Edited by Mohamed Nimer
Amana Publications, 152 pages
Reviewed by Ahmad Tajuddin bin Mohd Said
“Islamophobia” has become more pronounced after the tragic attacks by terrorists on September 11, 2001. The event subsequently brought a profound impact on Muslims in America as well as Muslims throughout the rest of the world. Mohamed Nimer, together with a distinguished group of scholars and personalities, has attempted to assess and examine Islamophobia and anti-Americanism in America. This book is divided into six chapters that discuss both issues from a range of perspectives.
The first chapter of this book is entitled “The Challenges of Defining Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism”. The definition of Islamophobia cited in this book is an “unfounded fear and hostility towards Islam”. According to the author, Islamophobia and anti-Americanism are used as a strategic weapon in a war of ideas. Both stem from misrepresentations, ignorance, lies and half truths. Based on several polls conducted by various organisations, the author shows how Islamophobia is truly evident in America. There is a need to make Islamophobia unacceptable to Americans, the same way the majority of them reject racism, particularly anti-Semitism.
According to the author such sentiments had already taken root in the 1920s and the 1950s. It is, however, by no means true that American prejudices have been solely aimed towards Muslims. In the same vein, we are reminded by the authors that America was the scene of strong anti- German sentiment in the midst of the First World War. In the 1960s, America was gripped by an anti-Communist fervour, as exemplified by the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. These instances suggest that Islamophobia can be seen as part of a recurring theme in American history, rather than as an isolated phenomenon.
The chapter entitled “Misconceptions” addresses the need for Americans to improve their understanding of Islam and the people who practise the religion. Looking at a Muslim community from a distance does not provide the whole picture. Instead, there is a need to engage the Muslim community to get a better understanding of their practices and beliefs. This chapter also suggests that Muslims and non-Muslims need to concentrate on what binds them together, rather than on what separates them.
The USA Patriot Act, that is, Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, and the American foreign policy were discussed in “The Effects of Policy”. While the U.S. promotes liberal democracy to the Muslim world, torture, abject humiliation and religious affront take place in their own backyard. Such controversies and incidents can only further inflame anti- Americanism sentiments. The authors claim that, even though Washington puts in significant efforts into spreading liberal democracy throughout the Middle East, American politicians have been reluctant to engage Muslim organisations in dialogue. The authors suggest that it is high time that American Muslims begin such an effort.
In “The Role of Faith Community Leaders”, the authors assert that similar values – namely compassion, responsibility, self-discipline, honesty and perseverance – underpin all religions. This chapter suggests that differences among religions should either be respected or form the basis of dialogue. The authors suggest the need to concentrate on reconciliation and building coalitions to address the causes of Islamophobia.
“The Role of the Media” suggests that American television news and popular culture tend to propagate negative stereotypes through its violent portrayals of Muslims. One of the authors cites his experience that only two out of over a thousand of his interviews with the American media was on a positive issue about Islam. This, the author suggests, has to do with the established bias of the American media which is more concerned on bringing to light negative issues. Such negative portrayals of Muslims in popular American TV series such as “The Agency”, “Alias”, “Threat Matrix”, “24”, “The Grid” and “DHS, Department of Homeland Security” only add to the recurrence of negative stereotypes about Muslims. However, the authors also point out that it has been Newsweek which first published stories on the Guantanamo controversies and that the CBS has been the first to report on the Abu Ghraib atrocity.
In The Role of American Muslims, the authors argue that throughout American history, there has always been a social group at the bottom of its society. In the past, there were the Irish, the Italians and the African Americans; today, the bottom of the social ladder appears to be occupied by Muslims. The authors say that American Muslims must learn from earlier societies on how to deal with challenges that inevitably arise out of being in such a position. They must have the courage and openness to positively and constructively engage the majority of Americans, whom the authors characterise as decent, open-minded and tolerant. Better-educated Americans do not act emotionally towards Muslims due to greater access to more reliable information, providing them with a better view of Islam and Muslims. The same could be said with regards to better-educated Muslims.
This book provides basic understanding of Islamophobia and Anti- Americanism. It provides a balanced view of both issues. Several chapters largely focus on the ‘struggle’ of American-Muslims to be recognised as part of America.
It may seem inconsequential as a basis of argument, but this book should nevertheless highlight the fact that only a small percentage of Muslims are involved in the commission of acts of terrorism does not mean that the whole community is made up of champions and perpetrators of terrorist acts, neither does it denote that Islam condones terrorism. The terrorist act committed by Timothy McVeigh, for instance, does not suggest that the majority of Americans share the same view as his.
Indeed it is a commendable proposition by contributors in this book that American Muslims play an important role in bridging the gap both domestically and internationally in addressing the issues of Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism. Non-American readers may feel that the contributors could have gone a step further and address the prospect of take on Muslims in the rest of the world to contribute towards improving the image of the religion and its adherents. In addition, discussions on ways of engaging Muslim leaders and scholars who hold extreme views and misguided opinions should also be incorporated in the book. Such an approach could counter the extreme views and misguided opinions reported from time to time which would in turn add to the negative views on Islam, and thus may hamper the efforts of reconciliation and building coalitions, as suggested by numerous contributors in this book.