Let's Stop Calling Anti-Muslim Bigotry 'Backlash'

The Statue of Liberty in front of the American Flag
The Statue of Liberty in front of the American Flag

Two weeks ago, I stood outside a House of Representatives hearing room and, like a truly incredible number of religious leaders across the country, denounced the Islamophobia stifling our response to the Syrian refugee crisis and infusing our politics in the wake of the attacks in Paris. But then I had déjà vu. I remembered that I had stood at a similar press conference, denounced the same kind of bigotry, last July, and last April, and countless other times - all long before the recent tragedies in Paris, Beirut and Mali.

We cannot afford to pretend that the hate we see today is only "backlash" to a terrorist attack. This is a prejudice and exclusion that has marred our nation's commitment to religious freedom and equality for years. It pre-dates Paris, it pre-dates 9/11, and if we see it only as a response to these events our responses will be sorely limited. Calling it a "backlash" gives too much credit to the terrorists, and it suggests that Americans are only capable of unthinking reaction.

In the many conversations I have had over the last year about the issue of anti-Muslim bigotry, I've noticed that many people perceive it as a little misunderstanding. If people had better data and information about Islam and Muslims, there wouldn't be so much anger and hate directed at Muslims in America. Certainly an absence of knowledge and understanding about Islam and Muslims is a problem in America- a big one. But the reality is that correcting these misunderstandings with some facts and evidence has not been shown to actually work in helping to improve the perception of American Muslims.

There are numerous opportunities for those who have interest in actually learning more about Islam and Muslims. Want to know what Shari'a is, how it's been used and interpreted in different contexts throughout history, and how American Muslims understand it? This site and this site will be of use to you. This short video and this list of FAQs will help explain some of the other myths one might believe about Islam and Muslims. I could go on and on, but the point is, if a simple lack of knowledge were the problem, there is more than enough out there that would act as a solution. We can no longer pretend that this is about ignorance. Over the last decade, Muslims and the interfaith community have made valiant efforts to educate Americans about the faith, and yet the bigotry remains.

The real problem goes beyond a lack of religious knowledge; the problem is a systematic dehumanization of Muslims, perpetuated by politics, pundits and a well-funded and organized effort to spread fear and falsity. A recent study by some of our nation's top neuroscientists found that Americans perceive Muslims as less than fully human. These politics of fear dehumanize identity groups to justify racism, plain and simple.

De-humanization is a tactic that's been used before on numerous other groups in our nation's history and at present. Slavery in America was only possible to sustain if black persons were widely viewed by white persons as less human than themselves, and the continued unequal treatment of black Americans still relies on a level of dehumanization in the public consciousness (this study and this article have data to back this up). Several graphics recently circulated on the Internet show the highly negative American attitudes toward Jews fleeing Europe in the late 1930's.

That this bigotry isn't new does not mean we haven't reached a tipping point. The level of anti-Muslim bigotry we've seen these last few weeks feel like they have reached a new level of vitriol and gravity. I've heard this sentiment from many over the last several weeks, but none has struck me more than what I heard in a cab in DC last week:

"You know, when I was a kid in Nigeria I thought America was the land of dreams. I have lived here for 24 years and you know, it has been pretty good, but this? I don't know what this is."

The cab driver turned up the NPR station, on which a reporter was talking about the U.S. political fight over Syrian refugees. I asked him if he'd been following this news. "Verrrry closely" he said quietly.

He told me about his journey to the U.S. from Nigeria years ago, how he'd come here seeking a life with more opportunity, a country that promoted values different from those in his country of birth. Equality, opportunity, freedom.

I felt a deep sickness in that moment, one I've felt for the last several weeks -- that the country he and I call home is currently squashing its most basic ideals with the politics of bigotry and fear. Refugees are the most recent targets of the anti-Muslim fear-mongering that is currently winning a number of our political "leaders" political points.

What are we, as a nation? What are we protecting, when we talk about protecting our nation, our values? The politicians politicizing the plight of refugees at present are not protecting American values. Rather, we are failing refugees, and we are failing the idea of America.