Middle East studies in the News
Panelists Challenge Stereotypes About Islam
by Kirsty Warren
The January 7 terrorist attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo triggered debates about freedom of speech, religious tolerance and the media's portrayal of Islam. Eleven people lost their lives in the shooting, including the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, columnists and cartoonists and a Muslim French National Police officer responding to the attack. As the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became a rallying cry of solidarity, many responded by conflating terrorism and Islam as a religion.
After an Islamophobic article was published in a student publication, the Arabic & Middle East Club sent an all-campus email stating, "We believe that such writing is only meant to introduce unnecessary tension to our campus. Muslim students have always constituted a small, but engaged, minority in the Hamilton community and crudely attacking their background implies an ad hominem approach to gain attention." The Feb. 1 e-mail took issue with the following statements: "It's becoming harder to ignore Islam's penchant for horrendous acts of violence, a tendency with no analogue in any other major religion" and "...there's a difference between a violent religious extremist in an overwhelmingly secular society and an epidemic of violent religious extremism in a fanatically religious society." The Arabic & Middle East Club went on to invite the editorial's writer to "represent their claims in an all-campus event."
That event was a panel discussion entitled Islam: A Religion of Extremism? which took place in the crowded Chapel on Wednesday afternoon. The discussion featured Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth, Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Assistant Professor of Religion Studies Aaron Spevack from Colgate University, Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs Alan W. Cafruny, Professor of Women's Studies Margo Okazawa-Rey and instructor of Arabic and Middle East studies Mireille Koukjian.
The discussion was planned by Muslim Student Association President Areej Haroon '17 and Arabic and Middle East Club President Hady Hewidy '17. Hewidy said a goal for the discussion was raising awareness about the relationship between Islam and extremism. "I don't personally care what the audience think of Islam as a religion, what matters is the stereotypes the surround the 1.6 billion followers of the religion," he said.
"I think the topic is important because it actually affects the lives of millions around the globe," Hewidy said. "Some of the largest wars that we have witnessed in our lifetime related to [the question of whether Islam is a religion of extremism]. Hamilton students will grow to be decision makers in this country and elsewhere, thus, having a sense of knowledge about that question will definitely be beneficial."
Haroon began the afternoon with a moment of silence for three Muslim students killed near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus on Wednesday morning. After the moment of silence, Haroon and Hewidy posed a question to the entire panel. The opening question dealt with videos released by ISIS of a captive being burned alive and how that contributed to the perception of Islam and Muslim societies as inherently violent.
"Most Americans experience Islam through misleading media which associates violent terrorism with all Muslims," Professor Koukjian said. She said that three days after the aforementioned video was released, three Iraqis were burned to death by ISIS, but the American media did not pay nearly as much attention to those deaths. "Every life lost should matter equally to us."
Professor Spevack emphasized that gruesome violence can be found in the histories of all cultures and religions. "Look at nineteenth and twentieth century lynchings, horrific instances of burning people alive with white American Christian witnesses." He called it a "historical and contemporary absurdity" to depict a relationship between Islam and terrorism as though it were unique.
"This panel could not be more timely and important," Ambassador Inderfurth said. He drew parallels between 23-year-old North Carolina victim Deah Shaddy Barakat and Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old humanitarian who was held hostage by ISIS and confirmed dead Feb. 10. A dental student, Barakat planned to travel to Turkey and provide dental care for displaced Syrian refugee children. "These were young people trying to go out and do something for others. [Their deaths] reflect hate crossing religious lines."
"When you ask the question, 'Are Muslim societies inherently extremist?' You also have to ask, 'Are we Americans inherently murderous? Are Europeans inherently warlike? Are Africans inherently genocidal?' The fact is that none of these groups are any of these things," Ambassador Inderfurth said. "They're people and people do terrible things but that's not rooted in ethnicity or religion."
The panelists brought different perspectives to the discussion about the many issues with viewing Islam as an extremist religion. Ambassador Walker, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the U.A.E., said that in his experience religion is not a motivating factor for terrorism. Far more blame should be placed on the pursuit of power and prestige, wealth and frustration with the status quo, he said. Professor Okazawa-Rey acknowledged the histories of wars and colonization in the Middle East while Professor Cafruny talked about the American occupation of Iraq, calling it "unprovoked, illegal, and designed to destroy the Iraqi infrastructure and government."
Later in the discussion, Ambassador Walker talked about the United States's role in arming Afghani militants against Soviet invasion, which contributed to the rise of extremism. On the same note, Professor Okazawa-Rey discussed the fact that land conflicts are almost always about resources. "If we trace the roots of weapons [used in the Middle East] to where they were manufactured, I think that would tell us a lot," she said.
"There are several layers of struggle in the Middle East," Professor Okazawa-Rey said. "One of the terms that gets thrown around is 'jihad.' War-making is a very thin part of jihad. Another definition of jihad is people giving what they have to those in need. I'm glad we've laid to rest here the idea that there's anything inherently violent about [Islam]."
In regard to the Charlie Hebdo attack, Professor Cafruny said it was a terrible tragedy, and the publication should have the right to free speech. He went on to say that if he were Muslim in France he would be frightened due to the tremendous amount of discrimination they face. "I certainly am not Charlie Hebdo, I think it's a very violent magazine. I believe satire is best when it's down from below, by the powerless against the powerful, not the other way around," he said.
When the floor was opened for attendees to pose questions to the panelists, the first question was about the political motivation behind anti-Muslim rhetoric. Professor Cafruny said it was a way to galvanize a political base. "You need an 'other,'" Professor Cafruny said. "Our politicians use their idea of Islam to fear-monger and get people to vote for them."
Ambassador Inderfurth, who was an ABC news correspondent, cited the role of an "if it bleeds, it leads" media mindset. "When you have these horrendous things taking place, it's easier to tell that story than to portray what actually led to this point."
An attendee asked why we see "so many Islamist extremist organizations turn to terror when you don't see this in other religions?" In response, Ambassador Walker returned to the idea that atrocities have been committed in the name of all religions. "If you want to see terrorism, you can go back to Christianity in the Crusades. [Terrorism] is not religion now, it wasn't religion in the Middle Ages. It's power using religion as an excuse."
Towards the end of the discussion, a student from Egypt cautioned against being afraid of ever criticizing Islam. She said that she was raised Muslim but identified as an atheist. "You can criticize Islam without criticizing people who live in the Middle East," she said. Professor Cafruny acknowledged the fact that the student had a different interpretation and experience than the panelists and other people in attendance, as well as a more nuanced understanding of Islam than most Americans.
"It's true that there are verses from the Qur'an that are very controversial if you translate them out of context," Professor Cafruny said. "Both Islamophobes and extremists are guilty of cherry-picking these verses without regarding the context they come from, and I think that was a big problem with the article published here."
Hewidy said he was also not Muslim, though he was raised in a Muslim family, and he did not see any problem with criticizing Islam. "Intention matters," he said. "Is the intention to criticize Islam, or to make some kind of statement like 'I am superior to you, Western culture is more advanced than Middle Eastern cultures?'"
In closing, Ambassador Inderfurth quoted an op-ed by basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabar: "'I look forward to the day when an act of terrorism by self-proclaimed Muslims will be universally dismissed as nothing more than a criminal attack of a thuggish political organization wearing an ill-fitting Muslim mask. To get to that point, we will need to teach our communities what the real beliefs of Islam are.'"
Professor Okazawa-Rey said she hoped attendees would come away from the event able to look beyond stereotypes and "gain [the] ability to distinguish between particular actors committing heinous acts and the true teachings of the religion and people who practice it."
"I enjoyed the discussion and the diversity in the speakers' individual perspectives and experience," Gillian Mak '18 said. "I definitely think I have a better understanding of the issue. I liked how the speakers focused on the context that the events happen in and what led to the creation of the terror groups, because America's involvement is largely overlooked in our media."
According to Professor Okazawa-Rey, the panel discussion was important to the Hamilton community because it constitutes part of learning to become an informed person, critical thinker and liberal arts student. "As a College community, it's also our responsibility to address bigotry and mis-information," she said.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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