Faith, Fear, and Freedom: The Dangers of Islamophobia and 5 Ways We Can Fight It

Photo by Nancy Wiechec/Reuters

For a little over a decade, a certain phobia has slowly taken a hold on the West — the fear of anything and everything related to Islam and Muslims. According to a 2015 poll by YouGov, 55% of Americans have a somewhat unfavorable opinion of Islam and Muslims. In November 2015, the FBI found that although the number of hate crimes in the United States are down, anti-Muslim crimes are on the rise. As an American Muslim, these numbers both sadden and scare me. The evidence of Islamophobia is all around us, in presidential debates, news media, entertainment, internet comment sections, and it is now creeping its way into our supermarkets, schools, and workplaces. It has physically, verbally, and psychology effected my community. It threatens my family’s safety and existence in the country that I love. But what’s the solution? What can we do to overcome Islamophobia?

I had the pleasure of hearing Dalia Mogahed at a dinner sponsored by the Muslim Legal Fund of America last night. Mogahed, an American scholar, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington, D.C., and advisor selected by U.S. President Barack Obama on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, helps answer that question. Below are my notes from her keynote combined with my own commentary.

Why is Islamophobia Dangerous?

The most precious freedom we have is the ability to think freely. When we’re fed fear 24 hours a day, we are robbed of that freedom. Fear leads to a complete shift in human behavior and causes us to act in ways that we otherwise would not. Hence, in many ways, fear is a form of mind-control. When public figures, presidential candidates, and the media engage in fear-mongering, they are manipulating our minds by using one of the most powerful human emotions to brainwash us. This threatens more than just the very foundation of our country; it endangers our right to free thinking.

So What Can We Do?

Mogahed suggests 5 things that we can do to fight Islamophobia:

1. Liberate Your Mind


The first step to fighting Islamophobia is to change the way we think about it.

Empowerment, not Victimization

It’s no secret that Muslims are the least favorable community in the world today. Between people like Donald Trump barking their hate speech, armed protestors shouting things like “FUCK ISLAM” in front of mosques, and the rise of hate crime, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of self-pity. However, we aren’t ever going to be able to fight Islamophobia by feeling sorry for ourselves. Instead we have to liberate our minds, change our thinking, in the way that we view ourselves and our community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as victims because although we might be the most visible victims right now, we aren’t the only ones. We are “canaries in a coal mine” — exposed to potentially dangerous conditions for the benefit of the whole. So in reality, we aren’t victims at all. We’re ambassadors on a mission to preserve the justice, democracy, and our country.

Challenging the Assumptions Behind the Questions

Liberating our minds also requires changing the way we hear the questions that we are asked, and to challenge the assumptions behind those questions. Muslims have condemned terrorism more than any other community in the history of the world, yet there are still people out there who ask, “where are the Muslims who speak out against terrorism?” Instead of answering that question, challenge it. Understand the assumptions behind it before you try to answer it.

Mogahed gives a great metaphorical example of the assumptions behind such questions. Think of America as a body that recently discovered that it has a tumor — a new, large mass of something previously unknown (the American Muslim community)- and there is concern whether the tumor is benign or malignant. The people who constantly ask questions like “where are the Muslims who speak out against terrorism?” see our community as a malignant tumor that threatens their safety and security. When we answer these types of questions, we reaffirm the wrong paradigm. Instead, challenge it to change the assumption. The Muslim community is not a tumor at all — it’s a vital organ.

2. Educate Ourselves and Others About the Faith

Muslims have lived in this country for generations prior to the recent rise of Islamophobia. We were able to keep to ourselves and practice our faith quietly, just doing the basics — praying 5 times a day, fasting 30 days of Ramadan, etc. Today, that’s not enough. Bigots like Pamela Gellar have declared themselves experts on Islam, making it their mission to tell Muslims and the rest of the world what we really believe (the majority of which, of course, is false). The spotlight on our community challenges us to learn more about our own faith so that we are able to correct these false presumptions. We have to fully understand the tenants of our own faith before educating others about it.

Build Relationships

According to Mogahed, 80% of the Americans who don’t know enough about Islam are consuming media that is 80% negative about Muslims. The only way to lower these numbers is to build relationships. After all, if you know someone from a certain community, you’re far less likely to be prejudice against them. Continue developing friendships between classmates, neighbors, and colleagues. “Live the faith” and help answer questions about it so that they better understand Islam itself. Empower the people you know so that when they hear someone say something untrue about the religion, they’re not only able to say “I know a Muslim and that isn’t what he/she believes”, but also “I know Islam and that is not what it teaches.”

3. Hold People Accountable

A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of Samantha Elauf, who was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a head scarf. (Reuters)

Unfortunately, the fight against Islamophobia is not all rainbows and butterflies — it also requires being assertive when necessary. The same level of energy that we use to build relationships should be used to hold people accountable when our rights as Americans and human-beings are threatened. There is no contradiction between the two. We can build relationships while still holding people of authority responsible when they abuse their power. We have to fight injustice to the fullest extent on both personal and legal levels.

4. Build Coalitions with Other Communities

American Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour is a champion of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I was so pleased to hear Mogahed address this point because it is one that I am extremely passionate about and something that our community currently struggles with. Muslims are not the only community striving for justice and equality. The same ones attacking us are targeting other marginalized communities, too. Black, Latino, and LGBT communities as well as women are currently fighting similar battles. Although we may feel like these are separate causes, they’re really all the same. It’s the same cancer with tiny differences in its symptoms. The people working in the name of institutionalized bigotry are uniting against us, but we are not united against them to defend ourselves. Build coalitions and fight injustice against all communities, not just your own.

5. Leave a Legacy of Compassion

As Muslims, we are followers of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him). He was wise, knowledgeable, and a great teacher. And yet God doesn’t use those words to describe him. Instead, He calls him a “رحمة”, meaning mercy/compassion, to mankind. The word “رحمة” in Arabic also refers to the womb, which nurtures and gives selflessly and unconditionally, even at the mother’s demise. As followers of a man described as a “Mercy to the Worlds”, we have to ask ourselves how we are manifesting his compassion. We can’t drive out hate with more hate, darkness with more darkness. Don’t go to bigotry with anger in your heart. The best way to overcome Islamophobia is by “increasing your compassion footprint” on individual, family, community, institutional, and global levels. Do it because you love your Prophet, because you love Islam, and because you love your country.

A sincere thank you to Dalia Mogahed the Muslim Legal Fund of America for leading the fight against Islamophobia and empowering our community in this time when we need it most.