In recent years there has been a sharp rise in Islamophobia, an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims. This fear is heightened by sensationalist reporting of violent, criminal events carried out by a tiny and unrepresentative group of Muslims acting contrary to explicit texts of the Holy Quran and established Islamic principles. It is further heightened by an almost exclusive focus on these acts while ignoring the vastly more frequent acts of political, racist, sectarian and ethnic violence committed by others. It is spread by populist politicians seeking electoral advantage at the expense of vulnerable, targeted groups. It flourishes where ignorance, stereotypes and prejudice abound.
In this toxic environment, what can we do to counter Islamophobia? How can we support Muslims? How can we promote a just and harmonious society where all citizens are given due respect?
When you hear or read something, do not take it at face value. There are too many “fake news” items and “alternative facts” being disseminated through media and gossip. Just because something is said or printed, repeatedly, it is not necessarily true. Do a fact check.
Mind your language
Do not use expressions such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Muslim terrorist”, because they are oxymorons (a contradiction in terms), are offensive to Muslims and spread a false impression of Islam.
Make an effort to learn the basics of Islam from a reliable source. Do not rely solely on the newspapers, the television, the internet or public discourse. Read a published book by a reputable scholar. We recommend Ten things everyone needs to know about Islam by Professor John Esposito as an authoritative, accessible and attractive account of the basics of Islam.
Meet a Muslim
The best way to learn about Islam is to meet a Muslim. When you meet face-to-face, when Islam is not just a media-generated amalgam of seemingly strange beliefs and practices, the proverbial “other”, but has a name - Abidah, Fatima, Maha, Ibrahim, Ahmed, Muhammad - and a face, is someone you recognise as your “brother” and “sister”, then the fears, stereotypes and prejudices simply fall away.
When you hear racist, Islamophobic comments, whether it be around the water fountain at work, at the restaurant when dining out with friends, or around the kitchen table at home, challenge them: “That is not what I read ….”, “That is not what I heard from ….” You may lose some friends in the process, but if they prefer ignorance and bigotry to truth and justice, they aren’t worthy of your friendship anyway.
Avoid putting people into boxes. Avoid labels. Allow people to be themselves. There is no such thing as ‘the Muslim community’. There are Muslim ‘communities’, which are as linguistically, ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse in practice and customs as any other group.
Reach out to others
When feeling under siege from the constant barrage of prejudice and overwhelmed by the seeming lack of any prospect of real change in society, resist the temptation to ‘circle the wagons’. It is easy to stay at home, among your own, and bewail your fate − “they’re all against us” − but it is hard and takes courage to keep on reaching out to others, building bridges not walls, promoting relations, working for the common good and building one society. That is exactly what our religions challenge us to do, repeatedly, for as long as it takes.
From Nostra aetate, the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.
The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to humanity. They endeavour to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden plans of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet; his virgin Mother they also honour, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.
Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values. (Nostra Aetate, par 3)
From Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council.
…But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, first among whom are the Muslims: they profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day. (Lumen Gentium 14)
This article was originally published in Bridges, Vol. 74, March 2017. Bridges is the newsletter of the Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, a ministry of the Columban Mission Institute.