1.Our Theme for This Episode, #Ramadan
Our theme for this episode was #Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a holy month that commemorates the first verses of the central text of Islam, the Quran, being revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar based on the Earth’s revolution around the sun, the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar—based on the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases. As such, an Islamic calendar year is about 11 days shorter than a Gregorian calendar year. In 2019, Ramadan will take place between May 6th and June 4th.
Ramadan is commonly associated with fasting, but fasting is only part of the rituals observed during the holy month. Between sunrise and sunset, healthy, able-bodied Muslims not only fast (abstain from food and drink), they also abstain from sexual activity, smoking, gossip and cursing, and immoral behavior. Through this process Muslims direct their hearts away from worldly activities, cleanse their body and spirit, and reaffirm their faith. The process brings Muslims closer to Allah and brings Muslim communities together around the world. Ramadan is a peaceful, spiritual time.
However, contrary to the peaceful nature of Ramadan, in recent years the month has become a time of fear. In 2017, an attacker drove a van into pedestrians near Finsbury Park Mosque in London, injuring a number people and causing one death. In 2019, two shootings occurred at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, resulting in 50 deaths. Mosques routinely receive threats and hate mail, and even bomb threats. At the root of these incidents is prejudice against Muslims and Islamophobia.
On our show this week, we featured the tweets of Muslims attempting to dispel misconceptions about Ramadan, as well as those expressing understanding and solidarity with the right of Muslims to practice their faith. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to reaffirm their faith. For those of us who are not Muslim, let the month be a time for us to deepen our understanding of Islam, and focus on casting away our prejudices.
2.The Growth of Islamophobia in Post-9/11 America
Prejudice toward Muslims exists around the world, but when reckoning with its effects and causes, the defining moment is 9/11—the series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda known as the September 11 attacks. As the first attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, it shook America to its very core. It was a wake-up call, and in the span of a morning a heavy, dark cloud of fear descended upon American society.
In the U.S., people tend to be viewed and grouped together by their color—white and black, Asians as “yellow", and Middle Easterners and Indians (and Latinos) as “brown". In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, many Americans began associating brown skin with Muslims, and Muslims with terrorists.
One example of this was discrimination against people wearing turbans—a long cloth wound around the head worn especially by Sikhs and Muslims. Despite the fact that the vast majority of those wearing turbans in the U.S. are not Muslims, but Sikhs, people began berating and even assaulting people wearing turbans on the street as anti-American. For the general American public, being brown meant that you were the enemy of America.
Sikhs are people associated with the monotheistic religion of Sikhism, which originated in the Punjab region of India at the end of the 15th century. Currently, nearly 80% of the population of India is Hindu, while less than 2% are Sikh. Nevertheless, many Sikhs are wealthy and/or hold significant positions in society. This is partly due to the fact that the British government used the Sikhs to rule India; Sikhs are known to be well-educated, diligent, and model citizens, and the British government appointed many of them as administrative officials and to positions of power in the military.
These prejudices harbored by the American public, born of fear, were nothing new. For example, between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Americans feared the “Yellow Peril"—the idea that hardworking Asian immigrants would steal all of their jobs. More recently, President Donald Trump has characterized Mexicans (and by extension other Central and South Americans) as “drug dealers", “criminals", and “rapists". These examples of prejudice also stem from fear.
There was an interesting set of survey results that got widespread attention the other day on the internet. American marketing research and public poll company Civic Science conducted a poll in early May 2019 where one of the questions was “Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?" Of more than 3,600 responses, 56% answered “No". Arabic numerals, of course, are “0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9". More than sheer stupidity, these results are reveal the extent of the negative associations Americans have with the word “Arabic".
3.Arab Caricatures in Hollywood Films
Hollywood films have played no small part in the proliferation of the prejudice against Middle Eastern people and Islamophobia. Despite the growing number of Arabic immigrants, people of Arabic descent are hardly ever depicted on TV or in Hollywood. In the few instances where they are, it is almost always as an oil sheikh or terrorist.
One such example from my own childhood is in the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger action film True Lies. The villains of the film are the members of the fictional Middle Eastern terrorist group Crimson Jihad, who are depicted as cartoonishly fanatic Arabs.
Another example is a film I first saw when I was in grade school: the 1985 science fiction film Back to the Future. The emotional climax of the film involves the main characters being attacked by Libyan terrorists. At that age, having never even heard of the North African country of Libya, the seed of prejudice was planted in my mind that associated Libya with terrorism.
Television has done no better. Arab characters in hit TV shows like 24 and Homeland are mostly depicted as terrorists. What’s more, they present Islam not as a religion of peace, but as a religion of evildoers.
These fear-based prejudices and Islamophobia are no surprise—after all, the goal of terrorism is to instill fear in civilians for political aims. Certainly, there are people out there who seek to bring American society to ruins through terrorist tactics. However, it’s important to realize how since the 90s, and especially since 9/11, Hollywood films, TV, and American mass media in general have not made efforts to dispel the dark cloud of fear over American society. Rather, it has only made the cloud larger.
4.For Many Americans, Ignorance is Bliss
According to a survey conducted by U.S. public poll company Roper Center in 2006, of young adults between 18 and 24 who were shown a map of the Middle East, 60% could not identify Iraq, and close to 75% could not identify Iran and Israel. In other words, amid the Iraq War, many Americans were supporting the invasion of a country they could not find on a map.
This survey is indicative of the average American’s disinterest in world geography. As the joke goes, “War was invented to teach Americans about geography." (Though it may be a stereotype, in my experience I’ve found it to be accurate.)
This apathy toward geography is not limited to the Middle East. In the aforementioned Roper Center survey, only 50% of those polled could find New York on a map. So it’s not a stretch to say many Americans would have trouble finding developed countries like the U.K. or Japan on a map. Many Americans assume English is spoken around the world, and those who cannot speak English are seen as inferior. This is why a belief as ridiculous as “all Arabs are terrorists" could spread. And this is not about American stupidity or laziness, but simply disinterest. Americans believe they are at the center of the world—in which case, the thinking goes, it’s not their responsibility to meet the “other" halfway.
What’s more, this general apathy toward the world is also tied to the fear so many Americans harbor. To try to understand someone of a different culture is to reckon with your own prejudices. But Americans want to believe that the U.S. is a beacon of freedom and the greatest country in the world. If they could see the faces of those they have come to fear, they would see that most are not terrorists, and more importantly, that they are human beings. That, in turn, would make it difficult to drop bombs on Middle Eastern countries. As a result, they attempt to demonize the other, often subconsciously, often actively.
Finally, one more interesting poll. In December 2015, the U.S. public polling company Public Policy Polling conducted a survey containing the question, “Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?" 41% of those who said they supported then presidential candidate Donald Trump, and 30% of Republicans were in favor of bombing Agrabah. Agrabah is the fictional setting of the Disney film Aladdin.