Influencing Public Discussions of Islam

It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence, it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.
        -Pope Francis

Welcoming tolerance and interfaith dialogue…

In the climate of rising, ignorance-fueled Islamophobia, Muslims should welcome the recent words of Pope Francis that called for dialogue between the Catholic and Muslim communities, as well as his effort to make the message personal by delivering it himself. Assuming that his words are the sign of a genuine shift within the Church, it would be the perfect time to reassess how Muslims, Catholics, and members of other religious groups can work together to ensure that there is a broader respect for religious freedom at home and abroad. This is especially true in non-Muslim majority countries where, as recent events in France, or even anti-Muslim attacks following crimes committed by individuals who happened to be Muslim in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown, tensions are flaring around the topic of Islam in Western societies.

In this era, Islam faces a unique backlash; yet, the struggles that Muslims face in holding on to their faith in a time when much of Western society rejects many elements of religious devotion as “old fashioned,” are not unique. In communities that are home to diverse lifestyles, religious groups ought to work in harmony with one another in order to promote tolerance across religious divides, as well as improve the capacity of religious institutions to provide social and community services. After all, there is a common thread of social justice and service to others that runs through most faiths, and strengthening ties around these issues rather than focusing on what divides us seems far more logical than emphasizing the differences between our faiths — especially in light of the general decline of religious participation in society overall.

Finally, it is important to remember that interfaith alliances have been a lifeline for smaller Muslim communities across the United States, as many masajid began as weekly Friday meetings in Church-provided spaces. Thus, it is essential that we invite others to know us and our communities.

…while avoiding the urge to ‘justify’

However, that does not mean that we should not tread carefully. One problem with interfaith and broader-awareness raising efforts is that they often lead Muslims into the trap of “self-defense” mode. Staying glued to the framework of “this is not Islam” when something bad is committed in the name of Islam is incredibly limiting. Furthermore, it is a framing of the discussion that is imposed upon the Muslim community. Western media continues to conflate Islam — a religious identifier that includes races and ethnicities from across the globe — with a single, homogeneous racial identity. This implied dialogue stems from the same discriminatory attitudes that see Black, Latino, and other minority leaders forced to defend their communities for the actions of one or a few people. As Chris Hayes’ recent satire video drove home, you do not see the same discussion enforced on the majority white community when a white person does something harmful.

Rather than launching to the defense of Islam only when it is attacked from the outside, we should be eager to focus on and celebrate the diverse aspects of our faith that make us all proud Muslimahs — taking back ownership of the direction of public discussions of Islam in the process. This idea aligns very well with core mission of itself. What makes you excited about your faith? How does it help you in your daily life? These inspiring pieces of information are rarely the topic of the countless news broadcasts about the “crisis” of Islam in the West. Yet allowing them to become the focus of the Muslim community’s dialogue with other groups has a negative impact not only on the general discussion of Islam, but also on the ummah itself, which is forced to be on the defensive.

While I stress the importance of owning the discussion — obviously, that doesn’t mean the Muslim community should pretend it is perfect. Clearly, websites like Side Entrance spring up for a reason. Furthermore, celebrating our strengths, as well as owning up to and working to improve our flaws, will empower the ummah as a whole and move us forward, individually and collectively, in our faith.