Muslims Villainized in American Culture

While there existed a climate of intolerance toward Muslims prior to 2001, it has become more acceptable to be blatantly ignorant and prejudiced against Islam after the events of Sept. 11, according to As’ad Abukhalil, who spoke at UC Irvine on April 19.
Abukhalil is an an associate professor of political sciences at CSU Stanislaus and a research fellow at UC Berkeley. In his lecture, he addressed the various stereotypes and prejudices that exist against Muslims and Islam.
‘It seems to me that we now have room for people to express their bigotry and prejudice against Muslims,’ Abukhalil said.
Abukhalil provided examples of prejudice in Stockton, Calif. and at UC Irvine. In both instances, individuals called their local police because they were suspicious of the activities of Muslims. In the case of the UCI, someone called the police department to report Muslims praying in a parking lot.
‘When a government sets the tone for prejudice, you will see that society often follows,’ Abukhalil said.
According to Abukhalil, many individuals who try to study the Islamic religion are not specialists in the field, and instead only have hostility toward Islam.
‘Early Western studies of Islam were in the hands of ministers,’ Abukhalil said. ‘Islam is now being taught all throughout the United States by people who are not specialized in it. The first real translation of the Quran was adopted by the Vatican on behalf of the pope because they wanted to see what this religion was about.’
Another reason for studying Islam is to gain political knowledge, according to Abukhalil.
‘Knowledge of Islam is of value to the American government with its unending wars,’ Abukhalil said. ‘When there is an association between violence and Islam, that is when the government suddenly develops an intellectual curiosity to learn about Islam and the Arabs.’
During the discussion, one student commented that the U.S. government has not exclusively studied Islam to gain political knowledge, but that it has always developed curiosity about other countries and cultures that it was in conflict with. The student said that after Sept. 11, the United States was in a situation where it wanted to learn about the Muslim world to help address issues of national security, and that Abukhalil should wait to attack research methods until after studies have been completed.
Abukhalil responded by saying that he did not have the time to wait until after studies were complete because people are dying.
‘When I exhibit impatience, it seems to me that I am justified because people are dying,’ Abukhalil said. ‘I don’t have the luxury of time when bombs are falling on people’s heads and wars are being justified by references for how we need to control the Middle East.’
Abukhalil also said that other religions use Islam to justify their own beliefs.
‘Islam is a religion that is good for the self-esteem of other religions,’ Abukhalil said. ‘There is a need to dwell on the evil of Islam in order for Christians, Jews and others to underline that the virtues of their religion are not like Islam—are not as oppressive as Islam.’
Of all the religions in the United States, Islam is the only religion for which the government has a foreign policy, according to Abukhalil.
‘You do not have American foreign policy for Buddhism, for Judaism, Presbyterian [or] Quakers, but for Islam, you do,’ Abukhalil said. ‘This is because Islam is not a reference to a religion here. Muslims are referred to as people who inhabit a world that is apart from anything else.’
There also exists a notion that Muslims have a propensity for violence, Abukhalil said. Violent acts by Muslims are seen as representative of the religion as a whole, whereas violent acts performed by people of other religions are seen as individual acts that are not representative of their religion.
‘What is very unfortunate about that regard is that Muslim and Arab organizations in America are perpetuating this particular stereotype,’ Abukhalil said. ‘Whenever a Muslim does anything violent anywhere, Muslim and Arab organizations are required to issue statements of condemnation against it. It’s not that they are in favor of acts of violence, but by their behavior, they are reinforcing that suspicion that now hovers over every Muslim.’
Abukhalil also argued that while there exist terrorists who happen to be Muslim, Muslims as a group should not be viewed as terrorists.
‘I argue it is high time that Muslims become entitled to their share of crazies, of crooks and, yes, of terrorists, as you have your share of people,’ Abukhalil said. ‘But the difference is, when you have them, you do not see them as representatives of the general prevailing culture and religion.’
Abukhalil also addressed the controversy regarding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that everyone has the right to insult any religion as long as any specific religion is not disproportionately targeted.
‘Everyone should have the right to offend, to mock, and to ridicule anybody—be they prophets, luminaries, whatever,’ Abukhalil said. ‘But does the West adhere to that or do they practice selective secularism? The answer is certainly the latter. But if there is universal mocking, that doesn’t bother me.’
Daniel Spisak, a third-year information and computer science major, said that although he enjoyed the discussion, he did not agree with some of Abukhalil’s arguments.
‘I am not knowledgeable in the actual political facts, but Abukhalil seemed well-informed,’ Spisak said. ‘I agreed with some of his opinions, but there are things that I have differing views on.’