TURAN KAYAOĞLU, 6 APRIL 2020
On February 27, in the New York Times, Mustafa Akyol wrote that, “the justification of many terrible deeds in the name of Islam today, from terrorism to tyranny, from patriarchy to bigotry” is a cause of Islamophobia. He argues that the solution is “right there in the Quran”: Muslims should win “hearts and minds” of Islamophobes through kindness.
While I agree with Akyol’s diagnosis that Islamophobia is at the heart of the violence and discrimination that Muslims face around the world, I want to offer another framework for thinking about the cure.
Muslims facing anti-Muslim bigotry and violence are no more responsible for that brutality than women who face domestic violence. Blaming Muslims for Islamophobia is as illogical and counterproductive as blaming blacks for racism or Jews for anti-Semitism.
Islamophobia: A Loaded Term
As an entry point into this conversation, I propose we start by clarifying what we mean by Islamophobia. I described the term’s genealogy in a study that the term was first popularized by Muslim activists in the UK in the late 1990s and gained global popularity in the 2000s. While Islamophobia defies easy definition, it essentially refers to fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims. It’s a loaded term suited for advocacy and polemics and ill-defined for public policy analysis.
Akyol himself uses the term broadly to pile together Chinese internment camps for Uighur Muslims, violence faced by Muslims in India with a 16-year old French girl saying “the Quran is a religion of hatred.” The latter is free speech and responding it with kindness may work. The former two are likely crimes against humanity and responding it with kindness is abominable. Conflating them confuses rather than clarifies. Worse, it excuses Islamists and Muslim apologists abuse the term Islamophobia to link the criticism of Islam to the crimes inflicted on Muslims to silence critics of Islam and even the Muslim leaders and governments.
For clarity I use anti-Muslim hate. As I argued elsewhere, it is not criticism of a religion that concerns me but rather instigating hate and violence against a group of people, which is a crime in international human rights and most liberal domestic legislations.
Is Liberal Islam the Solution?
Besides asking Muslims to take some responsibility for Islamophobia, Akyol, echoing Michelle Obama, urges Muslims to go high in the face of hatred. His basis for this approach comes from a verse in the Quran which says, “repel evil with what is better.”
Yet Akyol’s argument recreates dangerous stereotypes. When he cites one verse to link the Quran to tolerance and presents Islam as the solution for a public problem, he reduces Quran’s complexity. It then becomes equally easy for the 16-year old French to link the Quran to hatred and presents Islam as the problem. He erases Muslim diversity when he calls on “good” Muslims facing Islamophobia to repent for the actions of “bad” Muslims defaming Islam and spreading Islamophobia.
Akyol’s solution of calling for Islamic tolerance to a public policy problem is flawed and unlikely to accomplish much. The call will fall on deaf ears. His liberal reformist interpretation will be ignored by conservatives and ridiculed by the Islamists and Salafists. Liberal Muslim reformers, though brave and admirable, are unlikely to win the theological debate anytime soon. Meanwhile, turn-the other-cheek passivism will not likely deter but rather embolden anti-Muslim hate groups.
We cannot wait for reformist intellectuals to win over Muslims and Islamophobes both. Anti-Muslim hate is increasingly a daily grind for many and only a privileged few can choose to “go high.” As a highly educated Muslim man, well-positioned in a leading think-tank, living in D.C., and white-presentable, Akyol can afford to be magnanimous if and when he faces Islamophobia. Other Muslims with less privilege – women, people of color, refugees, etc. – options are limited when faced with racism, sexism, and anti-Muslim hate.
Liberal Citizenship Is the Cure
There is a more appropriate cure. The solution to anti-Muslim hate is not Muslims getting better at liberal Islam but at liberal democracy. It is the constitution that binds us Muslims and non-Muslims all together, not the scripture. As an American-Muslim I follow the rule of law and embrace my civic duties and I hold fellow non-Muslims, including perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate, to the same high expectations.
Last year when I decided to run for Puyallup School Board in Washington State, many discouraged me. They warned me that my city is not ready to vote a Muslim immigrant into an office. I did not run as a Muslim but as a new American who firmly believes the solution to anti-Muslim hate is social and political activism within the framework of liberal citizenship and human rights.
Turan Kayaoglu is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and a professor of international relations at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Kayaoglu is the editor-in-chief of Muslim World Journal of Human Rights and the author of Legal Imperialism: Sovereignty and Extraterritoriality in Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and China and The Organization of Islamic Cooperation: The Politics, Problems, and Potential. He is also co-editor for The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @TuranKayaoglu
Photo Credit: Martin Foskett from Pixabay
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights.