Less Love, More Theory: On Combatting Islamophobia

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by Matt Sheedy

A popular video on Youtube has been doing the rounds lately, featuring a man singing the Beatles song “All you need is Love” in the face of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who was in Times Square giving a staged speech denouncing Islam. As the crowd joins the man in a sing-along the viewer is left with a clear and simple message—all you need is love to conquer hate. While there is do doubt a collective pleasure here in creatively showing-up a bigot, which can also have the effect of delegitimizing hate speech, if we take the message literally or consider how it is tied to notions of tolerating people who are “other” than ourselves, what exactly, we might ask, can a vague concept such as “love” accomplish in combating Islamophobia?

The murder of Indian-American Sunando Sen on December 27, 2012, who was pushed in the path of an on-coming subway train in New York City, has drawn particular attention for the shockingly candid confession of the culprit Erika Menendez, who told detectives,

I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims… Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.

In a commentary appearing in Salon, writer Wajahat Ali notes the irony that Sen was not even a Muslim, a sentiment aptly captured in the title of his piece “Death by brown skin.” Ali also perceptively notes,

An unbalanced, paranoid mind marinated in our oversaturated Islamophobic environment is numb to such cultural specifics and susceptible to conflate anyone appearing “Muslimy” as the “enemy.”

Ali’s article goes on to cite instances of this “oversaturated Islamophobic environment,” focusing his attention on the group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), whose anti-Muslim ads appear in the same New York subway station where Sen was pushed to his death. He also notes, among other things, how SIOA, along with co-founder Robert Spencer’s blog “Jihad Watch” was mentioned repeatedly in Anders Behring Breivik’s anti-Muslim manifesto and how the group’s other co-founder Pamela Geller orchestrated the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” debate.

While I agree with Ali’s injunction that we must marginalize these voices much like the disempowering of the KKK, he never really addresses what I took to be his most important point–namely, the issue of how the “cultural specifics” of people’s identities are routinely erased and where people of the AMEMSA (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian) communities are often lumped together in the Western imagination.

However well intentioned those singing in the face of pastor Jones may have been and however important it is to marginalize such groups as the SIOA, combatting Islamophobia will remain an uphill battle, with instances of hate crimes against “Muslims” continuing to rise in the US and around the world, in the absence of critical reflection on the complex interplay between such things as religion, culture, gender and ethnicity.

As Steven Ramey puts it in his post on the August 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin,

Assumptions of homogeneity fuel both respect and hate, as those who attack an other because of the other’s religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, or national identification (among others types of identity labels) assume that the members maintain the same attitudes and actions…

The main problem for Ramey is that such homogenizations, whether positive or negative, allow us to emphasize those things that we want to highlight (e.g., most Muslims are peaceful) while downplaying the complexity of how religious identities are always taken-up differently and selectively by groups and individuals, and are variously drawn-upon, modified and blended with elements found in the social world (e.g., ethnic conflicts, social class, gender, etc.).

While grappling with these distinctions remains an important task for scholars of religion, which is one way that we can contribute to debates beyond the walls of the academy, we don’t really (to my knowledge) have a clear and digestible way of relating these complex interrelations to others, especially when it comes to addressing dominant narratives in the public sphere.

As long as Islam is presented as homogenous, it will remain susceptible to crass characterizations and racist associations that help to lend cover and legitimacy to things like “the war on terror” and, in this context of fear and reprisals, to the continued conflation of all things that appear “Muslimy.” With such a tall order at hand what we need is more than love, we need theory.

This entry was posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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