Confronting Prejudice, Hate, Fear Mongering and More
Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of CAIR-Chicago, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit organization, spoke to the audience regarding issues that affect Muslims in the United States during a session entitled, “Confronting Prejudice, Hate, Fear Mongering and More.” During his talk Rehab addressed the issue of Islamophobia in the United States, especially in the context of how Muslims are portrayed in the media and in the political sphere.
Rehab began by addressing the idea that all of us have prejudices, prejudice on some level is innate in all of us. Rehab suggested it may come from our instinctual drive for survival and also acknowledged sometimes we are prejudicial on a subconscious level, but as he pointed out,when we recognize our own prejudice we all have a choice to make: What will we do about it? Will we embrace it, feed it, and turn it into hatred? Or will we fight against it?
He then confronted the concept of Islamophobia, starting by addressing how the literal definition of Islamophobia is misleading. The literal definition of Islamophobia, looking at its linguistic roots, is quite simply the fear of Islam as a religion. Ahmed explained that this concept has grown to encompass a way of talking about Muslims not as practitioners of a religion, which is open to critical, rational critique but rather it is used as a way to denigrate and inspire bigotry and hatred of a people because of the color of their skin and their culture.
There were three litmus tests that Rehab suggested we can use to decide whether a message is a fair critique or Islamophobic in tone. The first test is to ask if the statements expressed are generalizations. A generalization makes one person a representative for an entire group of people. The most popular example of this is the media making generalizations about the religion of Islam based on the action of a terrorist group which claims Islam as their inspiration. The second test Rehab offered was to ask is the statement a misattribution. The example of Bernie Madoff, the famous Wall Street executive who stole millions of dollars in a ponzi scheme, was given. As Rehab described, the phrase “Bernie Madoff is a crook and he is Jewish” would be a misattribution if one said or implied in this statement that Madoff is a crook, because he is Jewish. In the same way it is a misattribution to say someone is a terrorist because they are Muslim. The third test was to ask if a statement is a reduction of a more complex issue. Rehab gave the example of Sharia Law. Sharia Law has been painted in the media as something to be feared and reduced to a violent, system of religious governance that imposes strict Muslim religious values and expectations on everyone it is held over. Ahmed pointed out that in truth Sharia Law is a broad system of values based on the moral values of equality and justice. The philosophy of Sharia Law has much in common with other systems of government like American democracy.
In his address Rehab also offered a critique of the media. He discussed how 24 hour, for-profit news channels have been reduced to “infotainment” The news has become less substantive, drawing on the personality of political leaders and the shock value of news rather than addressing substantive issues in order to draw viewers, and has focused on what sells instead of reporting the facts. What sells in the media is sensationalism, the greatest example of which is the most recent presidential election. As Rehab saw it, the media gave Trump more attention because his extreme viewpoints and controversial statements caught the attention of viewers of these for-profit news channels.
Rehab concluded his talk by taking comments and questions and focused on how we as a community need to be aware of how we communicate and have compassion for those we disagree with. He emphasized the need for more intellectual conversation about the challenges we face in the U.S. and left everyone with the challenge that we need to decide what kind of world we want to live in and strive for correctness rather than the political correctness and sensationalism in the media.
In addition to his work with CAIR-Chicago, Ahmed is a writer and frequent contributor to several media outlets including CNN, Huffington Post, and the Chicago Tribune.
By: Phil Graybiel
Session Partners: Islamic Society of North America and Muslim Alliance of Indiana