January 3, 2010

The Fine Line

Several recent diaries over at Daily Kos have touched on the topic of Islamophobia. One question a number of people, both diarists and commenters, have wrestled with is whether Islamophobia is racism or bigotry. But even more fundamentally, one diarist asked, if someone publicly disagrees with Islam, does that make him or her a bigot? What follows is my answer:

As a Muslim, even I would say that not all publicly expressed disagreements with Islam classify a person as a bigot. But there is a fine line between bigotry and non-bigotry; on the Internet, this bigotry - Islamophobia - is usually expressed through the tone of the person's writings. The writer usually takes an attacking, accusatory mode, and rarely allows him or herself to acknowledge that he or she is wrong, let alone that the Islamic/Muslim point has merit. Moreover, the bigot/Islamophobe has no real desire to learn about Islam or Muslims. They already know what they know, so to speak, and are content to remain in a state of ignorance. For a Muslim to correct them would be "to confuse the issue with facts."

Ironically, this is the correct tact to take with Muslims: instead of attack, attack, attack (and showing we Muslims just how ignorant and closed-minded you really are), try asking questions instead and creating a dialog. Instead of assuming that Western conventional wisdom is correct for interpreting Islam and Muslim society, try asking Why? Most often, Western conventional wisdom is wrong in that it doesn't understand why the way things are (with respect to the Qur'an, with respect to Islamic practices, with respect to Muslim society, and so on). Context matters, and most Muslims understand that context far better than non-Muslims do. So don't be afraid to admit to yourself that maybe, just maybe you don't really know the subject as well as you think you do and that you may very well be wrong, and respectfully ask a Muslim for their point of view.

Very few Muslims, if any, would think of a person who comes across as sincerely desiring to learn about Islam and Muslims as an Islamophobe.


kinzi said...

Been thinking about your post all morning.

Tone is very difficult to convey in writing. It takes a mature listener to decide if a bigoted tone is there, and if it was intended.

Most people aren't able to see aspects of how their worldview filter into their communication. Many who are asking heartfelt questions of people of faith don't understand how quickly one can hear the: "Are you crazy to believe that there is a God, or He created the world?" on their words even if it wasn't intended. Or, as a Christian "How can you believe in such a heretical model as the Trinity?". And my lack of belief in the prophet of Islam is something that I try and put aside so I can learn.

It goes both ways. When talking about Islamic doctrine, I can her the tone of worldview creep up also. It essentially says: "You are intelligent, once I explain it in a way you can understand you will surely convert". Friends who haven't lived in the West will come right out and say it.

Western conventional wisdom is a foundation of worldview, as is Islam. Getting over it is not easily done, and will continually be bumped into as the conversation progresses.

I have also found that asking questions can be perceived as attack, when some have not asked themselves the same questions. We both have aspects of our religion that must be taken 'in faith'. I think for those who follow the faith they were born into, questions can be threatening. for converts like us, who studied much and made a choice, asking questions is much more a part of the discussion.

I think there is a wide range of conversation between sincere seeker and Islamophobe. You are the kind of Muslim I am not 'afraid of'. But those for treat me with shame for being a heretic, and others for whom I am not worth talking to without intent to convert, I will probably be defined as an Islamophobe. The attitude scares me.

JDsg said...

Kinzi: Excellent comment, and I agree with a lot of it. You're correct, for example in saying that tone is very difficult to convey in writing and whether a bigoted tone is present or even intended. A lot of the hateful stuff is obvious in terms of its tone, and the more ambiguous writing tone is deserving of a delayed judgment, preferably in favor of several writing samples, to see if the initial judgment was correct or not.

I also agree that most people don't appreciate how their world view affects their communication. Most people, I think, who don't travel overseas rarely have an idea how their culture influences their world view. In that regard, I think people like you and me are fortunate because we both live in cultures that are radically different from what we grew up in. The cultural differences are much more "in our face" than opposed to the differences between cultures that are more similar than not (e.g., Canada vs. the US). In that regard, we're probably more sensitive in our communication because it's so much easier to get immediate feedback as to how we're perceived from a "foreign" perspective. Likewise, we also understand better that the communication/world views go both ways because... well, we see it every day in our lives. That's one of the interesting things about living in a country like Singapore, where there are multiple world views due to the large number of ethnicities, religions and nationalities all living here.

I also agree that questions can be threatening, particularly when they are couched in a way that doesn't display sincerity. That's why I wrote that the questions need to be asked in a respectful manner.

A lot of this ties into the topic of cultural intelligence (CQ), which is something you might find of interest.

kinzi said...

Thx, Dunner more good points to think through. Makes me thankful our kids will have a variegated view of their worlds. Two of my kids primary buddies are Korean, and that has added a Far East facet to our cultural intelligence. I thought of your family when a Singaporean family moved here this year, my first connection in real-time.

I hadn't heard the term of cultural intelligence...it looks like a great new topic to look into.

One thing I took away from your post personally is that disrespect can be conveyed when feathers are ruffled. So if I am feeling that, better to be quiet until they are back in place, whatever the topic. Which is very proverbial wisdom anyway.

JDsg said...

So if I am feeling that, better to be quiet until they are back in place, whatever the topic.

This advice has come in handy for me many times over the years. Unfortunately, there have been many times where people have deliberately or unintentionally made me angry with their comments over the Internet. Sometimes I have found it almost impossible to write at the time, my hands have shook so strongly with anger. It is especially at moments like these where it's best for me to take some time (usually a minimum of 24 hours) to cool off and give the topic some additional thought before I write my response. Even when my feathers aren't ruffled, taking some time to think out my reply is frequently beneficial - just like you the other day when you mentioned that you had thought about my post all morning.

kinzi said...

I know you are a busy expat like me and may not have seen my return comment, so wanted to thank you for your comment on my blog and the Malay-insight. I am thinking that maybe you all should send some preachers to Arabia.

I realized you probably found the post through looking through my archives on Islam...and wondered how did I do bigotry-wise now that you had a little time capsule of what got in there?

Also, just so you know, the reason I thought all morning was the compelling nature of the topic, not to calm ruffled feathers. :)

JDsg said...

Sorry for the delayed response; I've been recovering from a head/chest cold the past few days. Last night I felt like death-warmed-over. :P

I am thinking that maybe you all should send some preachers to Arabia.

I doubt the Malay Muslims here could make much of a difference to the mindset of the Arab preachers. Different priorities, different concerns.

...and wondered how did I do bigotry-wise now that you had a little time capsule of what got in there?

I've never thought of you as a bigot. I know you have concerns about certain types of Muslims, but it's difficult for me to judge that concern. I don't know Arab culture as intimately as I know, for example, east Asian cultures. Nor do I know your situation other than being an American expat. By that I mean, I don't know, for example, whom you socialize with. How much do you socialize with the expat community vs. with the native population. In my eight years in Asia, I've actually kept my distance from the vast majority of the expats living out here; the only expats whom I've dealt with on a day-to-day basis have been colleagues, and I almost never ever socialize with them after work. In both S'pore and Korea I've always lived in the local housing where everyone else lives, shopped in the same shops as everyone else, ate in the same restaurants. In the neighborhoods I've lived in the past seven years, it's a genuine shock if I see anyone else who's white. I've become a "heartlander," as Singaporeans use the term. And, so, while I think your concerns are absolutely valid, I just don't know how much they correspond to my experiences. But having concerns doesn't make you a bigot, and I've never thought that of you.

kinzi said...

Salamtak. :) Hope your little one doesn't get it.

Thanks for answering, I was curious as to what someone who doesn't know me well would think, just from what I write, who is outside our world here.

I don't think I am a bigot, but I know I have the capacity, and sometimes others are a good mirror. I don't think that bigotry and godly attitudes are compatable, and it is the latter I strive for.

I am about 1/2 and 1/2 in both communities. I am not where you are (heartlander), but I love it here. There are aspects I can't stand, too, and look for ways to understand why and facilitate change when possible. Thanks!