Just before 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 5, 2017, around the time of dawn prayer, an explosive device blew a hole through a wall of the Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. Thankfully, the bomb caused only material damage to the building. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton declared the incident a “criminal act of terrorism.”
Four days later, Sebastian Gorka, then deputy assistant to President Trump, was asked in an MSNBC interview why the White House had not yet issued a statement regarding the attack. Gorka replied, “We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months that turned out to actually have been propagated by the Left.” He went on to claim that a number of similarly “fake hate crimes” had been perpetuated in recent months. The interview proved only a prelude to the president’s defense of hundreds of armed white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans.
This emboldened white nationalist movement and its concomitant marginalization of religious and racial minorities now dominates both my scholarly and private life. “This is a moment for action and activism,” I tell myself. Some days, I concur with voices proclaiming that empirical research itself is an act of political resistance. Mostly I fear that today’s xenophobia reflects a much harder truth. When I hear, “Is this all there is?” I think not of society’s failings but of my profession’s inability to substantively intervene in this moment of crisis. The academy’s attempts to improve public discourse are flailing. I tell my students, “Words have meaning. Language is power.” But is scholarly language really powerful?
As Kelly J. Baker, Nicole Hemmer, and others have recently reminded us, white nationalism is actually a hallmark of American history. The racialization of religion, so eloquently described in the ethnography of Junaid Rana and elaborated upon by Sylvester Johnson, refers to the ways in which Muslims are assigned inherent characteristics on account of their religious identity and thereby excluded from citizenship. Racialization, as Johnson shows, is not a new practice, but rather a colonial project intrinsic to American democracy, with the result that American Muslims (along with other religious and racial minorities, namely African Americans) are “incapable of truly belonging to the state.”
Whether we are still tacitly complicit in the colonial enterprise or our narrative categories have bound us within our own discursive cage, it feels like the evidence is in: scholarly discourse does little to shift the ideologies we write about. Beyond calls for more of us to become public intellectuals, what can we do to shift public opinion on issues like nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia?
I come to this question by way of my research on contemporary Islam in the United States. In her recent book, Islam: An American Religion, the subject of a recent Immanent Frame book forum, Nadia Marzouki argues that the intensification of anti-Muslim sentiment in the mid-aughts is linked to the liberal-secular pedagogical focus on “explaining a community—reduced to an ensemble of codes.” The problem, Marzouki persuasively explains, is that efforts to educate Americans about Islam are based on a misplaced expectation that public debate ought to yield consensus and conformity. In her reading, liberal secularists are just as culpable of reifying Islam as their anti-Muslim adversaries. Put another way, the presumption of moral superiority upon which the pedagogical project proceeds has actually helped to bring about its demise.
Of course, the demand for education about Islam most often comes from audiences who are receptive to the liberal-secular project. Indeed, I suspect that the very invitation for pedagogy concerning Muslims ultimately derives from our nation’s white liberal Protestant desire for comfort. It is this nation’s elite that most yearns for reassuring evidence of the compatibility of Islam with late democratic capitalism. What’s more, expectations of consensus and conformity produce additional pressures for American Muslims, as Wajahat Ali pondered in his New York Times op-ed “Do Muslims Have to Be Democrats Now?”
For scholars of Islam, the years immediately following 9/11 brought about an exponential increase in public interest, funding, and jobs. Like many scholars, I jumped at opportunities to educate the American public about Islam. By the eve of Barack Obama’s election, it felt like academic work was becoming part of a movement. And yet, over the past ten years, public perceptions of Islam actually declined. A 2017 Pew study reports that Muslims have now fallen behind atheists as the least-favored religious group in the United States. The era of Obama proved to be a very painful time for many American Muslims. Was that a paradox? Perhaps it was not.
Until quite recently, I thought that the real challenge for scholars was to research in ways more attuned to the everyday realities of Muslim communities, past and present. I felt strongly that improving public discourse required anthropology rather than apologetics, scholarship that was empathetic but critical, historically and ethnographically situated rather than summative. I focused most of my fieldwork in Chicago on the materiality of family life, the lived experiences of marginalization, and the dualities of embracing consumer culture. Many other scholars of Islam are conducting even more compelling research projects, many of us unified not by methodology but by the shared goal of engaging in critical and unapologetic public pedagogy. Until now, I never questioned the underlying presumption that our research, collectively, could yield positive social and political reforms, even if those might take decades to unfold.
My methodological approach mirrors broader shifts in the study of religion and secularism, particularly the turn toward “immanence.” Contrary to the popular fallacy that Muslims are bound to the dictates of their faith in a way that, say, Christians and Jews are not, many, though certainly not all, Muslims I work with often speak about doubting the existence of God. They robustly critique traditionalism and conformity. They are enthusiastic participants in American capitalism. A reassuring banality lies behind my finding that American Muslims make meaning from even the rawest materials of consumer culture.
Immanence, in other words, profoundly shapes my research paradigm, and it reappears in mirrored but nonreflective ways in the resultant data and conclusions from my research. That is, as a way of describing the modern condition, it has helped to open up the very conceptual and methodological terrain upon which ethnographers such as myself proceed, seeking access to potentialities and contradictions of social reality. It turns out that religion is everywhere, even as faith is being constantly challenged. Religion permeates and persists, even as some of my ethnographic conversation partners cordon off religion, protecting it as distinct from other spheres such as “culture” or “politics.” I say this with gratitude and admiration, and most of all with wonder. Immanence has deepened my commitment to the principles of lived religion. Theories of immanence have helped me illuminate what Muslims consume and how they consume it; the nature of the power of Islamic authority in the United States; the relationships within Muslim families and between their social and religious communities; and the innumerable mundane interactions through which American Muslims construct meaningful, often politically relevant theologies as they go about their everyday lives.
At the same time, immanence occasionally gives me pause, even more so in our current climate of nativism, anti-intellectualism, and the seemingly arbitrary exercise of state power. What is the relationship between the turn toward immanence and my incapacity to nudge the normative terms of collective discourse? I want to suggest there is a gap between the stories that scholars have told about contemporary lives and the stories that seem to be unfolding now.
To bridge this gap, we need more than just explanations that satisfy the terms of academic conversations. For all my attention to fluid subjectivities, I simply cannot ignore that religious designations matter all the more today—specifically religious identities within human bodies. Within human flesh. These everyday practices are still embodied, still emanate from and through bodies, and “religion”—a sometimes fixed and involuntary demarcation—is increasingly the basis for physical exclusion and violence. Prayer groups executed at point blank. Car hoods smeared with human flesh. Streets lined with broken bodies. Bombs detonated just minutes before dawn prayer. It is relatively easy for me to understand such violence within the frameworks of critical theory that line the bookshelves of my office. Can I also accept my role in enabling, if not producing, these traumas by obviating the practices of excess in favor of nuance?
I can say decisively that many American Muslims inhabit the conditions of the secular as Charles Taylor described it. But does knowing that do anything to counter a white nationalist’s unfounded belief that Muslims are a threat to their so-called American way of life? How do we make a space for the openness and capaciousness, the creativity of everyday life while also attending to the constraints of a political order that seems to only want to contain, exclude, and discard? The narrowing of public conversations around Islam, the compression of the categories through which we represent Muslim lives, centered as they are around those familiar colonial terms of compatibility and comfort, should prompt us to ask whether the methodological and theoretical tools of scholarship are up to the task of accounting for, and articulating an alternative to, the brutality of our present moment.
Every time an act of terror or shooting occurs, Muslims closely watch the news with extreme trepidation praying that the suspect is not Muslim. This is not because these terrorists are likely to be Muslim but rather because in the instances where they happen to be, we see amplified mass media coverage and extreme unjustified hatred towards Muslims.
As a Muslim, I am tired of condemning terrorist attacks being carried out by inherently violent people who hijack my religion. I am tired of condemning these attacks to people who are calm and apathetic when Muslims are killed by these same radicalized terrorists.
I am tired of hearing the word "terrorist" not being used when the suspect in a terrorist attack is a non-Muslim. I am tired of the "mentally disabled" excuse being recycled when the suspect in a terrorist attack is a Caucasian. I am tired of seeing hundreds of terrorist attacks carried out by non-Muslims not get the same coverage of even a single terrorist attack where the suspect happens to be Muslim.
Above it all, I am tired of having to repeatedly say that Muslims are not terrorists. It is time we silence this Islamophobia with facts. My next five points will prove once and for all that Muslims are not terrorists:
1. Non-Muslims make up the majority of terrorists in the United States:According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims. This means that an American terrorist suspect is over nine times more likely to be a non-Muslim than a Muslim. According to this same report, there were more Jewish acts of terrorism in the United States than Islamic, yet when was the last time we heard about the threat of Jewish terrorism in the media? For the same exact reasons that we cannot blame the entire religion of Judaism or Christianity for the violent actions of those carrying out crimes under the names of these religions, we have absolutely no justifiable grounds to blame Muslims for terrorism.
2. Non-Muslims make up the majority of terrorists in Europe: There have been over one thousand terrorist attacks in Europe in the past five years. Take a guess at what percent of those terrorists were Muslim. Wrong, now guess again. It's less than 2%.
3. Even if all terrorist attacks were carried out by Muslims, you still could not associate terrorism with Islam: There have been 140,000 terror attacks committed worldwide since 1970. Even if Muslims carried out all of these attacks (which is an absurd assumption given the fact mentioned in my first point), those terrorists would represent less than 0.00009 percent of all Muslims. To put things into perspective, this means that you are more likely to be struck by lightening in your lifetime than a Muslim is likely to commit a terrorist attack during that same timespan.
4. If all Muslims are terrorists, then all Muslims are peacemakers: The same statistical assumptions being used to falsely portray Muslims as violent people can be used more accurately to portray Muslims as peaceful people. If all Muslims are terrorists because a single digit percentage of terrorists happen to be Muslim, then all Muslims are peacemakers because 5 out of the past 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners (42 percent) have been Muslims.
5. If you are scared of Muslims then you should also be scared of household furniture and toddlers: A study carried out by the University of North Carolina showed that less than 0.0002% of Americans killed since 9/11 were killed by Muslims. (Ironically, this study was done in Chapel Hill: the same place where a Caucasian non-Muslim killed three innocent Muslims as the mainstream media brushed this terrorist attack off as a parking dispute). Based on these numbers, and those of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average American is more likely to be crushed to death by their couch or television than they are to be killed by a Muslim. As a matter of fact, Americans were more likely to be killed by a toddler in 2013 than they were by a so-called "Muslim terrorist".
When a drunk driver causes a car accident, we never blame the car manufacturer for the violent actions of that driver. This is because we understand that we cannot blame an entire car company that produces millions of safe vehicles just because one of their cars was hijacked by a reckless person who used it to cause harm. So what right do we have to blame an entire religion of over 1.6 Billion peaceful people because of the actions of a relatively insignificant few?
I will not deny that terrorism is a real threat, it definitely is. However, it is extremely incorrect to associate the words "Muslim" and "terrorist" when literally all the facts implore you to do otherwise. The only way that we as Americans can defeat terrorism at home and across the world is by accurately targeting its root causes. There have been 355 mass shootings in the United States this year and falsely blaming Muslims for the San Bernardino shooting will do absolutely nothing to address this serious problem. It is time that we begin addressing terrorism on an educated and factual level.
As an American Muslim, I plead you all to deeply consider the facts mentioned here the next time you see a news headline about Muslims and terrorism. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that". We cannot allow the disparity in media coverage to blind us from the facts and turn us into hateful people, we are smarter than that.
Follow Omar Alnatour on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WeTeachLifeSir_