American Perceptions towards Islam: Justice Implications

We live in one of the safest centuries for human beings to date. Even so, after 9/11, Americans appear to live less securely. Each new tragedy, documented in increasing scope and frequency thanks to mass social media, only seems to trouble us more. Americans – like so many around the world – continue to confront renewed senses of our human fragility.  Each event stuns or shocks, demonstrating how false any preconceived notions that “it could never happen to us” or “it could never happen here” are. Each passing event brings to light not only the heartache and the fear operating at the surface, but also the ways, culturally, any one of us can default to unjust biases and defensiveness. Even as we announce across the country “United we stand” perhaps there still is much room to be wiser in our response to tragedy as a collective.

Standing united in the face of tragedy fuels our senses of survival and wishes to thrive. It also belies underlying schisms and backlash towards minority groups in the wake of our collective trauma. In the wake of disorientation and chaos, Americans repeatedly jump to mark innocent people as the enemy, to suspect those practicing Islam or of Arabic descent, and to vilify adherents to this faith as terrorists.Perhaps it is not surprising then that in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, theNew York Post printed a picture on their front page of two innocent bystanders at the Boston bombings with the title, “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon”, while also reporting that a Saudi Arabian national was a suspect when in fact he was a witness.  CNN’s John King announced that officials had detained a “dark-skinned male.”

Of course, this schism is not limited only to news reports in the wake of tragedy. On May 1, 2013 Raw Story reported that Emerald Aviation President Ed Dahlberg allegedly broke the jaw of a cab driver in Northern Virginia. The cab driver has a recording of the Dahlberg drunkenly screaming at him, accusing him of being a jihadist and claiming, “If you’re a f**king Muslim flying jets into the f**king World Trade Center then f**k you. I will slice your f**king throat right now.” The cab driver, Mohamed A. Salim, is a naturalized citizen and a retired U.S. soldier. He served in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

These accusations and possible hate-crimes, not based on fact, perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and crime, eroding public trust and orderly conduct. People on the receiving end of this force, are all too familiar with this global problem. Khaled A Beydoun helps express the point. On staff as a teaching fellow at UCLA School of Law, Beydoun wrote an opinion column for Aljazeera immediately following the Boston bombings regarding the identities of the accused bombers. In his article, Beydoun passionately wrote about the minutes leading up to the announcement of the accused, “Please don’t be a Muslim or Arab,’ many thought, tweeted, and uttered as they took in the images from Boston…This existential state of guilt and confusion, fear and anxiety, characterizes what it means to be Arab and Muslim-American.”

The public justice implications of accusing fellow citizens of extreme associations are varied and complex. Not only do these accusations cause further strife between neighbors but, as Beydoun writes, “we also refuse to allow our neighbors, whether Christian, Muslim, Caucasian or Arab, to mourn with us over tragedy.”

At the same time, some statistics are coming out from the Pew Forum and the Barna Group regarding the perceptions towards and of Muslim Americans and global Muslims. Immediately following the Boston bombings, Barna group released statistical findings regarding American perceptions of Islam. Their study “suggests one-third of Americans (33%) have a favorable perception of Islam, while slightly more (36%) say they have an unfavorable perception of the religion. Add to that the 31% who don’t know what they think about Islam, and you have a nation decidedly divided on how to deal with a religion that includes 1.57 billion followers worldwide.”

Perhaps, more hopefully, the Pew Forum has put together a collection of global information regarding Muslim culture that is worth reading. Strikingly, this one statistic stands out: “At least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they are concerned about religious extremist groups in their country.” Also, most US Muslims and a majority of global Muslims agree that suicide bombings are never justified in defense of Islam. We need to recognize as a society that Islam is not a religion of extremism, and that most Muslims peaceably live among their neighbors.

Positively, Barna learned that overall, 75% of Americans believe that peace between Christians and Muslims is possible. Barna group also writes, “Nearly seven in ten Americans (68%) agree that extremists have unfairly distorted people’s perceptions of Islam (only 15% of Americans disagree)—it’s a sentiment held by the majority of liberals (86%) and conservatives (61%).”

Americans recognize that fear-based accusations perpetuate fear-based crime, even if we do not always practice it.  The phrase, actions speak louder than words, comes to mind.  We can do more to understand hatred and rise up against terrorism while appreciating our fellow citizens, no matter their religious affiliation, and perhaps that is where our hope lies. Peace is created in the midst of conversation with those we might not have considered our neighbor.

As a Christian, there is also hope in the biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael. There was so much turmoil and pain in the lives of both brothers, nevertheless, despite years of separation, they buried their father Abraham together.  We can all look for ways that we can follow their lead, stand against the continuation of unfair stereotypes, stand united in the face of extremism and terror, and gather to mourn our losses.

-Carrie Kohler recently finished her Masters of Philosophy degree at Trinity College Dublin and is now the lead consultant for CFK Consulting, a nationwide organization located in D.C.