We write this essay for non-Muslims who are troubled by Islamophobia but who may well participate in it, good intentions to the contrary. One of us is Muslim and the other Christian.
We are witnessing a rising tide of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic rhetoric in the United States and in European countries. People are imagining Muslims as “the negative Other." These imaginative constructions are then legitimized by propaganda machines and influential personalities, who tend to portray Islam and its followers along orientalist and political lines, as immanently inimical to the liberal and humanistic values of Western countries.
In reflecting on Islamophobia, there may be a tendency to focus on the influential personalities. This is problem. Donald Trump, Sam Harris and Bill Mayer are but a few Islamophobes, disseminating and legitimizing discourses that Islam and Muslims are a monolithic, unchangeable mass, diametrically opposed to American and European identity. In truth many others are likewise absorbed in these ways of thinking and imagining their Muslim neighbors. Many are shaped by cognitive processes that include metaphors, imagery and categorizations bolstering negative constructions of Muslims living in the US and Europe. We call this negative Othering.
Negative Othering classifies the vast majority of Muslim peoples as illiberal subjects; at odds with the values of “the West”. That this binary “we-they-thinking” ordering of human beings is inherently destructive is obvious, as our collective experience has shown. And yet it is more pervasive than we might imagine. Such negative Othering concerns Muslims and all people of good will, including Christians and Jews and people of other religions, along with people who are religiously unaffilated or secular.
Is it possible to combat categorizations that tend to transfer negative emotions such as fear, aversion, disgust and anger against Muslims? We can hope so, and in the interests of this hope we offer nine steps for overcoming Islamophobia. In the current historical context this hope is critical. As technology draws humanity more and more together, we need more and more to identify ourselves in a more holistic way that respects diversity, including religious diversity, while at the same time recognizing our common humanity and shared experience. The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the need for “world loyalty”. The Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal speaks of "the organic unity of humankind." They are pioneers for a new kind of civilization that orders itself in a new way: a way that holds we-they distinctions in check by emphasizing the larger whole to which both “we” and “they” belong. That whole is the web of life on earth, in which humans are included. The need, then, is to envision the world in a way that is conducive to this new kind of civilization. The nine steps for overcoming Islamophobia are best understood in this larger context.
They are as follows:
1. Get to know Muslims within your immediate context. Try getting to know them. Do not make theological thinking as a starting point, but begin with shared values and shared daily experiences.
2. Recognize that those Muslims, who develop an extremist mentality, are a small minority. Condemn their atrocities with as much as righteous indignation as you need; advance the cause of free speech, of open and critical dialogue, if this is your issue. But do not develop negative emotions such as hate toward them as human beings. Know that they, too, carry a sacredness and a great potential for moral reform and goodness, if they open their hearts to a Spirit of Goodness in whose life the universe unfolds.
3. Understand that extremist mentalities do not develop in a vacuum or in isolation. There are myriad of inter-dependent factors causing people to develop small-minded mentalities, lost in their own darkness, the ones who know only the power of bullets and bombs.
4. Try to gain knowledge about some of the history behind the animosity of some Muslims toward the States and some European countries such as France and Germany. Come to understand the dark realities of American and European expansionist agendas. Understand that the domination and use of unilateral power has been cultural as well as geo-political. As you seek to gain an awareness of the history of colonialism, do not limit your mind to sources found in “Christian” bookstores, but understand the history from more objective and critical perspectives.
5. Undertake a study of Islam as a complement to making friends with your Muslim neighbours. As you do so, look for what wisdom and goodness Islam can offer you in your life, but do not expect perfection. Come to understand that the history of Islam, like any world religion, is a series of finite interpretation of Islam. And since every understanding introduces the note of interpretation, recognize that interpretation is the child of its own historical context, and thus restricted within the confines of its environment and age. Some interpretations are based on shared human values such as compassion, social justice and love, and some understandings of Islam are ideological and oppressive. Avoid universalizing and generalizing time-bound interpretations.
6. Be aware of the fact that any religious tradition is much more than its teachings and ideas. It is a mode of living that consists of attitudes, ways of relation to each other, art, architecture, music, sound and longings. Do not think that you understand Islam fully by reading some interpretation or expositions of the Qur`an. You learn about Islam by also making friends with Muslims; and to understand their lived realities within which their faith find expressions.
7. Come to think of Muslims and Jews and Christians as an extended, interdependent family, most of whom seeks to live faithfully in the tradition of Abraham. Think of Prophet Muhammad as a guide in this vast tradition, who was a messenger of wisdom, too. Think of the Qur`anic scripture as a living text from which you can learn and have dialogue, even if you do not believe it to be the word of God.
8. Try to think along the philosophical-theological tradition called process thought. In this tradition, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are considered living traditions which can grow and develop over time, never totally defined by their past interpretations and expressions. Recognize that, today, the leading edge of their growth may well lie in local contexts, where Muslim and Christians and Jews work with people of other faith-traditions or no faith to help develop communities that are compassionate, ecologically wise, creative, participatory, and religiously diverse, with no life left behind.
9. Try following the gist of every religion and secular ethics: the golden rule and the active development of a moral faculty. That is, try to think yourself into the position of the other. Start demanding it from your religious leaders and politicians, too. It is especially important to apply this role and this faculty in response to those Muslims who are frightened by the rise of anti-Islamic/Muslim attacks, physical and rhetorical. Understand that their fear is real, and not illusory.
Know that, as you take these steps, you don`t need to give up what is most important to you; be it Christ, Buddha, the secular humanist manifesto or other sages or wisdom-traditions. Recognize that alternative ways may help you follow your particular way even more. The Chinese speak of the very purpose of life as growing in human-heartedness, that is, a process of becoming more humane. There is a great enlightenment in such a mode of becoming, and if everybody did it, by transcending our frightened egos, the world would become a much better place for our posterity. Commit yourself to this better world.
Farhan Shah, Muslim philosopher, Islam-consultant to the Center for Process Studies, Doctoral research fellow, University of Oslo
Jay McDaniel, PhD, Christian process theologian