Last night, I visited Pacific Lutheran University (for the first time!) to view a documentary on Islamaphobia put on by the award-winning MediaLab. The documentary, “Beyond Burkas and Bombers: Anti-Muslim Sentiment in America,” told the story of current misconceptions and struggles that many Americans have with understanding Islam and its group of diverse peoples. Also in the discussion was a high emphasis on the media and its rhetoric, particularly how it hinders the efforts to promote peace and understanding towards Muslims worldwide.
With that said, today’s blog post will focus on a discussion of intercultural communication. Using “Beyond Burkas and Bombers” as a conversation starter, I would like to share my own experience with anti-Muslim sentiment, and a brief analysis of the issue from an intercultural communication perspective.
To begin, I’d like to mention a few points that came out of the documentary and panel discussion held afterwards:
- Islamaphobia: irrational, unthinking hatred of Islam
- A third of Americans have attitudes of active hostility towards Muslims, though 62% of Americans claim to have never met a Muslim before.
- It is important to reflect on how quickly the politics of hate can dissent, particularly through the media.
- Islamaphobia also deals with an emotional questions which can be applied on a more universal sense of, “how do we relate to people that we share the world with?”
- Media uses rhetoric too easily that places negative connotations on Islam. A major contributor to this issue is the quick shifts or slips between words like “terrorist and muslim” or “al-Qaida and Islam”.
- The media also does not effectively separate extremists from normal/moderate Muslims which is problematic and an issue of politics.
- It would be valuable to reflect on causes of anti-American sentiment.
- Can media be used to mitigate anti-Muslim sentiment?
My personal experience
I identify as culturally Muslim. My father is Senegalese, and a practicing Muslim. My mother, is American of European dissent (or White, though I prefer to not use that term), and does not identify with any organized religious groups. My father taught me Islamic values, how to pray and we always observed Muslim holidays. I have fasted for Ramadan, and I have been on religious pilgrimages (not Mecca though). However, I do not practice Islam on a daily basis, and I am still on a spiritual quest to find what is right for me. I do not wear a hijab; rather I have a lip piercing. I do a lot of things, and hold many of beliefs that are not consistent with the Muslim tradition. But all of this would still be allowed, even if I were a daily practicing Muslim.
The major issue with anti-Muslim sentiment is that people who know very little about Islam and how most American Muslims live on a daily basis, attribute the religion and people as a whole with the actions of the extremist minority. To put it in perspective, here is an example:
The KKK is a group based on Christian values. Because of their Christian association, they would be named Christian terrorists, and the entire Christian faith would be portrayed in the media as a violent and evil faith, brainwashing millions of people. Then, normal Christians would be blamed and associated with KKK actions. Not good right?
This is what has been taking place in the United States with regards to American Muslims. A powerful statement related to this is “9/11 happened to us all.” I can really relate to this statement because I felt exactly that way…When 9/11 happened, I was living in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. I clearly remember my family and neighbors cursing the Muslim terrorists. They were in horror that Muslims would commit such an act in the name of Allah. Even in Africa, these moderate Muslims were gravely offended by the acts of the extremists.
Lucky for me, I have never been targeted with any anti-Muslim sentiment. Rather, I think I help others see that Islam is just another religion like Christianity and Judaism, which contains people of varying backgrounds and levels of participation or belief within the faith. I make sure to tell people that my knowledge of Islam pales in comparison to devout Muslims, but I can usually share my understanding of Islamic values which I have learned from my father and Senegalese-Muslim culture.
Analysis from a cultural communication perspective
What is paramount in this discussion is to remember that “within every culture, its members display a wide range of communication styles”, interests, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. (p.39; Adler, Rosenfeld & Proctor). Part of the reason for this, is that multiple co-cultures or sub-groups make up each person’s identity. A person is not simply “Jewish” or “Vietnamese” or “12 years old”. Identities are made up of various dimensions including age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, physical disability, religion, and activity (i.e. dancer, environmentalist, etc.).
With respect to Islamaphobia, it was mentioned a few times that we should reflect on the underlying causes of it such as economic or general anxieties. Uncertainty avoidance is an intercultural communication concept which refers to “the degree to which members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous situations and how much they try to avoid them” (p. 48; Adler, Rosenfeld & Proctor). The authors of Interplay go on to explain that, “In countries that avoid uncertainty, deviant people and ideas are considered dangerous, and intolerance is high” (p. 48). Yes, Muslim extremists pose a real threat to the United States. However, not all Muslims are extremists, in fact most aren’t, and people should be educated at this point to understand that.
Where do we go from here?
I think the most important step that Americans can make is to gain a willingness to learn and to be committed to an open-minded view of American Muslims. Being open-minded does not mean one must agree with another; people can disagree and still be respectful. That is a basic goal. To those who fear Muslims, I encourage them to watch the documentary mentioned above and to develop a more informed opinion of Islam. I have learned that when researching a topic, especially a controversial one, it is crucial to consume multiple sources from multiple perspectives. Going through that process, we can form our own opinion given the variety of information presented by people and organizations who each have their own biases. I thank the men and women who contributed their stories to the documentary because it adds another perspective to the existing media mix, one that is different from the mainstream view, and one which humanizes this issue which often is highly politicized, even when its not necessary.
Text cited: Adler, R.B., Rosenfeld, L.B. & Proctor II, R.F. (2010) Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. New York: Oxford University Press.