It’s difficult to be a Muslim today in the U.S. It seems that Muslims have replaced communists as the bad guys in the cultural wars. As a child living in Bayonne, New Jersey, I never heard of the words “Muslims” and “Islam.” This was back in the Forties and Fifties.
Back in those days, people were not exposed to Muslims. Today, however, the family down the block from me may be Muslim. Some of my best friends in Auburn are Muslims. I feel entirely comfortable visiting them at their homes or going to the local mosque when they have an open house for the Auburn community.
One should remember that not all Arabs are Muslims. Muslims are those who practice the Islamic religion. Most Muslims are not Arabs at all. The most Muslims are found in Indonesia, Pakistan, and India.
After 9/11, I went with a Muslim couple and we gave talks on Islam at various churches such as the First Presbyterian Church in Auburn and the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Columbus, Georgia. The audience greatly appreciated our explanation of Islam and asked questions that were on their minds, particularly about how Muslim women are treated.
In teaching an honor’s course on the Muslim-Christian dialogue or in a regular course on the Qur’an, I took my class to the mosque where we were given a tour of the facility. I also took two courses on Arabic at the mosque., one taught by an Egyptian woman and the other taught by a woman from Jordan. I found out that Muslims in Egypt have different words than do Jordanians for certain things.
Some years ago, I was honored when I was asked to give a talk at the Friday service at the mosque. I gave a presentation to a large audience of men, while the women were in another room listening to me using a loudspeaker. After my talk, I answered questions from the audience.
One of the best books about anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination comes from a woman who is a Christian. It’s titled, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (And Do) About Anti-Muslim Discrimination by Jordan D. Duffner (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2021).
She argues that Islamophobia means the discrimination and prejudice that targets others on the basis of their perceived association with Muslims and Islam.
In this description, the words “perceived association” are important. Why so? Sometimes, non-Muslims are discriminated against because they are perceived as Muslims by others. For example, the day after 9/11, four Sikhs were unloading a truck in Manhattan. Sikhs usually wear a turban and have a long beard. Hence, they were taken to be Muslims. These four Sikhs were subjected to a blistering physical attack by passersby and had to be taken to a local hospital with serious injuries.
In this description, Islamophobia refers to how others feel and think about Muslims plus how Muslims are treated. In this connection, some examples may be helpful. I know a student who had the Muslim name, Ahmad. In looking for a job after graduating law school in Tuscaloosa, he sent out hundreds of resumes. He never received one call back. After some time, he changed his name to Thomas and, soon afterwards, got a job as an attorney in Alabama.
Men with a Muslim name often have a difficult time when going from the Atlanta airport to their native home in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia. They are immediately taken to a special room and grilled for an hour by Homeland Security personnel. Meanwhile, their families patiently wait for them and are nervous whether or not their father or husband will be allowed to board the plane or not. This happens on a routine basis and it doesn’t matter that they have a U.S. visa. They are treated as second-class citizens here in the U.S. How sad.
There are so many stereotypes concerning Muslims. One of my peak experiences happened overseas at the main railroad station in Munich. One day at noon, a Muslim spread out his towel, prostrated himself on the ground and said his prayers to God. Meanwhile, hundreds of people saw him do this as they passed by. I then said to myself, “Any religion that asks their follower to pray five times must have something going for it.”
I take the view that “All Lives Matter.” Jesus said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” He made no equivocation about this did he? And Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE) famously said words to the effect: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That’s the entire law (Torah). All else is commentary.”
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.