Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to Overcome Islamophobia

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this morning about Islamophobia and what we can do to overcome it. I am grateful to Kate Carpenter for enabling me to speak today rather than in a few weeks from now because there is the possibility that we could see a particular ugly outbreak of Islamophobia on September 11.

As some of you may have heard, a pastor named Terry Jones in Gainesville, FL, has been calling for the burning of the Qurans on September 11. His church has a sign on its front lawn saying “Islam is of the devil,” which happens to be the title of a book he has written. His church also has a sign condemning the mayor of Gainesville for being gay. Jones is an equal opportunity hater: gays and Muslims are equally abominable in Jones’ eyes.

Almost every sane person agrees that burning Qurans is a “terrible idea” and “could cause trouble or even death when broadcast on Muslim television,” as Chris Mathews put it when he interviewed Jones on Hardball. The National Association of Evangelicals has condemned the idea of Quran burning. Even the fire department of Gainesville has challenged Jones. But Jones is insistent on doing what he feels is the Lord’s work. And other bigots may follow his example. Thanks to the internet and Facebook, this idea has gone viral and thousands have spewed out their hatred of Islam in response of Jones’ call. We might even see some Qurans burned here in Southern California.

Another cause of concern is the unfortunate coincidence that September 11th falls on one of Islam’s most important holidays, Eid Al-Fitr—the final day of Ramadan. The reason that Eid Al Fitr is falling on 9/11 is because Muslims use a lunar calendar and the month of Ramadan cycles forward 11 days each year. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine Islamophobes and the right-wing media using pictures of Muslims celebrating to bolster their case that Muslims supported the 9/11 attacks, or at least are insensitive to the feelings of Americans who lost their loved ones. Some Muslims I know are choosing not to celebrate Eid on 9/11, but it’s a little like asking Jews to change the date of Yom Kippur or Christians to change the date of Easter for political reasons.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this summer we have seen an outbreak not only of Islamophobia, but also of xenophobia. When I began my trip across country in June, the big issue was the draconian laws against undocumented workers that were passed in Arizona. Anti-immigrant feelings were being stirred up all over the country by politicians bent on re-election. It is clear that the outbreak of Islamophobia in August was fomented by politicians concerned more about the upcoming election than the best interests of the USA. The controversy over the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan has been a useful recruiting tool for radical Muslim extremists. The hatred that has been unleashed on the internet has angered and inflamed anti-America feelings throughout the world and made it difficult to “win Muslim hearts and minds” (our official US policy) and to bring about a peaceful resolution of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan Those who fuel this hatred have done a grave disservice to the USA, as well as to their own souls.

Will Sept 11 be a scary or hopeful occasion?

I’ve talked about the scary scenarios for 9/11. What about the hopeful signs?

I find it a hopeful sign that Sherrel Charley of Whittier California has called for non-Muslim women to wear an head scarf (hijab) on Sept 11 as a way to express solidarity and support for Muslims. Her facebook page has garnered thousands of positive responses from Muslims around the world. I hope that non-Muslim women will wear a head scarf on 9/11. There is much misunderstanding about the headscarf, which is seen by some as a symbol of sexist oppression, and by others as a sign of religious identity. When women have a free choice about whether to wear a head scarf, as they do here in the US, it can be a powerful expression of one’s religious identity and one’s conscience. This is certainly the case with the young Muslim woman who has sued Disney for the right to wear a headscarf while serving customers in a Disney-owned restaurant. This woman was honored by the Islamic Shura Council of S. California not for wearing a head scarf, but for standing up for what she believed is right.

Therefore, I see it as a hopeful sign that non-Muslim women are saying: “We stand with our Muslim sisters (and brothers).”

Another hopeful sign is that there will be some special worship services during this period. On Sunday, Sept 12, I am giving a talk at the Unity Church in Pomona as part of something called the 11 Days of Global Unity. At 5:00 PM there will also be an Interfaith Peace Walk in Pomona beginning at a local synagogue and ending at a church, with participation from Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Santa Monica Friends Meeting has scheduled a special worship service on Sept. 11 at 7:00 PM-9:00. Please invite Friends and neighbors to attend. See

A third hopeful sign is that some of us are offering to be available to go to mosques as “rapid response teams” in case there is an incident such as a Quran burning or an anti-Muslim demonstration. I hope that Friends will contact their local mosque to let them know that they have supporters willing to stand in solidarity with them in case there is any incident.

Finally, it is hopeful that people of all faiths have been signing petitions and expressing their support for the proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, and for proposed mosques in other parts of the USA, that are being targeted by Islamophobes. A small group of Temecula residents have opposed the building of a mosque in their city, but the Temecula Interfaith Council has stood in solidarity with the Muslim community and they have received many expressions of support. I personally circulated a letter on their behalf among Santa Monica Friends and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. The imam of Temecula sent back an appreciative letter for our support.

I believe that the vast majority of Americans are tolerant, and only become worked up when their fears are preyed upon by unscrupulous politicans and the media. But in order for sanity to prevail over bigotry, we must do our bit.

Overcoming Islamophobia, like overcoming any form of bigotry or racism, will take a long, long time, and lots of patience. Fear of lslam dates back to its rise as a perceived threat to Christianity in the 7th century. But the rise of Islmophobia in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon and goes back only to the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that the rise of Islamophobia is related to the fall of communism. With the elimination of the Soviet Union as an existential threat, America experienced an enemy-deficit and needed "evil doers" to justify its massive military and its paranoid world view. Many in the holiness movement needed an evil force to replace “godless communism” as its anti-Christ. Given what Douglas Hofstadter called “the paranoid style of American politics,” it is not surprising that Muslims became the target of fear in the 1990s. Islamophobia has become an extremely useful tool for politicians and preachers who want to prey on people’s fears in order to enhance their own power and careers.

What can we do to help Americans to become less fearful and to stop demonizing Muslims? How can we help Americans to have a realistic understanding of what Islam is all about?
Here are some suggestions:

1) Listen to the voices of moderate Muslims, and urge others to do likewise. If anyone says, “Muslims don’t condemn terrorism,” advise them to go the website or subscribe to the listserv for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) or the Muslim Public Affairs Councils (MPAC). These and every other Islamic organization in the USA condemn terrorism in general, and usually issue specific terrorist acts within hours of their occurrence.

2) Get to know your Muslim colleagues and neighbors. Invite them to dinner or coffee. Make friends. People who are Islamophobic get most of their info about Muslims from the internet or TV, usually from biased sources. When you can share positive stories about your relations with Muslims, it helps dispel fear and stereotypes.

3) Educate yourself about Islam by reading Muslim authors like Reza Aslan (There is no god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War) or Akbar Ahmed (Islam Today and Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam).

4) Be aware of the “talking points” of Islamophobes and have a response for them. (See below for some of these)

5) Show respect for Muslims by reading the Qur’an, fasting during Ramadan, or wearing a head scarf (hijab) or showing other sign of solidarity with Muslims.

6) Write a letter to the editor, or to en elected officials, expressing your support for religious pluralism.

7) Visit a mosque during “Open Mosque Day.”

8) Organize an “interfaith café” and invite people of different faith traditions to attend.

Some talking points:

Do Muslims worship a different God from Jews and Muslims, a “moon god” named Allah? Anyone who has read the Qur’an or talked with Muslims knows this is nonsense and that the word “Allah” simply means “God” or “The God” and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews to refer to the same God who was worshipped by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad. Do Jews, Muslims, and Christians all have the same understanding of God? Of course not! There is even vast differences of opinion about God among Christians and Jews: Martin Luther King’s understanding of God is very different from Jerry Falwell’s, and Abraham Heschel’s understanding of God is different from Dennis Preger’s. By the way, just because Muslims use a crescent moon symbol doesn’t mean that Allah is a moon god. Are Christians pagan because we have a Christmas tree (an ancient druid ritual) and celebrate Easter (the name of a fertility goddess)?

Does the Quran calls for the killing of all infidels? There is a passage in the Quran calling for killing infidels, but only in self-defense and only when they attack Muslims first. Furthermore, Muslims are obligated to honor treaties. The prophet Mohammad is reported to have said in Hadith 145: “He who kills a Jew or a Christian with whom a treaty or agreement has been made will not sense even the smell of Paradise.” The Quran allows for self-defensive war, but not for holy war to spread religion. The Quran says: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” It also calls for religious toleration towards Jews and Christians who are peaceable. Granted, today there is much intolerance of other faiths in Muslim countries, but our government supports these countries with aid and arms. Much of Islam’s intolerance is the legacy of colonialism and occupation by Western powers. Most Muslims believe Islam is a religion of peace, and the word Islam is related to the word “Salaam,” meaning peace.

Does the Quran justify suicide bombing and terrorism? The Quran makes very strict rules about war (do not kill civilians, destroy houses of worship, uproot treest) and suicide is condemned by Mohammad, who is reported to have said in Hadith 149: “He who kills himself….will be an eternal denizen of Hell….” In March 2010 a conference of Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco, Indonesia and other countries met in Mardin, Turkey, and issued a fatwa (consensus of scholars) repudiating a reading of the Quran that has been used by violent extremists like Osama bin Laden to justify their personal calls for jihad. That same month in London a leading Pakistani scholar issued a 600-page fatwa against terrorism. Here in the USA, virtually every reputable scholar and leader condemns suicide bombing and terrorism.

Just as we shouldn’t judge all Christians by the behavior of the Ku Klux Klan, or right-wing Christians calling for a holy crusade against Islam, we shouldn’t judge all Muslims by the extremist elements.

See also


  1. Thanks, Anthony--that was much needed. As per your suggestion, I intend to wear a headscarf on Sep. 11 (weather permitting) to show solidarity.

    (I believe there is a phrase missing from your paragraph beginning "Listen to the voices . . . ." The context suggests that where it says "usually issue terrorist acts" you intended to say something like "usually issue condemnations of terrorists acts".)

    I would urge that we go a step further and open-mindedly examine the writings of prophets such as David Ray Griffin who question the official story that Muslim terrorists are even the principal architects of 9/11. David, whom I have known personally for over twenty years as a very careful and disciplined scholar, has examined mountains of credible evidence undermining the official 19-terrorists conspiracy story. Among his findings are a number of reports showing that some Muslims allegedly involved in the 9/11 event were not at all devout Muslims, particularly the supposed ringleader Muhammad Atta, who was well-known in Venice, Florida as a heavy drinker and frequenter of prostitutes (even two days before 9/11), who lived with a stripper named Amanda Keller for several months in 2001, and was also reported to take cocaine. Observant Muslims--let alone those willing to die for their faith--do not drink alcohol or engage in sex outside of marriage. Something here not add up.

    Truth matters. We must not be deterred by public pressure, ridicule, or fear of anomie from seeking truth.

  2. I commend you for being willing to wear the headscarf on 9/11. It could prove an educational experience since sometimes people react strangely when they see a woman wearing hijab. I respect David Griffith very much and agree that there are many unanswered questions about 9/11. What is clear, however, is that those who committed the act were not "good Muslims." Nor were they acting in ways sanctioned by the Muslim faith and practice, as a recent conference of Muslim scholars made clear. I look forward to riding up with you to the QUIT conference when we can talk further.


  3. Hi, Anthony,

    A couple of thoughts...

    One is that Sherrel Charley is not the only person, or the only Friend, to call for reviving scarf solidarity in response to the current wave of violence and hatred against American Muslims. Scarf solidarity is something many Quaker and non-Quaker women participated in over the fall of 2001. I mentioned this recently on my own blog. A number of us have been trying to do this throughout September, not just aiming to do it on the 10th for Eid al Fitr or the 11th.

    (Gracia, I'm curious -- by "weather permitting," do you mean if it's not too hot?)

    As someone who's studied the avoidance of the development of violence in political movements -- ie, how political movements can avoid becoming terrorist movements -- I agree that Qu'ran-burning is a bad idea. However, I feel compelled to point out that Qu'ran-burning is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, as is Bible-burning, no matter how repugnant or potentially dangerous any of us find either action. Or as much as it galls me to point that out.

    Your answer to the question about whether or not Muslims worship a different god saddens me. The underlying assumption is that we all must worship the same god in order to get along, in order not to be afraid of each other, or in order to worship together. And that's not my experience. I participate in and experience spiritual communion in Meeting for Worship every First Day with people whose experience of the Divine is very, very different from mine.

    That's not just a "difference in understanding" of God: sometimes it's an experience of a different God, or of a different facet or face of the Divine.

    While within Abrahamic theologies there is One God and only One God, that's not true in other theaologies. And Jesus is not the same Deity as the Goddess; the Goddess is not the same Deity as Yhwh; Yhwh is not the same Deity as the Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit that bring them all together. Jesus, the Goddess, Yhwh, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit all may be part of some Something larger, but they are most certainly not all the same god.

    And in my experience, Friends don't need to convince ourselves we all experience the Spirit in pretty much the same way in order to worship together, be in spiritual communion together, or not be afraid of each other -- or of other people, including Muslims.

    So it makes me sad when Americans use the "we're all Abrahamic" argument as a reason why we shouldn't be afraid of our Muslim sisters and brothers. What does that say about our non-Abrahamic sisters and brothers? Are they beyond the pale? Even when they sit next to us in Meeting for Worship?

  4. I am sorry if my writing seemed to exclude Pagans and Wiccans and the indigenous peoples who honor our mother the earth and the Divine Mother. I honor and respect all faiths that preach and practice compassion and love, and are working for human betterment and for earth care.

    I also honor the diversity of religious paths that are grounded in Love and what I see as the Universal Imperative: Treat others as you wish to be treated.

    I oppose religious people who promote hatred and war and division since I feel they are misguided and misguide others.

    People may have a right to descrate holy books and objects, but we have a right to condemn such action. Indeed, it would be wrong not to condemn acts that could lead to violence, such as it would be wrong to do or say nothing if somone threatened to shout "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

    I am glad that the Religious Society of Friends welcomes witches as well as others who have been persecuted by Christians.

    May we all honor the sacred in each other according to whatever Light has been given to us!

    Your Friend,


  5. Stasa, in answer to your question about "weather permitting," yes, "if it's not too hot" was what I meant. In my little town, something of an outpost of the 1960s counter-culture where it seems that every other persons engages in meditation, wearing the headscarf would not be a particularly strong statement; it might not even be noticed. Happily, the weather promises to be moderate.

    Anthony, like you I honor all faiths that stress compassion and respect for others. I reverence the Light also in individuals whose religion affirms hatred and/or violence toward other humans, other animals, and the Earth, and will try to speak to their hearts where the Light is hidden. But I cannot respect the positions from which they operate (a sensitive issue particularly in regard to views about animals). It's an important difference.

  6. I have really enjoyed reading this blog. I am the AFSC country representative for Indonesia and we are also working on issues related to religious tolerance and pluralism. There are many moderate Muslims here working to defend freedom of religion for all faiths.

    We are looking to make links to groups working on this issue in the US - if possible youth related since much of our work here is with youth. It would be interesting and strategic for us to show that people are working to protect the rights of Muslims in the US.

    Would you be able to help by putting us in touch with people/organizations?

    Many thanks, Jiway

  7. Just wanted to add that we are hoping to have US activists participate by teleconference in our annual youth gathering tentatively scheduled for the beginning of February - to give perspective on how youth, Quakers and others are involved in trying to uphold religious freedom and pluralism in the US.