The Relationship Between the Muslim World and the United States and the Root of Islamophobia in America

I appreciate the invitation to this important gathering of Evangelical and Muslim leaders who are committed to combatting human hatred and Islamophobia in particular. In the name of the one God that we both—Christians and Muslims—worship, recognize, and submit to, we beseech God to bless and guide us and to inspire us with God’s wisdom, compassion, love, mercy, and the ability to overcome the satanic or demonic forces that have created so many problems both within and between our faith communities.

To begin, I first say that, unless we understand a problem and fully fathom it, there is no way we can solve it. One of the most important lessons I have learned came from a teacher who said, “Understanding a problem is 90 percent of solving it.” Part of the problem that I believe has happened in this country, certainly before 9/11 and in its immediate aftermath, is that many of the people who are responsible for shaping American policy did not fully understand the problem that they were dealing with. This is particularly an issue for numerous members of our leadership, including many members of Congress, which has been most frustrating to me and others who are trying to help the situation.

As we all know, the prime reason for hostility in much of the Muslim world toward America has nothing to do with American values or American business—much of which is very popular throughout the Muslim world and in the majority of Muslim countries. The hostility is completely due to the very heavy footprint of American foreign policy, including its military power that the United States has in various parts of the Muslim world.

This is how we contribute to the cultivation of an emotion in a young teenager or man, who in a moment like that might say, “You know what, if I die in the process of just getting revenge for my uncle, I’ll be happy.”

I often like to make the analogy between how the U.S. dealt with Iran and how it treated the Philippines, because the situations are identical. In Iran we had the Shah who was “America’s guy” in that country. In the Philippines we had Ferdinand Marcos as America’s guy there. After many years, both of these populations wanted a regime change, which is something we Americans have the option of deciding on every four years. Peaceful regime change in the U.S. is built-in after a maximum of two presidential terms, because Americans realize they do not want any president to accumulate too much power. However, in projecting our foreign policy, we are often insensitive to the desire of other populations to have these same options.

Both the Iranian and Filipino populations did not want their leaders any more, and in both cases the religious community and leadership were actively involved in championing a regime change. While it is more popularly known that the Iranian religious leaders, such as Khomenei, were actively involved against the Shah, it is less well known that in the Philippines the Catholic Archbishop was also very much involved in getting Marcos removed. He lobbied the Vatican to help persuade U.S. leadership—at that time the Reagan administration—to effect a peaceful transfer of government, thereby helping Corazon Aquino come into power, supported by the military leader General Fidel V. Ramos. Right after that, the Philippine government effectively said to the Americans, “Thank you very much. Now, we are not happy with your military base in Subic Bay. We do not like what your soldiers are doing to our young ladies and to the morality of our people, so please remove your base from there.” The U.S. obliged.

The same sentiments expressed by Muslims have generally been met with a very different treatment. This uneven engagement describes the basic reason why much of the Muslim world has this animosity toward the U.S., which has supported strongmen regimes that have ruled in an authoritarian manner over their populations. American military bases in Bahrain, in Qatar, and in the UAE, have contributed to the sense that the U.S. government, in projecting its policies toward the Muslim world, has not been as sensitive to the needs of the average person living there. Even today, Muslims who would like to see American political values implemented in their own countries do not see a systematic, coherent, effective way of getting traction toward achieving that.

Instead, they see U.S. drones killing innocent Muslims or what we call “collateral damage.” It does not take much to create dangerous feelings of hatred. In the film Fahrenheit 451, there is a scene in which one of our bombs destroys a person’s home, and the wife survives, but the husband does not. There is a scene in which she looks into the camera (and if you understand Arabic, it is very powerful). She says, “What did my husband do to you that you killed him? You destroyed my life!” The powerful emotion conveyed in that scene made me think to myself: if I was her fifteen year old nephew, what would be the first thing on my mind? Probably revenge.

This is how we contribute to the cultivation of an emotion in a young teenager or man, who in a moment like that might say, “You know what, if I die in the process of just getting revenge for my uncle, I’ll be happy.” There are too many moments—let us call them “collaterally caused” moments—that are a collateral part of our foreign policy that has contributed to this most unfortunate negative sentiment in many countries in the Muslim world; this sentiment is sufficient to motivate that “fraction of a fraction” of a percent of the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world to commit acts of revenge.

We have our share of crazies too. When we think of the high school killings in this country, such as Columbine and other incidents as well as what motivates a young kid to pick up a gun, some ammunition and go on a killing spree it should not come as a surprise that a few lone rangers in the Muslim world would do something crazy, and even die, for a cause much easier to rationalize or justify.

America’s foreign policy footprint is the number one issue why you find more targeted hostility toward the U.S. The other important point to which I want to draw attention is the role of U.S. Muslims. The majority of Muslims who have come to America really want to see a better relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and they believe we can make a difference. The challenge, of course, is how to structure that relationship, which I believe has largely been ineffective. It is not just about having Muslim faces in the State Department but about having people who know how to solve problems, people who can be effective interlocutors.

…the real divide is not between Muslims and the West, or Muslims and Christians, but between the moderates and the extremists of all faith communities.

The problem between the U.S. and the Muslim world is complex but it is not rocket science. It is much simpler to solve than the problem of sending humans to the moon, or the Manhattan project venture to manufacture the atom bomb. We cannot send every physics teacher to Los Alamos to build a bomb. We have to have the right people, the right combination of teams, and the right strategy for solving each of the particular problems that need to be addressed. They have to understand the complexity of America’s enormous interest in the Muslim world and factor that into their calculations. We have geopolitical interests, economic interests, and military interests. Knowing how to factor in and negotiate these issues requires an orientation that embraces and comprehends the complexity of the issues involved.

I am of the opinion that attempts both to explain and solve the U.S.-Muslim divide is characterized by excessively simplistic thinking. The relationship is analyzed in a way that is inadequate to address its complexities. It is like saying that the gender divide can be described by saying that men are from Mars and women are from Venus; that is a simplistic way of describing something. We cannot solve a particular problem by simplistic one-liners or analysis.

While I believe Islamophobia that exists in the U.S. in part due to factors beyond our control, there are also factors within our control, and we Muslims have to admit and recognize that we are partly to blame. God instructs Muslims in the Qur’an, “Do not curse the gods (or beliefs) of those who are not believers [literally do not curse those who worship other than God], lest they insult God out of their own ignorance, out of their own unawareness” (chapter 6: verse 108). Muslim jurists have used this verse to argue that if a person curses God as a reaction to our cursing, then we are responsible for their cursing God. This argument is also based on a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, where he once told his companions that ‘cursed is the one who curses his own parents’. When a companion remonstrated that they do not curse their parents, the Prophet answered, “When a man curses the parents of another man, and in retaliation that man curses his parents, he was responsible for his own parents being cursed”.

I believe that we Muslims have been guilty to a large extent of this kind of unnecessary hostility, where the attitudes and behavior of Islamophobes is, certainly to some extent, a reaction to actions done “in the name of Islam” by some so-called Muslims. We have our share of extremists, too, which is why I have shared in many contexts that the real divide is not between Muslims and the West, or Muslims and Christians, but between the moderates and the extremists of all faith communities. Extremists really share a similar mindset that is repackaged in the vocabulary and worldview of each belief. Whether it is packaged in Islamic, Christian, Jewish or atheistic vocabulary, all extremists have the same mindset and behave similarly.

So, the real challenge is how to get rid of extremism as a phenomenon, as a mindset that thinks it possesses the exclusive truth. We challenged atheistic extremism of communism during the Cold War and won. How do we now combat Muslim extremism, packaged in Islamic vocabulary? This is the battle—or, rather, a war—that we all share together.

This raises the core question and issue before us in this conference: How can moderate American Christian evangelicals and moderate American Muslims work together? I do not propose to have the complete answer to this question, but I want to offer this as a conversation-starter for this conference. By exploring how we propose to answer this, we will focus our attention on the monumental game-changing efforts we can accomplish.

These ongoing events make it imperative that we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and unless we do so and reduce our military footprint in that part of the world, the U.S. will continue to be seen as a force that neglects the universal human rights of all Muslims.

If we categorize the problems between the U.S. and the Muslim world, we find that they fall into several identifiable areas. We can analyze the West-Muslim world divide from a political lens, an economic/socioeconomic or identity lens, a theological or belief-set lens, and from a perception lens, which is shaped by education and the media. Parsing the issues into its constituent and identifiable parts helps us craft initiatives in each of these arenas or spaces. Of course these spaces are not firewalled from each other since they mutually influence one another.

It is also critical that we work on the media space because it is a major influencer of perception, and opinion-shaper. This is exactly the algorithm or the methodology by which we at the Cordoba Initiative have looked at the issues between America and the Muslim world. We have identified different aspects of the problem and sought to conceive of projects that address each of these issues and determine which players need to be involved.

In the political arena, for example, it is well known that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been, since the very beginning of the birth of Israel, a major factor in alienating many Muslims toward America. There is a perception in much of the Muslim world that America is beholden to Israel’s bidding, and that Israel has denied the Arabs—who are predominantly Muslim, but who also include Christians—their rights; this perception has been a constant irritant in aggravating Jewish-Muslim harmony.

The third holiest site for Muslims, Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, known popularly as the Dome of the Rock, is very dear to the hearts and minds of Muslims. In recent weeks we have seen clashes occurring which has aroused many young people to violence. As you have seen in the news recently, some Palestinians killed some Jews, and the Israeli armed forces killed some Palestinians.

I was told by one of my Palestinian friends that a young Palestinian ran away from the settlers who were trying to kill him and toward an Israeli policeman for safety. The Jewish settlers yelled that the Palestinian was a terrorist, and as a result, the policeman shot him in self-defense. Imagine if you are this young man’s brother; how would you feel? Incidents like this, whether true or not, sustain and perpetuate the negative perception and hostility toward the U.S., because the weaponry the Israelis use is manufactured here. These ongoing events make it imperative that we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and unless we do so and reduce our military footprint in that part of the world, the U.S. will continue to be seen as a force that neglects the universal human rights of all Muslims. That is the political dimension of the problem.

Then, there is the issue of identity. This is one of the things that we are working on via our Cordoba House Project, with the help of our mutual friend Dr. Abubaker Shingieti. The identity challenge here is how we Muslims evolve from being perceived as alien to American culture to being accepted as a part of American society. How do we integrate ourselves into America? We have unpacked that journey and its narrative into several components: the legal or juristic aspect and the cultural aspect, which includes culture, music, architecture, and clothing.

Americans have already accepted and embraced our cuisine, as is evidenced by on almost by the halal food carts on just about every Manhattan city block. Today, many Americans think of “halal” as a cuisine instead of as “kosher,” which is fine with me. These are the avenues and ways whereby Americans begin to appreciate and accept our culture. This is the same story that has happened in both our faith traditions. Just as the Italians—who were mainly Catholic and called by derogatory names—brought pizza and made it an American food, today pita, hummus, and falafel are increasingly considered part of the American diet. A mere 55 years ago, when John Kennedy ran for president of the U.S., many Americans were fearful that, as a Catholic, he would be subservient to the Pope. Such was the fear then against Catholics. Since then, both John Paul II and Pope Francis have received heroic welcomes in the U.S. I gather if Pope Francis were to run for President of the USA today, he would probably win!

So if within the span of less than a century, American attitudes towards Catholics have evolved from deep suspicion to warm affection, why should I not be hopeful that the same shift can, and God willing, will occur between Americans and Muslims? When Christianity spread from Palestine to the areas where it is now the dominant faith, it took on the national identities of those countries. You have the Greek, Russian, Syrian and Serbian Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Swedish Lutheran as distinct from the German Lutheran Church etc.

The same thing happened in Islam, too. As Islam spread from Arabia to the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, and China, different schools of law developed, unique to each country. Islam adapted itself in each of these nations. So, when you compare Islam in Egypt with Islam in Turkey, or Islam in Pakistan and India with Islam in Southeast Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa, one notice how it has adapted itself to each of those cultures, including to pre-Islamic systems of law. It has developed distinct architecture, art, musical and literary forms, such that you can speak of an Indo-Pakistani Islam, not in terms of creed but in terms of culture and music (ie. qawwali) and law. Even the Hanafi jurisprudence that developed in India differs from the Hanafi in Turkey. This history serves as a basis for what Muslims need to do in America in order to make our practice of Islam not appear alien but normative.

So, to summarize, the formula for how to move forward in combating Islamophobia has several components:

  1. Understanding the underlying causes of the problem and addressing each cause.
  2. Understanding that our faiths are not the causes of the tension, but by learning about one other, we see that we have many important common beliefs. This has been the basis on which Doug Johnston has built the personal relationships with key players on the other side of certain conflicts. This brings me to another instrument that we, especially Muslims and Christians together, should deploy.
  3. The power of prayer. One of the things that Muslims are known to do is pray five times daily; and one of the practices that Christians are wont to do is pray, light a candle, and perform ritual acts of supplication and intercession both with God and other human beings. We do this in order to live up to the highest ethical imperatives of our faiths. We should not be shy to call on and deploy our spiritual reservoirs, for, at the end of the day this is what enlivens our respective faiths and us as human beings.