The abominable terrorist bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon on Monday 15 April 2013 that left 3 people dead and injured more than 180 people has shocked the world, and created renewed anxiety among American Muslims.
In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings a number of leading American Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) issued statements condemning the bomb attack. In a statement, CAIR National Executive Director, Nihad Awad, said the following:
American Muslims, like Americans of all backgrounds, condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s cowardly bomb attack on participants and spectators of the Boston Marathon. We urge people of all faiths to pray for the victims and their loved ones and for the speedy recovery of those injured. We also call for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators.
Notwithstanding this unequivocal Muslim condemnation of the Boston Marathon atrocity, within hours of the bombings even without a single thread of evidence some media outlets and “counterterrorism experts” were quick to speculate about the possible involvement of Muslims.
On Monday afternoon, a few hours after the bombings the New York Post had to pull a story that reported that police had a Saudi suspect in custody. Later reports that a Saudi national’s apartment near Boston had been searched also raised anxieties among Muslims; the young man, who was wounded in the bombing, was subsequently cleared. On Tuesday it was reported that two passengers on an American Airlines flight from Boston were escorted off the plane because they were speaking Arabic.
On Friday as the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings have been identified as two young men, who were permanent residents of the US originally from Chechnya, American Muslims were left to ponder how this latest act of terror will further fuel the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia.
I would like to briefly explore the global problem of Islamophobia and conclude with three proposals that can help in overcoming it.
The Challenge of Islamophobia
The term Islamophobia was coined in the mid-1990’s to express the range and depth of antipathy towards Islam and Muslims found particularly in Western Europe and the United States of America since the end of the Cold War, and more especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The term became popularized after the Runnymede Trust, an independent research and social policy agency in Britain established a Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in 1996. The Commission’s report Islamophobia: A Challenge for us all, was published in November 1997 and defined Islamophobia as “the dread, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims perpetrated by a series of closed views that imply and attribute negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Muslims.”
The report furthermore noted that Islamophobia results in exclusion, discrimination, misrepresentation and stereotyping. Islamophobia the report went on to note: created the perception that the religion of Islam has no common values with the West, is inferior to the West (or to Judaism and Christianity), and that it really is a violent political ideology rather than a source of faith and spirituality, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity.
The Runnymede report was followed by a wider European investigation instituted by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) following the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The EMCU report which came out in 2002 made a similar finding that “Islamic communities and other vulnerable groups become targets of increasing hostility since September 11.”
In 2004, the United Nations, secretary-general, Kofi Annan, recognized Islamophobia as a global problem and consequently convened a UN conference, “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding.” In his opening address Annan characterized the challenge of Islamophobia as follows:
… [when] the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry – that it is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with “Islamophobia”… Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, many Muslims, particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment and discrimination…Too many people see Islam as a monolith and as intrinsically opposed to the West…
Kofi Annan called on the international community to acknowledge and challenge this latest form of prejudice.
A 2009 Gallup Center for Muslim Studies (of a survey based on telephone interviews) found that 43 percent of Americans admitted to having negative feelings or at least “a little” prejudice against Muslims.
Three Proposals to Overcome Islamophobia
First, Muslims must not become weary from stating again and again loudly and unequivocally, that acts of terror and barbarism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. And the news media must do more to make sure the countless Muslim voices of condemnation are heard. If the two suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombings are indeed guilty of this heinous act and claim to have acted in the name of Islam then they must be unequivocally condemned by all Muslims. In Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Religious extremism has no virtue in Islam and has been unequivocally condemned by the Prophet Muhammad. Through their actions and justifications these two suspects will have as little claim to Islam as architects of apartheid or the Ku Klux Klan has to Christianity.
Second, the contemptible Boston Marathon bombings should spur American Muslims on to redouble their local efforts at working for a more peaceful and just world. One viable way of doing so is to work even harder at seeking interreligious solidarity and cooperation with non-Muslims in the pursuit of a more peaceful and just world.
Third, Muslims need to support the call for a public debate concerning the most effective means that should be employed in counteracting radical extremism. For example, one of America’s foremost scholars of Islam, John Esposito, has ominously warned in his book, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (2002) that, “If foreign policy issues are not addressed effectively, they will continue to be a breeding ground for hatred and radicalism, the rise of extremist movements, and recruits for the bin Laden’s of the world.” In line with this analysis Muslims need to join the many voices all over this country and the world who are questioning the wisdom of the current strategy pursued in the “war on terrorism.” Many analysts have warned that the belligerent environment that is currently being engendered is not helpful in ameliorating the root causes that provide a fertile ground on which radical extremists thrive. On the contrary, it is generating conditions that favor extremism, thus rendering the task of eradicating Islamophobia extremely difficult.
In conclusion, for American Muslims the horrific events of the past week must serve as a reminder of the critical need to continue to witness against terrorism and of a parallel commitment to assist in the nurturing of a more compassionate expression of Islam.