Muslims in an age of Islamophobia & ISIS: towards a holistic stance of justice

review by Judy Hanazawa

On February 2, 2016 at SFU Harbour Centre, Ron Nishimura and Judy Hanazawa of the GVJCCA Human Rights Committee, attended a lecture called “Muslims in an age of Islamophobia and ISIS: towards a holistic stance of Justice,” presented by Omid Safi, a leading American Muslim intellectual and director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Professor Safi was also in Vancouver as expert witness at a Supreme Court proceeding regarding John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, a couple described as radical followers of Islam, who were found guilty last summer of plotting to set bombs off at the BC Legislature.

Safi noted the onus has been placed upon Muslims by the media and politicians alike, to publicly condemn acts of terror. He concludes all are responsible for what is happening and for engaging in creating necessary change despite Muslims obligingly asserting their hate and condemnation of ISIS. In today’s world, Islamophobia is a growing social reality, promoted within the media by so called experts on “Islamic inspired terrorism.” He referred to industry pioneers Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, whose work has been used and quoted verbatim in US policy.

But in order to effectively combat Islamophobia, Safi asserts all issues of social injustice need to be collectively addressed. “Justice has to be holistic, and a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We have to remember that the conversation about Islamophobia is inseparable from the conversation on racism, sexism, militarism, xenophobia, and others.”

Safi also noted the sophisticated self-promoting tactics borrowed from Hollywood horror movies, applied by ISIS in their productions of execution and other footage to ensure a widespread fear response and rivet the attention of Western viewers. They have successfully influenced the political and social climate in the United States today where the rise of Donald Trump can be directly correlated to a continuing rise in Islamophobic hate. ISIS has increased their recruitment activity while achieving their goal to initiate an American militaristic response to their actions.

The law enforcement response to the Oregon standoff also clearly illustrated the different in process when an armed, dangerous and volatile group of Whites take the law into their own hands. Compare the restrained approach in Oregon to the disturbing proliferation of police shootings of young Black men. Safi noted White society and the American establishment comprise the same system which killed Indigenous tribes, practiced slavery and sustained inequality for Blacks, interned Japanese Americans, hates Hispanics and the LBGT community. This is the system which drives Islamophobic fear and hate. The mainstream American obsession with guns has caused more violence and terror in American society than any one group. Safi explained there is no ethnic or religious group more hated in the United States than Muslims and in 2016 the acceptance level toward Muslims is lower than a week after 9/11. Attacks upon visibly Muslim women have increased, and incidents like the murder of three Muslim university students of Dr. Safi, are indicative. That the police investigation of the student murders concluded they were due to a parking dispute and not a hate crime, shows clearly that law enforcement is compromised. Today the target of ISIS is Syrians and Iraqis more than any other people, while fear mongering politicians like Ted Cruz encourage anti-Muslim persecution defining Muslim Americans as radical Islamic terrorists. Safi also believes racism and white supremacy have influenced the widely held attitude that Muslims must be accountable for the actions of ISIS while other ethnic and religious groups are not similarly targeted. He openly questions why all White Americans are not held accountable in the same way for violent acts committed by White supremacists. It is also common for the term, ‘ lone wolf’ to be used to describe a White perpetrator.

To address these inequities he refers to the words of Abraham Joshua Herschuel, a Jewish theologian who professed that all in society are responsible to address atrocities and stem the proliferation of hate …”few are guilty, but all are responsible.” And despite citing alarming statistics which indicate widespread Islamophobia, fuelled by greater numbers of white supremacist organizations and hate groups, Safi said the solution is to call upon all at a personal and community level to stand with each other, recognize and embrace human commonalities among us. For example our love of our children and our intent to make a better world for them is something we all have in common. He urges all to move beyond reacting to hate – and instead unite, toil together with all who combat racism, to transform society into being sustainably caring and just. Although love is viewed by many as human emotion or feeling, Islam teaches that love and justice are one, as love is the presence of the divine spirit/God among humans. There is hope when this practice of love inspires the courage to overcome hate, fear and bigotry, and uphold the dignity, equality and humanity in all people. A similar humanistic, caring way, conveying the Indigenous value of Respect, is offered by Chief Doctor Robert Joseph.

During the October 3, 2015 Legacy of Redress forum facilitated by the GVJCCA Human Rights Committee, speaker Itrath Syed shared her post 9/11 experience as a Muslim Canadian. Her information confirmed a Canadian version of Dr. Safi’s presentation. Ms. Syed noted Muslim Canadians feel they are under the eye of the state while general Canadian society responds with suspicion to them. The Muslim community experience has been isolation, vulnerability and fear. A response for some in the Muslim community has been “go along, get along, be apolitical and do not resist.” Muslim Canadians cannot go online and successfully print out their own boarding pass, and all Muslim Canadians have airport racial profiling stories to share. She concludes the Muslim Canadian experience has been that the onus is on the targeted community to prove innocence. To counteract this ongoing inhumane situation, she asks other communities, including those who have experienced historic injustices such as Aboriginals, and Japanese Canadians, to stand up and stand in solidarity with her community.

After the closing of Dr. Safi’s lecture, an audience member asked him how she, as a Muslim mother can encourage her son to embrace this view of participating in and promoting a caring and just society when he himself is troubled, hurt by racism, hate and fear toward Muslims, saying he wished he was not Muslim. This writer acknowledged her worry and recalled hearing Japanese Canadians as they shared their stories of growing up, wishing they could have blue eyes, and expressing hurt from the racist remarks directed at them. First Nations youth have also spoken about periods in their lives when they experienced racist attacks and name calling so overwhelming, they wished they were not Aboriginal. The ‘answer’ is not simple because it means caring and taking action. It means supporting youth like the Muslim mother’s son to encourage him to recognize and celebrate his own identity, ancestry, religious or spiritual beliefs, It also means taking responsibility, and standing united with today’s Muslim ”enemy alien” as Japanese Canadians once were. Internment survivor grandparents have said they tell their stories so that no other community would have to endure what they did, and standing with Muslim Canadians, combating Islamophobia, racism and hate is in keeping with their intent. As Dr. Safi concludes, there is no other way than to collectively respond for “all of us are responsible for what is happening on the ground, and for engaging in radical change.”