Considering the Myth of Islamophobia

Red Dreher writes over at The American Conservative this morning about how the term — and concept — of “Islamophobia” (a word I have never liked) is used:

Whenever people outside of the media say that journalists are afraid to criticize Muslim radicals or print cartoons the radicals find offensive is because journalists are afraid they’re going to be blown up, I tell them that is not true. The truth is that they loathe ordinary unenlightened people more than they fear jihadists. There is always this great unwashed mob of right-wing lunatics just looking for an excuse to carry out pogroms against Muslims in the wake of Islamic terrorism. The fact that these Muslim-bashing episodes are always just that — episodic, I mean — never seems to change their minds.

Central to the story I tell in my book, The Love That Matters, is the fact that I was Muslim for about 16 years — roughly 1988 through to 2004 — and so I think I can comment on this with some knowledge.

Dreher’s right, and so is Brendan O’Neil, in the piece for The National Review (shudder). Well, they are at least right that there is no “Islamophobia” in the West, and that some Western elites are deeply bigoted against working-class and some middle class people they are elected (or appointed, or however that happens anymore) to govern. This is the clerisy versus the rest of the bourgeois, a long fight in the West that clearly hasn’t gone away and won’t soon.

It brings to mind something that happened long ago, in 1991, at the San Francisco Islamic Center. It was a long ways away from where we lived, but I would make my way there occasionally — several times a week — to pray and have fellowship with other Muslims. The population who worshiped there were mostly working class immigrants — North Africans and South Asians.

It was a couple of weeks after the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait, and as Americans were preparing themselves for the possibility of war with Iraq, tensions were beginning to tighten. A lot of Muslims were nervous, Christian media was apocalyptic, anger was focused on Arabs and Muslims. The Islamic Center had gotten some threatening phone calls.

They were in the process of finishing construction on a small room to handle the dead — where bodies could be washed prior to funerals — and I was helping a little and listening to several of the mosque elders talk about the situation. One brother mentioned the threats.

“Doesn’t that scare you?” I asked.

He stopped working at looked at me intently.

“I am from India. Life has no value there, and it takes nothing for Hindus to decide to kill Muslims. The terrible things they say, and then do when they want. You have no idea. This is nothing. You people have no idea what real violence is like, and how to live with it. It is something to remember, but not fear. You have no idea what it is to truly be afraid.”

And the look in his eyes told me he was speaking from real experience. He knew exactly what he was talking about.

And with that, we went back to work.

I have always remembered this. What happens in the West, right now, is somewhere between isolated acts and coordinated campaign. There are no programs, and there likely won’t be, nor is it likely anyone will be rounded up, despite what guests and hosts say on FoxNews. There is fear (there is far too much fear, and everyone — I mean everyone — is simply too afraid for their own good), and there is some panic, but right now, everyone seems to be behaving themselves. (Just like the Bush administration’s torture regime — it is horrific people were tortured, but right now, it is important to also remember how few actually were. The precedent is troubling, because if torture “works,” then why not use it routinely? But it doesn’t appear to have been used routinely.)

One of the advantages of having been a Muslim in the West was learning to live as a member of an identified and identifiable minority. And to do so with courage and confidence, something Westerners don’t seem to know how to do. Because the denizens of the West don’t seem to feel safe unless everyone, or nearly everyone, conforms and believes (and I promise I will deal with this problem the West has with pluralism at some point in this blog, it is one of my “big ideas” of late), unless there is some kind of confessional uniformity, even in secular society (that confession being secularism).

If I ever get to pastor a church — and I dream of a little storefront chapel with daily worship and Bible studies and communal lunches — my hope is to help convey some sense of that confidence and courage to frightened people in need of the hope that the presence of God, and not the social uniformity or safety in numbers, brings.

Until then, I can only convey the message God most frequently speaks to his people: Do not be afraid.