Do Wajahat, Linda, Bassem, and Other Muslim Figures Agree On Islamophobia?

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a multi-art center in Brooklyn, hosted an event on Thursday to discuss the growing anti-Muslim sentiments being felt across the globe. In the shadow of the most recent event in Garland, Texas, where an anti-Muslim contest titled “Draw Prophet Muhammad” took place and concluded in the killing of two gunmen, BAM’s Islamophobia event couldn’t come at a more pressing time.

The event’s sensitivity was reflected in the five NYPD patrol cars parked outside of the BAM Harvey Theater, not to mention the security guards inside the theater searching bags and conducting pat-downs with handheld security detectors before allowing the audience to enter the theater room. Such high-level security for a low-profile event still wasn’t enough for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was originally supposed to have a voice on the panel but was advised not to attend for security reasons, according to her colleague Douglas Murray, who was one of the panelists.

Nevertheless, the six distinguished panelists — Linda Sarsour, Asra Nomani, Bassem Youssef, Douglas Murray, Wajahat Ali and Faisal Al Mutar — all gathered on a single stage to express their different and sometimes conflicting views on a contemporary issue that affects millions of Muslims worldwide. The setting, a renovated theater that still elegantly showcases its 20th century timeless ruins, physically represented the problem– the fear, hatred, and discrimination against a thousand year-old religion and its followers in modern-day society.

Brian Lehrer (@brianlehrer), the moderator of the panel and talk show host on WNYC, started the conversation among the panelists by posing the question: “How big of a problem is Islamophobia today and what should we do about it?”

Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour), a racial justice and civil rights activist from Brooklyn, was first to speak, vehemently proclaiming, “I am unapologetically Muslim.” Sarsour noted, “Islamophobia is an industry in this country. People are bankrolling on dehumanizing our community.” She went on to condemn the vilification and dehumanization of Muslims in a country that purportedly recognizes freedom of religion.

Douglas Murray (@douglaskmurray), a British writer and journalist, addressed the appropriateness of the term Islamophobia, whose suffix “phobia” he argues, is an irrational fear that does not adequately suit the problem. He feels more comfortable using the term “anti-Muslim.” Murray justifies the disenfranchisement of Muslims by claiming that Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim sentiments, is a secondary problem that stems from “extreme Islam.” He asserts that the primary problem emerges from the barbarous acts of violence committed by Muslims that makes people worried, and thus gives Islamophobes a right to be “anti-Muslim.”

Wajahat Ali (@wajahatali), a writer and co-host for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream, introduced a fascinating point on the historical similarities between Islamophobia and other prejudice movements in America. He articulated that Islamophobia “takes its DNA and its playbook directly from the hateful fear-mongering that was used in America against Jews, Catholics, and Japanese-Americans.”

Asra Nomani (@asranomani), an Indian-American journalist, discussed the difficulty and defamation people face when they criticize Islam. She argues that this in and of itself is an unacceptable problem within the Muslim community. She offered a personal anecdote: when BAM made a Facebook event page for the Islamophobia Talk, she saw that the individual who threatened to kill her in 2005 had RSVP’d. From her position on the stage, she said the lights were too bright for her to see if that man was actually attending.

After every panelist offered their opinion on Islamophobia, a polarization in views manifested itself. On one side, Douglas Murray, Asra Nomani, and Faisal Al Mutar argued that some interpretations of Islam can be violent, oppressive, and misogynistic and Muslims need to acknowledge and reform Islam as the first step for combatting Islamophobia. Conversely, Linda Sarsour, Wajahat Ali, and Bassem Youssef argued that the problem isn’t fundamentally within Islam, but rather that Islamophobia is a hateful issue with numerous political implications that impact an overwhelming number of Muslims.

Perhaps the only thing binding both sides was their agreement that there is indeed discrimination and hate toward Muslims, but their definition of its origins vastly differed and created a stiff tension, which was reflected in the audience when two women disruptively argued over the comments of one of the panelists and a theater attendant had to resolve the dispute.

The panelists continued to disagree on the essence of Islamophobia, which effectively raised the question, “Is Islam to blame for Islamophobia?” Bassem Youssef (@drbassemyoussef), an Egyptian surgeon and political satirist, asserted that all religions contain negative, or violent quotes. Youssef posited that if Muslims are being subjugated to hate then we should also hold the Westboro Baptist Church accountable for its hateful and prejudiced actions.

Faisal Al Mutar (@faisalalmutar), an Iraqi writer and public speaker, who spoke in place of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, concluded his argument with, “The problem with fundamentalist Islam is the fundamentals in Islam.”

Belal Bahader, a Seton Hall University student, expressed his view on the event:

“The event was successful in bringing sides from all bands of the spectrum of Islamophobia. To bring all these sides together and have a civil conversation is a task that can be daunting in its nature. The event still did not pave the way to combat Islamophobia, granted, there is only so much one event can do.”

Another attendee, Nabila Shemies, said,

“It was interesting to see the different points of view, that was my intent on attending. I don’t believe it made a clear possible way to combat Islamophobia, if anything, for those who are new to it, it would be more confusing.”

Islamophobia is a real and rampant vice in the world that’s continuously upheld by the media and perpetuated by bigots that have no clear understanding of Islam. Having a critical and thought-provoking conversation on it allows further understanding into the issue with hopes that it could gradually be eliminated.

Editorial note: An earlier version of this article stated that Asra Nomani views Islam as a religion of violence, oppression, and misogyny. Asra has explained to that she is “critical of extremist and sexist interpretations of Islam, but doesn’t embrace the idea that Islam is monolithic and advocates for a progressive and feminist interpretation of the religion.” This article has been revised to reflect this correction.

Written by Halimah Elmariah