Islamophobia: misinformation and blatant lies


Question & Answer

A. J. from the Internet, writes:

“I recently received one of those emails with the sensational subject line: “ALL OF A SUDDEN MESSAGE FROM A CONCERNED CITIZEN.” It started out with the question, “Has everyone lost their ability to see what is happening in the USA?” Then it lists nearly 20 “All of a Suddens” where Muslims are allegedly doing X, Y, or Z to undermine the American way of life. Each “fact” is presented with no attribution or source reference. Some of them are obviously made-up, but others seem like they could be possible. I’m including a couple of them to see if you have any suggestions for a response.”

Answer: By Rev. David Felten

Dear A. J.,

Wow, there’s a lot to cover here – but let me start out by saying that I’ve received that same email (more than once!). Every time it arrives, I flounder between being exasperated, angry, and despondent – and not only because of the contents, but in amazement at the people who forward me this clap-trap. It makes me stop and think, “Do I really know that person so poorly that I could be unaware of the ugly prejudice they harbor (and are now advertising by forwarding me this email)?” It also reminds me of the toxic undercurrent in our culture that my Muslim friends have to deal with every day – and from which my Christian privilege insulates me.

And more importantly, we need to remember that this brand of one-click armchair bigotry is not harmless. It contributes to creating an environment where more and more blatant hate-speech and discrimination are tacitly approved of – all of which has led to a very real surge in anti-Muslim hate-crimes. Despite this demonstrable increase in anti-Muslim violence in the U.S., there has been nothing resembling a collective recoil or revulsion that one would hope to see in a country that claims to stand on principles of religious liberty and diversity.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s much that either of us could convey that would change the minds of the people who forward this email. Sadly, the avalanche of intentionally false stories, propaganda, and fake news has rendered moot whatever capacity many people might have had for critical thought. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when the very nature of reality itself is called into question by the “alternative facts” du jour, that people choose to cling to whatever information bolsters their most primal fears and prejudices – evidence to the contrary be damned.

So, despite the seeming futility of any effort on your or my part to change the minds of most card-carrying Islamophobes, I’m going to wander down what may seem like “In Vain Lane” to offer some observations on a couple of these “All of a Sudden” claims. I’ve got to believe that even the smallest effort to push back against the tide of Islamophobia is not in vain, but an opportunity to light a candle against the darkness, to speak out in defense of genuine American values, and hone our skills in standing with the oppressed.

All of a sudden, Islam is taught in schools.

Oh no! Islam being “taught” in our schools?! The horror! This claim is part of yet another attempt by reactionary Fundamentalist Christians and Conservative politicians to 1) stoke the flames of conspiracy and 2) attempt to discredit the government and public schools as being un-American (Oh yeah, AND raise money). It dramatically over-exaggerates out-of-context information without any references to real world situations. But there’s certainly nothing “all of a sudden” about it. The basics of Islam are indeed already taught in many of our public schools – but not as a religion class. As the Bill of Rights makes clear, that would not be allowed for any religion, including Christianity. Smart schools bring in Muslim speakers from organizations like our local Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona to enhance students’ understanding of Islam.

If a public school is doing its job, the history and tenets of Islam absolutely need to be taught right alongside the basics of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and any number of other traditions. Why? In part because there is hardly a political crisis happening anywhere in the world today that isn’t, in some way, driven by religious sensibilities. How much better off would we all be if every citizen had a basic understanding of world religions?  But in our increasingly interconnected world, Americans who are stupid about religion will continue to make stupid decisions (just as we’ve already demonstrated over and over again).

All of a sudden, we must allow prayer rugs everywhere and allow for Islamic prayer in schools and businesses.

Schools may indeed be asked to flex schedules and room use to allow observant Muslim kids a place to pray, but schools are used to that – as they should be. We live in a country of diverse religious traditions. Who among the Jewish and Muslim community complains when the majority Christian culture sways school districts to take Good Friday off? Last year my kids had the day off for Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement). Where is the outrage over our public schools accommodating a religious minority and compromising the education of our upstanding Christian children? The bottom line is that it’s not unusual for schools to allow for the practice of Judaism and Christianity – so why not other religions?  You’ve got to expect that in a country as diverse as ours, public schools are just one of the institutions for whom accommodating, without favoring (or “establishing”), particular religious traditions is both a daily challenge – and an expectation.

As for businesses being forced to allow space and time for Islamic prayer in general (“we MUST allow prayer rugs everywhere”?), there’s just no evidence out there to support this claim. To the contrary, there have been a number of high profile examples of companies disallowing Muslim prayer during the day. Others make allowances as part of best HR practice or as an accommodation with a union. In a related development, a number of tech giants have stepped up in opposition to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban motivated by pure practical capitalism. If you have top engineers and scientists who are Muslim, it makes sense that businesses that value a particular expertise make allowances for top talent.

All of a sudden, we must stop serving pork in public places and institutions.

Oh good grief. The author of these “all of a suddens” is clearly running on conspiracy theory vapors. Do they not have Google?!? Do they not read? These kinds of broad generalizations are clearly designed to simply upset impressionable people who don’t care or don’t have the capacity to make even the slightest effort at getting the facts.

Keeping conflicts over menus in Europe aside (Google it), let’s look at a recent dust-up in the United States. Back in 2015, it was announced that pork would be taken off the menu in Federal Prisons, but NOT as a concession to Muslims. In a Washington Post article, the head of the prisons reported that there were several non-Muslim reasons. One was: “Pork has been the lowest-rated food by inmates for several years,” AND pork has also become more expensive for the government to buy. SO, the initial rationale to stop serving pork was, in fact, to respond to inmate preference and save taxpayer dollars. But a firestorm erupted when The National Pork Producers Council and what seemed like the whole state of pig-inundated Iowa rose up in protest. The decision was overturned in less than a week – behold the power of the oink! Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley really knows how to bring home the bacon, huh?

Even the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group, wasn’t a big fan of the no-pork menu. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper predicted that anti-Islam groups would spin the decision into a case of the federal government acting under pressure from Muslims. “This is just the kind of thing that drives [Islamophobes] crazy,” he said. Clearly, this “all of a sudden” entry is exactly the kind of thing CAIR predicted.

So, keep in mind that for tax-payer supported institutions (be they prisons or public schools), even what seems like a simple menu decision needs to keep in mind not only the optics, but a constellation of financial and legal considerations – some of which may include religious issues. On a purely practical level, schools here in the U.S. have demonstrated remarkable commitment to accommodate kids with gluten and peanut allergies. When there are enough kids who are allergic to something (or have a religious mandate to avoid something), it makes sense that institutions would make adjustments – especially when it also means saving money and not wasting food (unless you go up against the pig lobby).

In the end, the motive of someone who first publishes things like this “all of a sudden” list is unclear. Is it simply for fun? To see how many low-information consumers of current events can be stirred up with irrational fear? Is it part of some coordinated effort by racial and religious bigots to stoke Islamophobia? Is it some random self-declared internet patriot seeking to resource “the movement”? The clearly anti-Obama slant on many of the statements suggests a political motivation. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above (and don’t forget the Russians!). 

Whatever the source, these hateful diatribes of misinformation and blatant lies are with us for the foreseeable future. The solution? Keep working in your own circle of influence to promote interfaith understanding and relationships. Where you have time and ability, research some of the claims Islamophobes are making in order to educate yourself. Support your local Muslims: 1) take a group to the local mosque for a tour, 2) bring a Muslim speaker in to your local church or community group, 3) offer financial support to groups like CAIR or your local Islamic Speakers Bureau. Several members of my church have been trained by the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona to go into local schools as part of a three-person “Abrahamic Panel.” A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian spend all day sharing the particulars and the similarities among the three religions – and leaving a deeply positive impression of unity in diversity.

Lots of people are worked up with fear and misinformation. Sometimes it seems that facts just don’t matter anymore. But don’t give up! Keep paying your dues to the reality club and keep your Islamophobia decoder ring handy. Don’t let people who are taken in by every anti-Muslim snake-oil salesman that comes around derail your commitment to what I think Jesus would want us to do: to treat “the other” with respect and dignity. Practice hospitality. Build genuine relationships with those who are excluded or lied about. And maybe, “all of a sudden,” a whole new world will emerge.

~ Rev. David M. Felten

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

NOTE: If you’re looking for a curriculum resource to facilitate group discussion about Islam and how to support your Muslim neighbors, check out Living the Questions’ DVD series, The Jesus Fatwah: Love Your (Muslim) Neighbor as Yourself..

About the Author

David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.

A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet.

David and his wife Laura, an administrator for a large Arizona public school district, live in Phoenix with their three often adorable children.

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