Sunday, April 10, 2011

Islamophobia and Coverage of the Middle East Uprisings

Reading the associated press coverage of the recent referendum to Egypt’s Constitution sent a disconcerting rumble through my abdomen. It was not consternation over the threat posed by an Islamist Egypt which gave rise to my quivering queasiness, but rather the fear of fear itself; fear that the current political unrest in the Middle East would feed longstanding fear of Islam in general.

The author of the AP article portrays the inspiring culmination of the January and February demonstrations against the Mubarak regime--18 million Egyptians freely casting ballots, the first of their lives for many--as overshadowed by the looming threat of an authoritarian Islamist regime and sectarian violence. The author cited “critics” who warn of a “nightmare scenario” in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak regime loyalists band together to establish a “fundamentalist state.” Such concerns may be legitimate, but a popular vote to maintain the preexisting relationship between Islam the Egyptian state and Islam should not be presented as foreshadowing such a turn of events.

The ambivalent tone of the article highlights both the anticipation and trepidation permeating Americans’ nervous observation of the recent powerful popular demonstrations confronting longstanding authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan. While faith in representative democracy fosters hope for its propagation throughout the region, ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam sow fear.

My uneasiness over fear-mongering thrust of the article reminds me of how I felt sitting in the audience of a seminar addressing “The Challenge of Islam” led by former Georgia Tech professor Dr. Atif Debs at Cumberland Community Church in Smyrna several months ago. Dr. Debs painted a disturbing picture of a top-down, worldwide clerical conspiracy to wield Shari’ah to penetrate western civilization under the guise of “tolerance” and religious freedom, despite the fact that Islam does not have a centralized authority to coordinate such an elaborate effort.

Dr. Debs supported this theory with a litany of references to the Quran which seemingly sanction such an underhanded expansion of Islam. Muslims are exhorted to say and do whatever is necessary to further Islam, they are not to trust their Jewish and Christian neighbors, etc. From this perspective, the democratic rhetoric of the anti-Mubarak movement is merely clever maneuvering for an opportunity to impose a fundamentalist regime.

Having read an English translation of the Quran myself, I perceived his scriptural support to be highly selective and decontextualized. Alarmists like Dr. Debs point to the infamous “sword verses” of the Quran which seem to advocate violent opposition to all non-Muslims. Yet these verses emerge in the contexts of particular battles against the pagan tribal establishment which had persecuted the burgeoning faith movement. On the other hand, the Quran constantly emphasizes that the choice to “submit” to God is a matter of personal will. The text frequently exhorts Muslims to live peacefully among Jewish and Christian neighbors and allow God to judge between their differences.

Yet for the uninformed listener, Dr. Debs’s frightening presentation carried the seemingly irrefutable authority of a former Muslim. For many, Dr. Debs provided an official stamp of factuality on preexisting fears.

In fact, Dr. Debs’s sources supporting his conspiracy theory are all second-hand and anecdotal. I believe Dr. Debs to be a sincere and enormously intelligent man, but his privileging of questionable sources is obviously rationalized by his personal experiences.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Debs emphasized that Islam is more than a religion, it is a “complete system of life.” Indeed, the mid-20th century Lebanese society where he was born and socialized is far more “traditional” than our own: religion, politics, economics and education remained integrated as they have been throughout human history. Dr. Debs arrived in a much more differentiated U.S. context as an adolescent. Through hard work, he enjoyed a top-notch education, considerable economic success and enhanced political freedoms while drifting away from the luke-warm religion of his youth. In mid-life he made a voluntary, life-changing commitment to evangelical Christianity which framed the Islam of his childhood in a whole new light.

In Dr. Debs’s eyes, the social “backwardness” he experienced in youth is essentially Islamic, a view reinforced by the author of the AP article. Yet there are millions of Muslims who have achieved the American dream and made similarly substantial contributions to our society while maintaining their commitment to Islam.

History suggests that the violent scriptural interpretations and narrow religious prejudice do not arise from the inherent moral inferiority of particular traditions, but the concentration of dogmatic power amid widespread poverty and ignorance. A millennium ago, Muslim Arabs were at the cutting edge of science, mathematics and reigned over what was arguably the world’s most free and prosperous empire. Within this empire, Christian and Jewish minorities enjoyed legal protection and some limited autonomy. Meanwhile, the theocratic papal regime roused the destitute rabble of Europe to a “holy” invasion of the "heathen" Middle East with promises of plunder in this world and salvation in the next.

Christians like myself are quick to dismiss this skeleton from our closet on the grounds that such brutality is clearly contradicted by Jesus’s teachings that the peacemakers are blessed, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and the Kingdom of God is not a political entity. Yet the Old Testament is chocked full of bloody holy wars led by God’s anointed kings against inferior infidels in order to (re)claim the promised land. Consequently, Pope Urban II had little trouble shepherding his predominately impoverished and illiterate flock to war.

Poverty and desperation persist in the Middle East, increasing the potential for violence and radicalism to win the day. Yet the explosion of proactive public demonstration and democratic participation is clearly linked to the expansion of an educated middle class throughout the Muslim world. These inspiring movements of public power have been facilitated by informed, engaged Muslims Tweeting, Skyping and YouTubing on smartphones obtainable thanks to decent incomes. Rather than an impending “clash of civilations,” we may have what Martin Indyk of the Bookings Institution celebrates as “an unusual confluence of our values and interests.”


  1. The commentary above is obviously a little dated. I wrote it for an Op-Ed assignment a few weeks ago. But the point is not to address the nuances of all of the distinct popular political movements which have recently emerged throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but rather to critique latent Islamophobia in the depictions of these struggles. I'd love to hear any thoughts on how you see this playing out (or not) in more current coverage.

  2. As my brothers and sisters in Islam would say, "mash'allah" for your fantastic post, Scott! This was just a terrific read and I very much hope that more and more people read it so they can see the great points you made in it.

    My personal favorite point happens in paragraphs 11-13, where you refresh our memory of an observation that doesn't get enough attention in world history: that Muslim civilizations have made huge contributions to science, medicine, mathematics, literature and more. (The most oustanding ones I can remember include methods of sterilizaion during surgery, map-making and sound-therapy for mental illnesses. All these at a time when European medicine still considered illnesses the product of "humor inbalances," and was locking up the mentally ill...)

    Yes, it is poverty and ignorance which serves as the powder keg of violence--as much now as in the time of the crusades...

    And to these I would add one more: fear. Fear of having one's cherished heritage dismantled by foreign powers, especially, since colonialism is still fresh in the collective memory.

    The issue of violence in the name of religion, is always more complex than the media makes it to be and most people don't know enough about the religious tenets so the issues end up being oversimplified.

    But you just took the first step in correcting that trend and creating alternative media, Scott! Thank you for sharing! :)

  3. Really thoughful post, Scott. Thanks for sharing. It would be interesting to hear people's thoughts on France's burqa/niqab ban that went into effect today.