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  • Writer's pictureEvan Wolkenstein

It’s Not Enough to be Not-Islamophobic

This isn’t a good time to be a Muslim taxi driver in America.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has expressed fears of increased attacks on Muslim drivers. As it is, taxi workers are 20 times more likely to be killed on the job. Now, they fear, Trump’s attempt to ban refugees from Muslim nations will likely incite additional violence against Muslim drivers. This stands to reason, as hate crimes against Muslims have already surged in the past year.  Meanwhile, Trump’s expressed intent to grant priority to Christian refugees sends an untrue message: that Islam is inherently dangerous, and Christianity is inherently safe.

This idea, which has become commonplace, is terribly dangerous: for Muslim citizens and for the future of our country.

I’m reminded of one opinion piece, written after the last year’s bombing in Brussels; I’m less concerned about the piece itself and very concerned about the fact that it was shared almost 63,000 times on Facebook alone. Search for the same article on Twitter, and you’ll find Islamophobes retweeting it to further their Islamophobic agenda–an agenda that hides, like Trump’s executive orders, behind the notion that Christianity is safer or more peaceful than Islam.

In this piece, Nabeel Quereshi states that the Quran played a role in the March 2016 Belgian terrorism attack, and more generally, in the cultivation of fundamentalist terrorism:

“…While ISIL may lure youth through a variety of methods, it radicalizes them primarily by urging them to follow the literal teachings of the Quran…interpreted consistently and in light of the violent trajectory of early Islam. As long as the Islamic world focuses on its foundational texts, we will continue to see violent jihadi movements.” []

Quereshi concludes that the only way to combat the theological seduction that ISIL uses to conscript youth into its terrorist army is to promote Christian theology:

“I suggest that sharing alternative worldviews with Muslims is one of the best methods to address radicalization.  Indeed, this is what happened to me. As I faced the reality of the violent traditions of Islam, I had a Christian friend who suggested that Islam did not have to be my only choice and that there were excellent reasons to accept the [Christian] gospel.”

It is human nature to look for explanations following terrifying events. Many people are happy to offer confused and scared Americans a simple calculation: blame the Book. And often, this works. Because most Americans, even well-meaning Americans, do not have enough exposure to Islam or Muslim people to know how to challenge or contextualize Islamophobic sentiments. Many will read and re-tweet the conclusion, that Christianity is inherently safe and Islam is inherently dangerous, thus perpetuating Islamophobia. And as evidenced by the current state of affairs, Islamophobia translates into oppression and injustices against Muslims, not to mention the furthering of xenophobia in general.

To be clear, the New and Old Testaments–the core books in Christianity and Judaism–are no more inherently peaceful than the Quran. The New Testament could be seen as responsible for inspiring the Crusades, which killed 1-3 million people over two hundred years.  It could be seen as responsible for tens of thousands burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. It could be seen as responsible for the enslavement and cultural genocide of native colonies in the New World. Likewise, consider this line from the Old Testament (AKA the Hebrew Bible): “Thus says the LORD…go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (Samuel 15:3). Pretty bad, right? The Bible contains this verse, and dozens like it, yet, we know better than to suggest that the Bible has inspired inherently violent religions, or ban from our borders those who cherish it.

On the other hand, like the Bible, the Quran also contains messages about peace and tolerance:

  1. “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.” (Holy Quran: 2/ 256)

  2. “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48)

  3. “To you be your religion, and to me be mine.” Quran (109:6)

Sadly, Islamophobes attempt to debate the meaning of these verses, insisting that they are misunderstood and out of context. Exactly my point. If the goal is to prove or disprove the peacefulness of a religion through close text analysis, then no religion comes out ahead. Ultimately, one cannot assess any religion based on close text analysis, devoid of real human contact, and I say this as a scholar of the Torah. This is not a time to scrutinize books and point fingers.

We cannot blame any one text or religion for violence in the modern world, nor religion as a whole; 40 million deaths in Mao era China, and 20 million deaths in Stalin-era  Soviet Union prove that humans will gladly kill each other for non-religious ideologies. Likewise, we cannot blame the Torah, revered by 14.2 million Jews. We cannot blame the New Testament, with 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third of all the people on Earth. And we cannot blame the Quran, with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world as of 2010. I urge that we blame neither books nor religion for man’s inhumanity to man. Instead of worrying about whether the text of the Quran (or the Bible or the Torah) is peaceful or violent, cruel or merciful, we must think of all religion like any major discovery of humankind, from the wheel to the splitting of the atom, or like humanity itself: containing both the potential for good and for bad–providing opportunities and challenges for us to make the world a better place for the next generation.

As a teacher of Torah and Comparative Religion, I see it as my job not to propagate the idea of my own religion’s superiority, but rather, to understand who we are, and just as importantly, to make room for understanding others. I urge my students not to read and consume verses of the Quran out of context, especially when quoted by people with an agenda to sow suspicion, xenophobia, and fear, but rather, to learn from real people, Muslims who love their religion and culture, exactly the way we love ours. A great way for anyone to start is to watch Ameena Jandali’s videos: on everything from What is Islam to Islam and Terrorism.  Take a course at a community college. Find an event that promotes real contact, such as this “We Love Our Muslim Neighbors” event, and show up.

These days, it’s not enough to be “not Islamophobic.”  We must be allies. We must be truly anti-Islamophobic. And in order to be anti-Islamophobic, we cannot be Islam-ignorant.

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