Why We Need to Educate About History – Not Religion – To Stop Islamophobia

A person wearing hijab, holding a book to cover their face.

A person wearing hijab, holding a book to cover their face.

Editor’s Note: Here at Everyday Feminism, we are in the process of moving away from -phobic language as we recognize this is ableist. Please bear with us as we make this transition and seek out better alternatives!

Dear Fellow Muslims Living in the West and Our Allies,

Teaching the world about Islamic theology won’t defeat Islamophobia.

I feel like I’ve been Islam’s defense lawyer since elementary school. When a friend’s mom expressed her sympathies for Muslim women in my country because “so many of them are being sexually assaulted by Islamic men,” I scrambled to defend Muslim men.

In high school, I scrambled to take the role of an imam (a religious leader) with a thirteen-year-old’s knowledge of Islam in my desperation to explain to my teacher that we shouldn’t be uncritically reading an article about the “alarming increase of conservative muslims in Ontario,” because Islam does not preach the violence the article told us to be alarmed about.

Incidentally, that article was largely about Omar Khadr, and the conflation between Islam and violence was disgustingly there to justify Khadr’s illegal detainment in Guantanamo Bay.

So when I recently saw Muslim friends and allies trying to respond to social media posts about the burkini ban by explaining why women may choose to wear the hijab, why the burkini ban isn’t feminist, why Muslims can be feminists too, I thought, Oh God, nothing has changed.

And then when I saw them frustrated because nothing ever seems to get through, it hit me: Why in the world are we still letting Islam be on trial?

If, like me, you feel guilty and frustrated for not being able to effectively challenge the Islamophobic thinking and behavior you encounter, then I’d like to propose a change of tactics.

Educational campaigns about Islam have become increasingly common in an effort to counter the rise of Islamophobia in the Western world. There’s an increasing number of “Discover Islam” community events, and on an international level, we’ve seen Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tell Trump that he wants to “educate him” by showing him that “you can be Muslim and be Western.”

I agree that education is key to fighting oppression. Anti-Islamophobic education is not only important for fighting discrimination against Muslims (and, overwhelming, people of color who are not even Muslim, but perceived as such) in the West. It’s also important for undermining devastating foreign policies that go unchallenged because they’re bolstered by Islamophobic sentiment.

But the focus on educating non-Muslims about Islam is misplaced and can even serve to justify Islamophobia.

Before I suggest a new tactic, let’s consider three ways in which the “let’s learn about Islam to dispel Islamophobia” approach can uphold Islamophobia.

1. It Essentializes Muslims

The idea that learning more about “peaceful Islam” should make people less afraid of Muslims in general upholds the presumption that makes Islamophobia possible in the first place: that Muslims are all the same – and that once we understand their religion, we can understand who they all are.

When every other news headline reads Islamic terrorism, it make sense to want to shout back that “Islam is a religion of peace” and that “real” Muslims are peaceful. But this knee-jerk reaction is rarely useful.

Someone who is convinced that Islam preaches violence will not change their mind no matter how many times you or Obama or a renowned scholar tells them otherwise.

Plus, this kind of argument still implies that Islam is one clear-cut idea that all “real” Muslims adhere to.

This kind of essentialist thinking doesn’t promote a perception of Muslims as diverse, complex human beings. Instead, it pigeonholes us into being either a “good/moderate” Muslim or a “bad/fundamentalist” Muslim.

2. It’s Assimilationist

But what’s so bad about dividing Muslims into good Muslims and bad Muslims? Isn’t it true that there are, in fact, Muslims who do good things and Muslims who do bad things? Isn’t it humanizing to say that Muslims can be good or bad, just like anyone else?

While this can sound humanizing in theory, it becomes more complicated in practice, once we consider how a “good” Muslim is defined in the West. Often, when someone is making a case for Islam being peaceful, they’ll refer to Muslims who demonstrate Western liberal values.

Khizr Khan, the Muslim American who made headlines for speaking patriotically at the DNC about the loss of his son, a soldier in Iraq, is a good example. We could also think of Sadiq Khan’s multiple messages to Trump that you can have “Western values” and be Muslim.

This sends a clear message to Muslims: You can only be tolerated if you adhere to Western liberal values. If you don’t, you are probably a “bad” Muslim and are dangerous and regressive.

Many progressive friends have asked me “how Muslim” my parents are. I’ve watched my parents become scary in their eyes when I explain that yes, they do pray five times a day, and yes, they do read the Qur’an literally. And then I watch them look a little relieved when I say that no, like me, my mom doesn’t wear a hijab.

It is neither tolerant nor progressive to be only less afraid of those Muslims you’ve vetted to make sure they’re the right kind and right amount of Muslim.

Not discriminating against Muslims only when they look and act similarly to non-Muslims upholds an assimilationist attitude, limiting the freedom of Muslims in the West to live according to their beliefs. 

3. It Legitimizes Islam’s Trial

When we try to fight Islamophobic thinking with knowledge of “true” Islam, we’re continuing to act as Islam’s defense lawyer and to take the trial seriously.

We say that those who commit violence in the name of Islam have misread the Qur’an or have read it too literally. This type of reasoning still implies that we can understand violence committed in the name of Islam through studying Islam as theology – that is, in a vacuum.

If we accept that violence and oppression in the name of Islam are exclusively rooted in the flawed, unchangeable, and unreasonable theological beliefs of those who practice Islam too strictly, if we accept that there is no rhyme or reason to how radicalized Muslims act, if we accept that any Muslim who doesn’t visibly embody Western liberal values is steps away from extremism, then the common solutions proposed by state leaders and everyday Islamophobes alike begins to look less absurd.

Assimilating Muslims in the West to make sure they don’t turn into the “wrong” kind, and eradicating bad Muslims in the Global South at the cost of many civilian (and often Muslim) lives can begin to look justified, even necessary.

Burkini bans in France, drones killing countless innocent people in Syria and Pakistan, more innocent people dying in the midst of a US- and France-funded war between the Nigerian state and Boko Haram – all this too can begin to seem not totally unreasonable.

This is a dangerous path.

***

So, we need a new tactic.

Instead of defending Islam, we need to focus our efforts on revealing the whole trial to be a sham. To challenge (often internalized) tropes of Muslims as inherently violent, we should decenter religious teaching and center geopolitics and history instead.

For these next three reasons, this tactic will be more useful in fighting Islamophobia.

1. We Can Learn Why Religious Zeal Is Irrelevant

Islamophobia is made possible by a collective forgetting of recent history. It seems reactionary to say that terrorism in the name of Islam has very little to do with religious zeal or how literal your interpretation of the Qur’an is.

In fact, most of us avoid saying this because we don’t want to sound like apologists.

“But terrorists quote the Qur’an, and the Islamic State’s logo reads ‘There is no God but God (Allah)’ – how can you be so in denial?” Well, if we look at history, it’s not a stretch.

Let’s take the example of the first armed jihad of the 20th century. The use of the world jihad is another reason why decentering religion might seem absurd, and this history is old enough for some facts about it to be more clear and indisputable than analysis of current events.

For this history, I’m drawing largely on the Columbia African Studies and Political Science professor Mahmood Mamdani’s article “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.”

This is the jihad based in Afghanistan during the Cold War. In 1985, Reagan appears on TV with a group of Afghan mujahideen leaders to announce that “[t]hese gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”

The next year, his administration launches its plan to use the Islamic notion of a religious sanctioned war – jihad – against the Soviet Union.

In 1986, the US openly recruits “holy warriors” from Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Pakistan – at this point, there had been no armed jihads for 400 years.

In just a few years, however, a US/Saudi/Pakistani alliance had crowned Bin Laden as the leader of this holy war, and al-Qaeda networks had spread as far as Indonesia. It’s well-known that today’s ISIS started off as a splinter group of this same al-Qaeda.

So what can we take from this?

While “Islamic terrorism” draws on ideas found in Islam (such as jihad, however misconstrued), it cannot be understood by examining verses in the Qur’an and considering how they could have been (mis)interpreted by terrorists. No one’s (mis)interpretation of Islam incited the first jihad. A political agenda did.

Remembering this history can challenge the correlation between religious beliefs and violence in the name of Islam. It can diminish hatred and fear of Islam, and consequently, of Muslims.

2. We Can Learn Why Violence Is Being Committed in the Name of Islam

Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen told The Guardian recently that he doesn’t care about seeming Islamophobic by mocking Islam.

“There’s nothing irrational about fearing a belief system that’s violent everywhere it appears,” he said, in the least original defense of Islamophobia.

Once we center history and politics, we can show that actually, there’s everything irrational about tying Islam and violence together.

Correlation isn’t always causation – and in this case, there’s historical evidence that it’s very unlikely for religious ideology to be the isolated cause of violence committed in the name of Islam. 

Clearly, there is more at play here than “a set of bad ideas,” as Teeuwun called Islam. There is also foreign and local interests in land, resources, and political power. And once you know the history, this won’t sound like apologetics.

The likes of Boko Haram and ISIS aren’t just waging senseless violence, but actually have political and economic strategies and agendas which can be understood, analyzed, and addressed in a way that reduces violence against civilians abroad and delegitimizes assimilation at home.

3. We Can Address the Shared Roots of Islamophobia and Violence Committed in the Name of Islam

As Mamdani puts it, terrorism in the name of Islam emerged out of political and historical encounters, including imperialism and anti-colonial movements.

Islamophobic sentiment justifies the War on Terror and the retaliation of terrorist groups who carry the flag of Islam in turn justifies Islamophobic violence, and so on.

This vicious cycle can only stop if we start addressing this violence in the context of an encounter.

Once we see that terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, we can organize around something concrete that isn’t religious identity — we can put Islam’s case to rest and focus on a more pressing trial.

Obama said in a CNN town hall recently that he doesn’t use the phrase Islamic terrorism because it makes US-allied Islamic countries feel under attack – and “it makes it harder for us [the US] to get their cooperation in fighting terrorism.”

This cooperation and this fight is exactly what we should be educating ourselves and others about. Obama and Saudi royals and their allies are happy to agree that Islam is a religion of peace, as long as they can keep up the War on Terror.

Teaching and learning about the foreign policies of Western countries and their deals with allies which feed this cycle of violence can equip us with the knowledge to fight the politics that are keeping Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and terrorist groups alive.

***

If this sounds like a lifelong project of learning, it really doesn’t have to be. It could look as simple as reminding people that the first armed jihad in recent history wasn’t inspired by religious zeal the next time someone asks how you can tolerate or practice such a violent religion.

It could look like taking a long hard look at ourselves if we ever ask someone “how Muslim” they are. It could even look like Googling quick facts about Western states’ connections to Muslim terrorist organizations or the history of these organizations instead of Googling verses from the Qur’an to back up your anti-Islamophobic arguments.

Personal journeys of faith aside, it’s more productive for us in the West to discover the politics feeding Islamophobia and terror committed in the name of Islam right now than to discover the nuances of Islam.

So if we want to educate ourselves and others, let’s shift the spotlight.

Shahrzad Fareed studies Islam and the Middle East, writes poetry, and daydreams. She is interested in how faith and social justice interact and probably drinks too much tea.