The Case for Tolerance: Examining Islam in the West

 /  May 3, 2015, 3:01 p.m.


“Why does the power structure in the world want Islamic thought to be marginalized and remain latent?”

These are words from Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei, written in a public letter to the “youth in Europe and North America,” released January 21. Khamenei’s message in the letter is to research, think about, and understand Islam before judging it.  He speaks to youth because they are the “future of your nations and countries.” Khamenei, in his role as Supreme Leader, is the head religious and political figure in Iran. Known for heavily critiquing Western governments, he also states in the latter that he is not writing to politicians, as they’ve “consciously separated” politics from the “path of righteousness and truth.”

Although this particular remark could alienate readers in the United States and Europe who stand by their governments and politicians, it mustn’t be cause to dismiss the letter’s entire argument, which has merit regardless of political motives in this context.

I spent last quarter studying abroad in  Morocco—a Muslim country—and have found myself questioning the American popular conception of Islam much more than I did before.

The original question—regarding the world power structure marginalizing Islamic thought—addresses the Western world’s perceived connection between Islam and terrorism, which is an association that is extremely prevalent in American and European news and popular media. Khamenei continues, inquiring, “have you ever received the message of Islam from any sources other than the media?”

He’s right. Here, Khamenei strikes a chord that resonates. Few Americans know anything about Islam, other than what they hear or read in the news or infer from TV shows or movies, and the media almost exclusively describes radical, violent actions committed by groups that claim to be Islamic. This has created an inaccurate, pejorative image of Islam.

The general perception of Islam in the United States, at least, stems from mainstream media: news, movies, and TV. Nearly every story related to Islam on broadcast news centers on Islamic extremism and terrorism. Throughout last summer, on any given day, you could find news about attacks by the Islamic State or on counterattacks made by coalitions formed between the United States, European, and Middle Eastern countries. Over the winter, most stories involving Islam described the terrorist activity in France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “anti-Islamization” protests and other such negative content.

In popular television shows and movies, the American film industry nearly exclusively exhibits Islam’s radical sects. Showtime’s popular series Homeland only portrays Islam when a character commits terrorist attacks against the United States after converting to Islam—as an extremist, of course. More recently, Director Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper—nominated for six Oscars—centers around one Navy SEAL’s war experience fighting terrorists in Iraq. Though it also portrays Islam poorly: the movie opens with the Islamic call to prayer and immediately draws a connection between Islam and these particular terrorists, portraying Islam as a religion of violence.

The simple rhetoric used in America’s portrayal of Islam also depicts it nearly exclusively alongside terrorist activity. The label “Islamic State” (or “ISIS” or “ISIL”) is detrimental to people’s opinions of Islam. ISIS aims to establish a widespread “Islamic” rule through means of physical conquest, but the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book, does not condone active violence against non-believers. It only mentions defensive violence, which makes sense for the context, as the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers were persecuted by Arab pagans in the seventh century. Unless someone is threatened, the Qur’an explicitly preaches peace between people.

The point is that whenever the Islamic religion appears in American mass media, it’s a one-sided portrayal that only focuses on the actions and beliefs of extremists. While these forms of entertainment aren’t technically stating incorrect facts, they are directly producing an image that is incorrect, one of the world’s second most populated religion as threatening, violent, and hateful. On a large scale, that simply isn’t true.

Even so, Westerners who hear about the Islamic State pillaging villages in Iraq and Syria and executing hostages often automatically associate extremism with traditional Islam. Moreover, descriptive terms such as “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremists,” and “Islamization” all refer to terrorism in some way, but that fact that they include the word “Islam” further perpetuates the pejorative connotation Islam in America.

Now, these labels are still factually correct. They just happen to dominate the only American headlines and entertainment that ever discuss Islam, generating the connotation of terrorism. The media is naturally going to cover the most eye-catching stories and make movies and TV shows about war instead of peace, and this is the problem. The American media is to blame for the erroneous conception of Islam.

A discouraging event happened at Duke University in January, where students were going to chant the Muslim call to prayer from Duke’s neo-Gothic chapel. Even though various religious groups, including Muslims, already use the space, opponents of this action spoke out, ignorantly referring to Islam as a “religion seemingly at war with Western civilization,” along with, “we as Christians are being marginalized.” The evangelist to whom that second statement is attributed told donors to withhold donations to Duke until “this policy is reversed.”

Not long after, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina resident murdered three Muslim students who lived next door. They were known as model citizens, not posing a threat to anyone. Some believe the possible motive was a dispute over a parking space, but others point to anti-Muslim social media posts by the offender, which suggests the motive of resorting to murder over a parking space was the victims’ religious beliefs.

The situation is worse in other Western countries. In France, a man was murdered in his home for simply being Muslim, and in January, numerous Muslim businesses and mosques were attacked, without any connection to radical Islam or terrorist activity. All of this follows violence in France committed by extremists in the name of Islam, but not the same, traditional Islam practiced by nearly all of the Muslim world. These completely unjustified retaliations by people in France and the United States are simply manifestations of America's and the West’s misguided idea of Islam as an entirely contemptuous religion.

The cause of this anti-Islam paradigm in the United States raises the question: is it the responsibility of the American media to transcend reporting the facts and consider how its words and images might affect people? Morally, one can easily argue that yes, this should be of the highest concern. Others, however, may say that you can’t expect a free society to censure its own portrayal of something, as long as it isn’t directly harming anyone.

The truth is that Islam is far more similar to Christianity and Judaism than most Americans realize. The Qur’an is based on both the Bible and the Torah, as it borrows many stories from those foundational texts of America’s two main religions. Further, and likely more surprising to many Americans is that Islam believes that Abraham, Jesus, and Moses were all prophets. In addition to Muhammad, the last prophet, all of these figures delivered the Word of God, as in Christianity and Judaism.

Islam is really not very different from more widespread American religions. Christianity and Judaism each have their own violent religious extremists as well. Extreme Christian views motivated the violence of the man behind a 2014 terrorist attack in Texas. Radical religious interpretation and terrorism span multiple religions. Although the vast majority of religious extremism today might occur within Islam, but that shouldn’t warrant a stereotyped view of a religion as a whole, one that, at its core, isn’t violent or hateful.

To return to the original message, Khamenei’s letter aims to prompt Westerners to read about and understand Islam before making judgments based on media portrayals of fringe actions. Khamenei’s message is extremely important for Western youth (and would be for politicians, even though he dismisses them as disingenuous), but his letter does something else vital for the reputation of Islam: it exhibits the eloquent, thoughtful nature of an Islamic leader—one of the most powerful in the world—to Americans, many of whom likely haven’t engaged with many Muslims, and have instead only heard about Islamic extremism. Such a letter can only benefit the image of Islam in the Western world.

The issue comes down to this: to assume one small, so-called sect of a religion represents the entire faith is simply incorrect and has negative implications. For the most part, Americans don’t do it—at least consciously. Though, many Americans are guilty of this subconsciously. Much of this description of assumptions is a generalization; still, the persecution of Islam’s image—and occasionally physical persecution of Muslims—in America and even other Western countries is hurtful, and the media happens to be the main culprit facilitating the assumed image.

Khamenei wants interactions between “Islam and the West” to be written “with a clearer conscience and lesser resentment” in the future. This letter’s argument hits the nail on the head, and every American should read it. He posits that this phenomenon stems from a “fear of the ‘other’.” Overcoming this fear is simple: learn more about it the ‘other’ so it doesn’t seem so foreign. When is it right to judge the ‘other’? Only when you know enough to understand the internal struggle of the other point of view, can you rightfully judge the ‘other’.

Judging an entire religion based on eye-catching news and entertainment about a minuscule percentage of its adherents is wrong. It’s true that we need to identify those who pose threats to Americans and people everywhere and work to eradicate the threat. It’s also necessary, however, to solve the problem of persecuting people based on an assumed connection to the original threat, especially since it has put humans in physical harm’s way. Now, it’s up to us—not just the youth, but all citizens of the United States, Europe, and rest of the world—to speak out against defamation of Islam as an entire religion.

Sam Zacher


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