warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Painting With A Broad Brush: American Rhetoric Alienates Muslims The World Over

Steve Helmeci |
December 14, 2014 | 2:40 p.m. PST



America has a problem, and it sounds like this:

Islam is not a religion. Islam is a socio-political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest. A Muslim is the person who is guided by the constitution of Islam. ISIS, CAIR and Hamas all fall under the umbrella of the Brotherhood of Muslims.

These are the words of an elected official in Oklahoma, John Bennett, in an address to more than 100 people. He goes on to say that Islam is a "cancer," and is unrelenting in his comments.

Comments like these are by no means isolated. On a live taped HBO show, Sam Harris said that, "Islam at this moment is the motherload of bad ideas," and Bill Maher has stated numerous times on that same show that Western culture is "better" than Islamic culture. It would seem Americans have a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to Islam. 

It's obvious that Americans don’t do a very good job with tolerance of Islam. And it’s more than just talk show hosts, from Bill Maher to Bill O’Reilly, and their propensity to unilaterally disparage the entire religion as violent and untrustworthy: ever since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the entirety of Islam has been associated with terrorism by a large number of Western people. Scrutiny of the religion has reached astronomical levels - the doctrine of Islam has been blamed (exclusively) for the repressive actions of authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and Africa. 

These opinions need to be nixed, sooner rather than later.

As absurd as both arguments are (violence exists beyond Islam and all authoritarian regimes oppress groups of people and their rights - neither have anything specific to do with the religion), by propagating them we’re alienating an incredibly large and diverse group of people.  

A friend of mine lives in Casablanca, Morocco. She’s well-educated, well-traveled and hopes to attend an Ivy League university after finishing high school. She is Muslim and lives in an almost entirely Muslim country

According to the theory held by a number of Westerners, she couldn’t possibly exist. Islam does not allow "their women" to have an education, or even a voice. Yet, she is very much real and indeed the kind of person that should be celebrated. 

But even she feels attacked.

These are her thoughts on the Western perception of Islam:

I have decided to accept the fact that this world contains ignorant people. They will never go away.

But it pains me to have to constantly defend my religion as one of peace, prosperity, acceptance and equality because I refuse to stay silent. When I see a so-called liberal American such as Bill Maher expressing such incoherent thoughts, I wonder. Peace, tolerance, and equality are what the United States advocates. If the ideals we are preaching are so similar, why would one (Islam) be painted in such a terroristic, horrible and hateful way? 

Let’s be clear. The terrorists of the world are not Muslims. The terrorists of the world are terrorists. There is a difference.

In a religion with such a vast community, you are bound to have extreme followers who misinterpret the true meaning of the Holy Qur’an and who misrepresent the religion as a whole. It truly pains me that this is the image many modern societies have of my religion.

While Islam’s extreme followers, by whom the community is disgusted, have reached barbaric levels of crime, it remains completely unfair to generalize their acts of terror as the beliefs of us all. 

Terrorists committing crimes in the name of Islam makes me just as aggravated as the ignorant people who base their thoughts of a religion on terrorist acts. The things that have been done in the name of Islam are embarrassing and make me question my faith in humanity, to be honest. However, I do not judge the entire population solely on its repulsive criminals. That is the difference between Bill Maher and I.

Islam has over 1 billion followers from a variety of areas around the world. Believers do not base their interpretation of the religion on cynical murderers who misuse the name of Islam. 

In the name itself, Islam advocates peace. “Assalamu alaykoum” means “Peace be upon you.” That is how Muslim brothers and sisters greet each other.

Seeing these videos of Bill Maher [discussing Islam] has just emphasized the ignorance I have accepted in the world. Yes it is unfortunate, yes I completely disagree, yes I wonder [when] the day [will come that] people will realize the terrible mistakes they have made in painting such a large community with such a hateful image. 

While I could go on for days about the unfortunate truths of our society, I can only hope that one day people like Maher will recognize the true meaning of Islam. I dream of the day when an American hears the word ‘Islamic’ or calls the name Muhammad with no undertone of “oh, the terrorists.” 

But that is not the truth, and it is not my reality.

Muslims reside peacefully within the Western world. (Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons)
Muslims reside peacefully within the Western world. (Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons)
Personally, I think her statement is eloquent and explains her position very well.

I would like to expand upon one point. it is true that the Middle East is an incredibly violent region of the world right now, but it most definitely does not have as much to do with religion as many in the West believe. It mainly comes down to cultural animosity. 

Parts of the Middle East are currently mired in conflict between groups of people that do not like each other – whether because of leaders who seek to gain power by belittling another group or because of centuries-old disputes between different cultures. While some of that is based upon religion, that does not mean the religion is inherently violent, because animosity felt between cultures can, has and will continue to exist outside the realm of religion, or the particular religion of Islam. 

Cultural animosity has plagued humanity since its conception. Since long before any of the three main monotheistic religions were created, groups of people have been in conflict for land and resources – and have used differences between their groups to justify acts of brutal violence. 

For examples of tension as a result of cultural animosity, look no further than racial tensions in America - the Civil Rights movement is a perfect example of a struggle between two disparate groups of people, as is the current animosity between many urban black communities and their police forces. I’m sure the Native Americans may also have a few words about “us vs. them” cultural conflict as a result of centuries of belittlement and near-extermination. In essence, even within our own "tolerant" society, there is a propensity for animosity between cultures. 

Sometimes, this human propensity for cultural hostility ends in horrific losses - and this can affect any culture in a volatile situation at any time. The Nazis on the Jews of Europe in the 1930s-1940s, the Russians on the Ukrainians from 1932-1933, the Hutus on the Tutsis in 1994, the European settlers on the native peoples of the New World from 1492 until the 19th century: these conflicts all involved one group attempting to assert domination over the other and succeeding to the tune of many thousands, or even millions, of deaths. 

The reason I bring up cultural violence is because I believe it takes precedence over religious violence. Yes, it’s true that those cultures are sometimes centered on religion, but the fact that violence occurs in the name of any number of cultural groups disproves the idea that one is more violent than the others.

Cultural violence has taken place against Muslims in Bosnia, the Central African Republic and Myanmar, not to mention during the Crusades. Countless violent groups have not been associated with Islam in any way - and there are groups in the world even today that are extremely violent that have no connection with Islam. From Mexican cartels to marauding Buddhist monks, cultural violence exists beyond Islam and targets Islam as well. Muslim culture is no more violent than any other culture.

READ MORE: The Terror Two Hours South

How, though, do groups devolve into cultural conflict? One group has to vilify the other. And that’s what we’re doing every time we disparage Islam. It matters not who started it; we’re only exacerbating it, and if we’re smart we’re going to end it soon.

Muslims reside peacefully within the Western world, and Westerners reside comfortably in majority Muslim countries around the world as well. The debate isn't quite so "us vs. them," as people like Bill Maher would suggest - the two cultures themselves aren't separated enough to make blanket statements about one being better than another. My friend, like I said before, is a well-educated woman who wants to continue her education in America.

But even she has given up the fight over intolerance.

If we lose her, and people like her, who are by absolutely no stretch of the imagination extremist, harbor no animosity toward Western ways of life and do not at all support terrorist actions, we lose any hope for peace between our two cultures.

What do we hope to gain by disparaging all 1.5 billion Muslim people – or even most of them? Other than an excuse for cultural conflict on the largest scale ever seen in human history, through which the Western smear campaign against Islam creates the context for the pervasive “us vs. them” mentality on both sides, I see no plausible reason for attacking the religion itself. And, if that is the reason behind our disparaging thoughts on Islam, then we’re the violent people. 

The only outcome of intolerance is more volatility from the other side. As more and more Muslim people feel increasingly disheartened or, worse, threatened by inflammatory rhetoric from the West, the more alienated they feel and the easier it is for extremist groups to carry favor. So, talk show hosts, think about that every time you want to condemn Islam as violent and undeserving of a place in 21st century life. Every time you so much as insinuate that Islam is somehow worse than Western culture, you create the extremism you speak out against in your hateful monologues.

There’s no basis for blaming the religion for any violence or repression. Blame the people committing acts of violence or oppression. I don’t see anyone rushing to call Christianity violent for being the root of cartel violence in Mexico or Orthodoxy anti-gay because the Russian government is suppressing gay rights. Let’s at least be intellectually consistent - or somewhat intellectual at the very least. Because right now we're lacking intelligence in this particular debate.

We don't actually even have the moral footing to castigate "the Muslim world" for not being progressive enough, especially on the subject of gender equality in politics. Seven Muslim countries have had women as their heads of state and even Afghanistan has provisions in its 2004 constitution that stipulate a quota for women's participation in government in both houses of parliament and at the local level. America can't boast any of the above. Surely it's nicer to live in America than Afghanistan, however: if the culture as a whole is so hostile toward women, why have they placed so much more trust in women than we have here in America, the beacon of all progressive hope?

America, we’re better than this. Let’s practice some tolerance - and not only because we don't have enough of the facts on our side to be as righteously bigoted as Bill Maher would suggest. Let's practice tolerance because the divide we’re creating between Islam and the West is only going to end in increasing violence, rampant instability in the Middle East and an outward appearance of Westerners as intolerant bigots. And that's unacceptable to me.

"Global Turning Points" is a new NT column on the critical international issues you might have overlooked. Read more here.

Reach Columnist Steve Helmeci here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.