Even as figures from across the political spectrum criticize Trump’s bigoted comments on Muslims and Islam, he is apparently winning. He is not winning only in Republican Party polls, but in his ability to shape the discourse, agenda, and rhetoric of the refugee crisis. Instead of focusing on the rights of refugees as humans and Muslim Americans as citizens, the debate has become framed as an issue of a religious group. Any rebuttal to Trump and his ilk on these grounds, no matter how well intentioned, ends up putting this disenfranchised group of people in a religious box, thus further advancing the Islamic State’s attempts to divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim camps.
There have been heartwarming attempts to welcome refugees and support the rights of Muslims to live and practice their faith in the West. Despite the heart behind these actions, they often have the result of labeling all refugees as Muslims—when they could be Christians or atheists—to say nothing of blurring the range of views among the Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq, North Africa, or Afghanistan. Instead of following a rights based approach to protect human rights, policies and programs will be rolled out assuming these refugees are a monolithic religious group. Similarly, describing discrimination against immigrants from the Middle East as “Islamophobia” furthers this limiting narrative.
Admittedly, there is a current of political opposition, bordering on hatred, directed towards Muslims in particular. While we cannot avoid that strand of thought, we must be cautious not to take an approach that would only lead to further affirmation of the narrative. We cannot view people of the region exclusively through their membership in a sociocultural group, often defined solely on their religious identity. Any program or policy based on this narrow assumption and monolithic lens is faulty, erring in its message (and potentially patronizing to Muslims).
Many approaches that try to address hate speech against Muslims are based on the assumption that the reason for such animosity is our lack of knowledge of “true Islam.” This treats the world’s billion-plus Muslims as a homogenous group—that there is one Islam, and all Muslims perfectly fit into this mold—rather than understanding the diversity within the religion and dealing with individuals through rights-based approaches. Attempts to educate people on what Islam is will not help, especially when the rhetoric is contrasted with brutal actions by terror groups that label themselves as Islamic that instill fear in people’s hearts. Programs that propagate the idea of a single, recognized version of Islam, approved by a clerical authority like Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and University, can be as damaging as extremist groups who also try to impose one top-down view of the religion. Any such approach will ignore parts of the rich, diverse heritage of Islamic practice. Such approaches also ignore other aspects of radicalization, like mental health, social isolation, and economic and political issues.
It is not our right to ignore religious or cultural heritage and historical events which formed some ideas we disagree with. It is not our right or duty to go through every single Islamic scripture and commentary to prove them acceptable or not, right or wrong. We must simply accept the reality—that Islamic traditions approve of many texts, that Islam can be explained and understood in many different ways, that not all Muslims are the same, and that not all Islamic groups are the same.
Many interpretations of Islam are the result of historical and political circumstances in certain times and places. The context that created the Islamic State has its own sociopolitical and religious background, which should be separated from practicing Muslims in the United States. Muslims in the United States should not be held responsible for radical Islamist interpretations of the religion. At the same time, Muslims in the U.S. or elsewhere should not feel compelled to justify or defend Islam when Islamic State or other extremists carry out acts of terror. To put it simply, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the West do not believe what Islamic State believes, even though both still call themselves and can be called Muslims. Any successful attempt to address the extremist religious violence in the Middle East must include a pointed analysis of social, political, and economic issues. Even if these issues are refracted through cultural and religious lenses, the underlying reality is the ultimate driver of the violence.
States and other institutions in Muslim-majority nations—Sunni or Shi’a, Wahhabi or Sufi—have been racing to claim that the practices of the Islamic State are not representative of true Islam. This framing is not only ineffective, but opens the question of which of these groups does accurately represent Islam. If there is a true Islam, no matter its form, then it is possible for the opponents of Islam to direct hatred toward an entire group.
Governments and leaders in the Muslim world must allow for more diversity, and end state-led efforts to define what is and is not Islamic, what practices define a Muslim. More broadly, Muslims and others must resist efforts to frame Muslims as victims. Rather, Muslims must be viewed as citizens with equal civic and constitutional rights, no matter their country of residence or their religious practices, and likewise must respect the rights of others and their nation’s laws. There is no doubt that many Muslims are now under threat or attack and subject to shameful hate speech; however, both blaming Islam as a religion and calling any criticism of Islam or Muslims as Islamophobia are problematic. Both may lead to the exclusion of Muslims and may limit chances to real self-critique and openness for diverse opinion or dialogue.
When Donald Trump and his ilk say disparaging things about Muslims—whether as Americans or as humans—our argument should not be to argue about the veracity of his claims. We should instead combat the labeling of a diverse group of people and the use of that label to deny rights. Similarly, Muslims themselves should refuse to be labeled, insisting on being treated as humans and citizens with full rights and duties as all other religions, races, and ethnicities.