By INAS YOUNIS
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
Muslims, like everyone else, grieve the loss of order and the erosion of common sense every time violence occurs where we least expect it. Terrorism is random for a reason. It knows that we feel safe only to the extent that there is some rhyme or reason to why and how violence occurs. So when violence occurs outside of war zones, we become more disoriented, more inflamed. We all become refugees in search of refuge when we lose our sense of security.
But the nature of the enemy we are currently dealing with is too ancient to isolate. Historically, extremism and violence are nothing new. Violent extremists’ interpretations of any religion or secular ideology, all share the same universal and timeless features. First, they elevate the group above the individual. Second, they must always have a scapegoat (e.g., Jews, blacks, Muslims, gypsies). Third, they persecute the scapegoat until it/they retaliate or lash out against their persecutors, which then justifies the irrationality of the hate toward them.
When irrational hate becomes a political force, the scapegoat’s rights and liberties are compromised. For American Muslims, the erosion of our individual liberties and sacred principles started shortly after 9/11, when, for the first time, this nation not only felt personally threatened, but interpreted this threat as an arbitrary kind of hatred directed toward Americans for simply being American. We imagined that the hate was arbitrary and so the retaliation, euphemistically referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom, became equally arbitrary, triggering the politicization of hatred around the world.
Currently every kind of bigotry and hate taking root anywhere in the world endeavors to make the persecuted minority feel so disenfranchised and despised by the mainstream that they begin to question their loyalties. In the case of Muslim extremists, their mission is to provoke the non-Muslim world into persecuting “moderate” Muslims to the extent that we begin to doubt our allegiance to the values of life and liberty. They intend to do this by ensuring that these values stop working for us.
When I as a Muslim fight against bigotry and hatred, I am not just fighting in defense of Muslims; I am also fighting for the preservation of our American values. Our political principles do not permit us to celebrate policies that violate our American constitution, even if we stand to benefit from them. Some of the rhetoric we are hearing lately being directed against Muslims is not only incendiary, but unconstitutional. And yet, we are being asked to swallow these lethal propositions that seek to impose restrictions on Muslims without any regard for the possibility that this could one day be used against any and all Americans. Our moral authority to object to injustice is compromised every time we consent, even through our resignation, to the injustice of others.
Only a Muslim who accepts that his dehumanization in the hands of “the other” is even possible, will fight to defend himself through the condemnation of others. American Muslims are not on the attack because we do not recognize the right of anyone to dehumanize us, nor do we recognize the existence of an “other.” We are all American. And as American Muslims our mission is to resurrect the tradition of cooperation and co-existence that is central to our religious teachings. American Muslims are striving to empower the religious identity that reflects the pluralistic ideals of our faith.
Unfortunately when a nation goes the way of hate, there are no facts that will disabuse its citizens of their fictions. Any resistance on the part of Muslims seems to only reinforce the narrative that we are defending ourselves because we have something to be defensive about. But Muslims are not enemies of the West; we have been its greatest champions. This reality scares both radical Muslims and Islamophobes, both of whom wish to shut ordinary Muslims out from participation in our civil society. They are attempting to do this by perpetuating the lie that Islam and Western values are incompatible when in fact, Islamic values are more closely aligned to American Ideals than they are to those of any Muslim majority nation on earth.
So where do we go from here?
Love may be blind but hate is deaf. Hate cannot hear, let alone listen, because hate is experienced at a perceptual level of our awareness and never at the conceptual level. And language is a conceptual faculty. In other words, hate judges according to what it sees, not what it understands. And while love can be a choice, hate is almost always a reaction.
One approach to combating hate is to organize national movements that endeavor to eliminate the very notion of “the Other,” the “us versus them” phrases, that have seeped into our national and global dialect. There are many such grassroots movements currently under way. One such effort was launched by a group of Muslim and Jewish women, and has since gone international. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is the first national network of Muslim and Jewish women committed to living in harmony and limiting acts of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. We are committed to fighting hate by engaging in informal, one-on-one, relationship-building efforts. This is only one of many such organized movements that have discovered the power of the contact theory, which states that interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between groups. Informal interpersonal contact requires the employment of our conceptual faculties. It forces us to engage beyond the level of our immediate perceptions. It is effective because it is not designed to challenge our intellectual capacity to coexist, but rather our emotional capacity to hate after we have grown in the spirit of love.
Direct informal contact over prolonged periods of time can diminish anxiety and facilitate conflict resolution. The contact theory has been described as one of the most effective ways to improve relations among groups. Gordon W. Allport (1954) is credited with the development of this theory, which states that when positive meaningful relationships develop between people of different religious communities, attitudes toward the entire group improve. Through the application of the contact theory, prejudice can be eliminated. The more one learns about a category of people, the more positively they will feel toward them. And as our world becomes increasingly globalized, the need for better understanding is more critical than ever before.
I believe that building interpersonal relations between groups that are seemingly at odds with one another are the path to tomorrow’s peacebuilding efforts. Faith, love, respect, and the restraints of religion, are the means by which we can fight against the evils that cannot be harnessed through an escalation of violence. There are no practical solutions to our political pathologies, only spiritual ones. People of Faith for Peace, another organization to which I proudly cling, are also committed to building peace, one relationship at a time. There are countless other such groups. This surge of collaboration between faith groups is rarely ever celebrated by the mainstream media, and yet the trend is growing exponentially. Hope is not only alive and well, it is powerful and requires nothing but a willingness to listen. Hate, on the other hand, cannot survive without our silent resignation. But we are far from letting go.