Five Ways Jews Can Respond to Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

January 11, 2016Rabbi Sarah Bassin

The convergence of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino have caused the simmering anxieties about the integration of American Muslims to finally erupt. 

When terrorists claim that their violent acts are committed in the name of Islam, people conclude that the problem is with Islam itself. This logic is both inaccurate and dangerous. It’s inaccurate because at many points throughout history, Islam has played a liberalizing role in society, and today, the United States is home to a flourishing moderate Muslim community. It’s dangerous because it condemns an entire religion and makes no distinction between our Muslim allies and the extremists who plot to carry out nefarious acts against us.

Today, many of my American Muslim friends are fearful as never before. As Jews, we have an obligation to defend a fellow minority under siege – but some of us don’t speak up because we don’t know what to say. Here is list of statements you are likely to hear and how you might respond:

1. “Muslims think/feel/believe/[fill in the blank].”

As Jews, we are rightfully uncomfortable with overarching statements made about us. We are far from monolithic and know that trouble ensues from accusations like, “The Jews control Hollywood and run the banks.” Is the stereotype founded on an inkling of truth about our disproportionate presence in media and finance? Sure – but that claim is a gross misrepresentation of the community as a whole.

So it is with Muslims. Though many of us do not have the opportunity to see the inner workings of their community, they have just as much internal diversity as we do – theologically, politically, and otherwise. Muslims are not a monolith, and the claim that Muslims, as a whole, think/feel/believe any one thing is as absurd as the claim of uniformity in the Jewish or Christian communities.                                                                                                                 

2. “Muslims aren’t speaking up to condem terrorism.

They are. In fact, every time an act of terror is committed in the name of Islam, my Facebook feed immediately fills with condemnations and prayers from Muslim friends. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, major Muslim community leaders stood alongside Los Angeles’ mayor on the steps of city hall to declare that ISIS does not represent their Islam.

Every major Muslim American organization from the Muslim Public Affairs Council to the Council on American Islamic Relations to the Islamic Society of North America has issued dozens of statements condemning this kind of violence – and yet, media coverage of these efforts is abysmal. Many Muslims feel as though they are shouting from the rooftops, but no one is listening to them. Want proof? Google “Muslim statements against terrorism” and you’ll be barraged with organizational statements, fatwas (religious decrees), and more.

3. “Muslims are afraid to speak out against terrorism.”

Worldwide, Muslims constitute the greatest number of victims at the hands of Islamist extremists. In places where extremist acts are part of the everyday life, I imagine people are naturally more reluctant to speak out publicly – but in the United States, where no such threat exists, Muslims have no problem speaking out against terror, and they do so constantly.

4. “Even if only a tiny percent of the world’s Muslims are extremists, that still means that there are millions who want to kill us.”

The fact remains that the vast majority of Muslims are our allies against extremism; see this recent Pew poll on Muslim attitudes toward ISIS, to start. When we attack Islam and Muslims as a whole, we put our allies on the defensive. Instead of concentrating all their efforts on marginalizing and uprooting extremism, they are compelled to focus on the self-preserving need to combat Islamophobia. Also, when we attack Islam as a whole, we play into the hands of the extremists, who claim that Islam is under siege.

5. Finally, it’s not just what they say. It’s what you say – and how you say it.

When people say something about Islam you find offensive, don’t accuse them of being racist or ignorant. Listen to them. Ask questions. Take their concerns seriously. Share information in a calm tone. Name-calling, while cathartic, is not an effective way to encourage someone to change a deeply-held belief – nor is it particularly Jewish.

You probably won't change the minds of those who harbor deep-seated animosity toward Islam and Muslims. But for those who make problematic remarks due to a lack of knowledge, you will have done a service by broadening their perspective. In either case, it is better to speak up than to remain silent.

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