Religious Stuides Paul Davis

Islam in the media

"One of the most controversial and misunderstood topics in the United States is the religion of Islam. For years, various media outlets have conveyed a monolithic and distinct portrayal of what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Although portraying a religion as unchanging is not necessarily dangerous in of itself, the way Islam in particular is depicted is a cause for concern."

While correlation does not always equal causation, there is evidence to support the idea that the comments made by president-elect Donald J. Trump have caused an increase in hate-crimes against Muslims and other minorities. From proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the United States to saying that there is a tremendous hatred in Islam against Americans, one could reasonably understand the link between the two.

Despite Trump's comments being more inflammatory than most, this rhetoric about Islam and Muslims is not new. Since the American people have made the choice to elect Trump as the next president, the purpose of this essay will be to critically analyze several comments made by him about Muslims over this election cycle. As the reader will come to find out, Trump's propagation of a nationalist agenda has rendered a rational discussion about what Islam is virtually impossible.

During the second presidential debate, Trump was asked by a member in the audience what he would do as president to combat Islamophobia. The audience member, a self-identified Muslim, seemed to be referring to the numerous comments Trump had made before about Muslims. Immediately framing his answer in terms of national security, Trump wasted no time stating that "whether we like it or not, there is a problem." If one wishes to solely understand this answer in terms of terrorism, many would agree that Trump is correct. There have been a number of bloody attacks across the world and in the United States carried out by people who claimed to be practitioners of the religion of Islam.

The solution, he says, is for Muslims entering the country to "report hatred when they see it." This answer has two presuppositions that are inaccurate: that the majority of Muslims interacting in the country will be future immigrants and that those coming into the country will inevitably witness one of their fellow practitioners engaging in hateful conduct. Is there not already a significant population of self-identified Muslims living in the United States? Are non-Muslims unable to reasonably identify someone who has suspect behavior? The danger here is Trump's inability to articulate a significant difference between "radical Islamic terrorists" and normal American citizens who happen to be Muslims. This lack of distinction allows unnecessary tension and distrust to build between the innocuous Muslim community--vastly diverse itself--and the rest of the American population. In a recent personal discussion with a Muslim over some of Trump's comments, he showed concern over this particular issue. He elaborated by asking what the criteria are for a Muslim to be considered "radical"? If it is praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan, he said he would be considered "radical" himself. According to Trump, this would then make him a threat to the country; ironically, this man served in the U.S. military for over twenty years.

This sort of reductionism is a chief component of the late Edward Said's criticism of how Islam is portrayed in the 'West'. He notes, "'Islam' seems to engulf all aspects of the diverse Muslim world, reducing them all to a special malevolent and unthinking essence. Instead of analysis and understanding as a result, there can be for the most part only the crudest form of us-versus-them." Although written almost twenty years ago, Said's critiques still ring eerily true today. In a political rally roughly a year ago, Donald Trump read aloud a statement released by his campaign that called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." Trump took a pause as he basked in the roar of applause that came after finishing this sentence. He then continued by mentioning a statistic from the Center for Security Policy stating that 25% of Muslims polled agreed that violence against Americans is justified by the "global jihad". If one wishes to continue down this path, it would logically follow that a quarter of the estimated 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States would be continually launching violent attacks against Americans. Rational thought and experience thus seem to utterly dissipate in the face of fear, however misguided it may be. And according to Said, this fear sowing is largely for the purpose of political gain. Interestingly enough, many credit Trump's victory to his hardline stance on immigration.

Growing up in a small rural town in the American South, I have personally experienced this kind of prejudice against Muslims and other minorities. I will never forget sitting around with some family friends one afternoon discussing my departure to Dubai, United Arab Emirates for a study abroad. One woman showed alarm and asked if I would be safe over there. After reassuring her that Dubai was very safe, she sighed and said, "well, just please don't become self-radicalized."

The difficult reality is that my uninformed family friends--and others like them--are not completely responsible for their preconceived notions about the world and Muslims. They have been subject to a perpetuation of an image of Islam that knows nothing but violence and hatred; if a Muslim they encounter isn't currently a terrorist, it must only be matter of time before they wage war on the American way of life. And it does not take long for one to realize where these notions come from. Few words better summarize the general paranoia felt by many Americans than those spoken by Donald Trump in an interview he had with CNN's Anderson Cooper in March of 2016. When asked if "Islam is at war with the West", Trump point-blank responded, "I think Islam hates us." This idea of "us" verses "them" is a threatening and divisive concept that Said argues is at the core of Americans' perceptions of Islam. He says, "Islam is the number one enemy of any Westerner, as if every Muslim and every Westerner were watertight little containers of civilizational identity, doomed to endless self-replication." In this context, it is difficult for an average American to distinguish between raging warlords in central Iraq and their kind neighbor who happens to visit the local mosque on Fridays--both are one in the same.

Fear, in the right context, can be a useful tool. It is what allows a group of Jews in war-torn Poland to oppose their Nazi suppressors, or a young boy to stand up to his neighborhood bully. However, fear can also be abused. It can be manipulated and exaggerated, causing one to hate someone else because they perceive in them a threat that is not actually present. Simplified comments like those made by president-elect Donald Trump can be, and arguably have been, taken as authoritative fact about what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Without correction, this divisive language is what leads to prejudice, fear, and ultimately violence. To use Trump's own words, it is imperative that Americans remain "very vigilant and very careful" about rhetoric that threatens the wellbeing of their fellow citizens.

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