun 2011.
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Yuksel, Edip, al-Shaiban, Layth and Martha Schulte-Nafeh, Qur’an: A Reformist Translation,” Brain Brow Press, Hundred Fourteen Books, USA, 2010.
 Lings, Martin, Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2006, pg. 60.
 Yuksel, Edip, al-Shaiban, Layth and Martha Schulte-Nafeh, Qur’an: A Reformist Translation,” Brain Brow Press, Hundred Fourteen Books, USA, 2010. pg. 6.
 Yuksel, Edip, al-Shaiban, Layth and Martha Schulte-Nafeh, Qur’an: A Reformist Translation,” Brain Brow Press, Hundred Fourteen Books, USA, 2010. pg. 21.
 Euban, Roxanne and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2009, pg. 168, pg 410-454.
 Manji, Irshad, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003. Kindle Edition, Location 51/3344.