CREDIT: AP Photo/ Tomas van Houtryve
It’s not altogether unusual to find anti-Islamic rhetoric in conservative circles these days, but a particularly vitriolic breed of Islamophobia was on full display on Monday at the Heritage Foundation, where speakers at a panel mercilessly mocked and berated a Muslim student who asked about religious diversity. The event was ostensibly convened to discuss the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, but according to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, the panel “turned ugly” when Saba Ahmed, a Muslim American student at American University, inquired about the lack of Muslims on the panel.
“We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she said during a question-and-answer session. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
Ahmed’s seemingly innocuous question sparked the rage of panelist Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT! for America, a grassroots group that promotes Islamophobia. When Ahmed finished speaking, Gabriel launched into a lengthy rant in which she scolded the student for even bringing up the question and argued that peaceful Muslims are ultimately “irrelevant” because religious extremism still exists in spite of them. The crowd then erupted into cheers for almost a minute, Milbank reported, giving Gabriel a standing ovation before panelist Chris Plante, a conservative radio host, accusingly asked, “Can you tell me who the head of the Muslim peace movement is?”
“I guess it’s me right now,” Ahmed answered softly.
Gabriel’s rant and Plante’s question are, of course, absurd for a variety reasons, but they offer a window into the faulty logic that undergirds much of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. One wonders, for instance, if Plante could name the official “leader” of today’s “Christian peace movement” out of a population of billions. Yet the false presupposition of his question — that most Muslims either remain silent in the face of religious extremism or, worse, condone it — is one that shows up time and time again in conservative circles, but ignores the important efforts of millions of peaceful Muslims.
Although Ahmed no doubt felt alone at the hostile Heritage panel, she is but one of millions of Muslims who stand up for peace on a daily basis. In the United States, Muslims are actually disproportionately peace-loving when compared to the rest of the country: a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Muslims are significantly more likely than American Christians, Jews, Mormons, or Atheists to oppose attacks on civilians, regardless of whether they are enacted by military force or by a small group. Unsurprisingly, Muslims and Muslim organizations have also repeatedly and passionately condemned acts of violence perpetrated by people who claim to be followers of Islam. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, regularly issues press releases in response to tragedies enacted by Muslims, and formally condemned Islamic terrorism years before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City (although, as CAIR points out, they also issued a statement condemning the “vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians” within hours of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center). In recent years, CAIR and CAIR-affiliated groups have also issued statements condemning the Boko Haram kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, publicly decried the tragic acts of the Boston bombers, and hosted peace rallies in Oklahoma and Boston, among many other actions.
CAIR is almost always joined by scores of other Muslims organizations such as the The Islamic Circle of North America, but American Muslims are about more than peaceful words. Local mosques and Muslims worship communities are frequently listed as part of faith-based coalitions to prevent gun violence, and Muslim community organizations such as the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, Illinois, organize “Community Safe Zones” that use community organizing techniques to promote peace and prevent violence in troubled neighborhoods. Various American Muslim leaders are also frequently cited as champions of peaceful cooperation. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to congress, has been arrested for participating in peaceful protests meant to draw attention to the horrific plight of people in Darfur and immigration reform. Meanwhile, Eboo Patel, another American Muslim, founded the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to making “interfaith cooperation a social norm” by bringing together religiously diverse groups of students to work on service projects all over the world.
Vocally peaceful Islam is also the norm worldwide. There have been four Muslim recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize since 2000 (including two Muslim women), and frontrunners for this year’s prize include Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her courageous women’s rights activism (she has already received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize). This is mirrored in global surveys which consistently show that the vast majority of Muslims abhor suicide bombings and religious violence. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that when the attacks in Benghazi occurred in 2012, a global chorus of Muslim organizations, imams, scholars and political leaders immediately issued an avalanche of statements condemning the religiously-fueled violence.
But while it takes a 30-second trip to Google to uncover the work of these and other peace-loving Muslims, Gabriel would have you believe that these groups are ultimately “irrelevant,” because religious extremism still exists. But that logic cuts both ways, and ultimately lives in ignorance of how Americans overcame religious extremism in our own country by countering it with peaceful religious activism. American slave owners used the Bible to justify their ownership of people during the 18th and 19th centuries, but did that somehow disavow the abolitionist Christians who participated in the underground railroad as somehow unimportant? The Ku Klux Klan, an unabashedly Christian organization who uses a burning cross as its symbol, helped lynch thousands of African Americans and whites, but did their actions render the efforts of Christian civil rights activists any less crucial? And when American citizens vandalized and even burned Muslim houses of worship in the United States over the past few years, did that make the efforts of Christians who offered their own sanctuaries to the mosque-less Muslim congregations somehow irrelevant?
Of course not. The actions of peace-loving Christians matter, as do the actions of millions of peaceful Muslims who support groups such as CAIR and so many other organizations. As Ahmed was trying to point out at the Heritage panel, the most effective weapon against violent religious extremism isn’t the demonization of an entire religion, but robust support for peaceful practitioners of that religion. If Plante, Gabriel, and others like them really want to combat religious extremism, they would do well to embrace the actions of the not-so-silent majority of peaceful Muslims instead of publicly berating those who for stand up for peace.