As a Pakistani-American who was raised Muslim, I’ve been abstaining from weighing in on the unrestrained anti-Muslim crusade that has recently metastasized to untenable proportions worldwide, partly because I don’t want to add another decibel to the din, but mostly because it’s hard not to feel utterly demoralized and alienated by the whole thing. What sense can possibly be made of a movement so obviously ill-informed, so outlandishly divorced from the facts and fueled by atavistic rage? Everyone seems to have an opinion, and worse, many people assume a sort of smug expertise–on both sides–on why Muslims are or are not a scourge on the civilized world.
Perhaps this is why even Nicholas Kristof’s recent apology to Muslims, in which he expressed the shame he feels for those of his compatriots who have lost their marbles, fails to really get at the issue. It is on behalf of the “gentle souls” in Islam that Kristof writes, the good ones who “have helped keep me alive, and they set a standard of compassion, peacefulness and altruism that we should all emulate.” Despite Kristof’s commendable attention to this debate, even his efforts fall short because they deny a reality that’s conspicuously absent from the wide array of commentary: the utter ordinariness of Muslims.
It needs to be said. Muslims are most notable not for their supposed rejection of modernity, their distrust of the West, their perpetration of cruel and inexplicable crimes against women, and their global lack of education (all of which are apparent truths that even liberal advocates feel compelled to mention in the name of “balanced reporting”), nor for their individual and systematic charity, their historic accomplishments, their ability to thrive communally in the most hostile environments, and their destruction at the hands of invading military powers.
No, the one statement that can be fairly and accurately made about Muslims, a group of 1.2 billion, consisting of Asians, Africans, Europeans, North Americans, is that there is absolutely nothing extra-ordinary about the vast majority of them. When Americans express wariness about donating to flood relief in Pakistan, it is not the Zardari government they deny, or extremists or the military or honor-killing, Shariah-wielding troglodytes, but the farming and working-class populations of countless towns and villages whose routines differ little from anyone else’s, Muslim or otherwise, anywhere in the developing world.
And if the anti-Islam mania has real consequences besides assaulting the ears and causing heartache to millions of American Muslims, those consequenes are embodied by the sluggish and woefully inadequate response to the floods. More than two months since the flooding began, 20 million people, a full half of whom are children, have been affected by displacement, starvation, and disease, not to mention the decimation of the country’s food supply and livestock, as rivers have overrun their banks by up to ten miles on either side. Deemed the worst natural disaster in the United Nations’ history, the ongoing floods dwarf all other recent natural disasters in every way, except in terms of the amount of aid received.
Many rationalizations have been offered for this discrepancy, from Pakistan’s corrupt leadership to Americans feeling tapped out during the recession. The incentives offered for helping have had less to do with the deserving victims, reduced to subhuman conditions, and more to do with geopolitical strategizing: let’s help them before more of them become terrorists. Tellingly, the old platitude about “winning hearts and minds” made several dubious appearances as U.S. politicians urged Americans to donate to the relief effort. Yet per capita aid remains alarmingly low, less than one per cent of what each victim of Haiti’s earthquake received. Even more revealing, however, is the contrast with the outpouring of aid to Pakistan after the calamitous Kashmir earthquake in 2005, a full twenty-four times more per person affected.
What’s changed since 2005? Why now, the furor across Europe over the ubiquity of halal food and hysterical paranoia over immigration? How to explain the Tea Party’s co-optation and amplification of non-issues into battles for the very soul of freedom and democracy? Why is it suddenly permissible in this country, which the rest of the world used to chuckle at for our unshakable allegiance to political correctness in public discourse, to openly revile Muslims? More to the point, what do we make of the singling out of Muslims as unequivocally determined to bring down the West?
Part of the answer is surely the times we live in. Accustomed as we are in the digital age to the instantaneous and infinite dissemination of ideas (not to mention our taken-for-granted right to post responses to painstakingly constructed arguments online without a moment’s thought), it seems we’re more prone than ever to accepting or rejecting the veracity of a statement before we’ve really considered it. Things start to “feel true” if you hear them enough times.
The war of words against Muslims seems to have been empowered by a case of mass uncritical credulity and pugnacity. “Islamophobia” derives its appeal from the fact that it’s built upon fantasy and delusion, delusion moulded by repetition into “fact” and exploited for political and corporate gains. People who, for example, chose not to help the flood victims, armed with the belief that they hate Americans, have been gravely misled. Not only are flood victims not fixated on the West and bringing about its doom, Europe and America figure hardly at all into their material concerns, so negligible is the West’s relevance to most Pakistanis’ lives, except in the most abstract ways. (This is not unlike how little influence Pakistanis exert on the way Europeans and Americans live their lives.)
These millions afflicted by the flood, like their spared countrymen, are people who, despite Marty Peretz’s preposterous claims to the contrary, exult at the birth of their children, care for their aged parents, enjoy family gatherings, feel bereft when a loved one dies, long for representative governments, and labor under harsh conditions inconceivable to those in the American middle class who claim some sort of access to a mythical “Muslim” psyche.
At its most basic, there seems to be one very obvious commonality among those who effortlessly, and with such conviction, strip the world’s Muslims of individuality and basic human concerns: they have never spent time in a Muslim country. I don’t need to romanticize anything to evoke the value of having grown up in Pakistan, as mercurial a country socially as it is politically, where amid class disparity, egregiously self-serving leadership, and the primacy of the feudal system (to name just a few of the problems ordinary Pakistanis face), I learned the very same lessons that thoughtful members of any society should learn: self-respect, empathy, and a sense of the world and my place in it. These are not uniquely Islamic virtues, but they exist in Islam, among Muslims, with just as much frequency as they do everywhere else.
It’s not enough merely to claim, as many do, that most Muslims (most Pakistanis, most imams, most flood-victims, etc.) are “decent” people. Decency sounds increasingly like a quaint and misappropriated concept anyway, uttered so often by those who espouse bigotry and hate. And saying something too many times can cause it to lose meaning, make us stop thinking about what it really means. That there is nothing unusual about Muslims’ moral sense, their desires and motivations, is precisely why the heated efforts to define Islam’s role in the world, to paint Muslims as exceptional somehow, as possessing a monopoly on any one human quality, is more than just a lot of ugly noise. Its consequences can be measured in human lives.