Opinion is Never Neutral: On Rhetoric, History and Manufactured Bigotry

Op-ed by Haley Nippert, Culture Editor

Note: I would like to begin by stating that this piece is written by an ally to the Muslim community. As allies, it is not our job to “give a voice” to those who are oppressed. Our job is to uplift those voices which are marginalized, it is to listen and it is to make sure we are not imposing our own ill-conceived notions of what oppression is onto others. This piece exists to push back against the violent rhetoric, lies and misleading information found in a recent article that somehow found a public platform and will be a direct response to that. For an analysis of the importance of journalistic integrity and the harm that comes of “opinion” masquerading as fact, please see Yusra Murad’s brilliant piece at The Badger Herald.

In a recent poor decision, The Daily Cardinal published an op-ed entitled, “Islam’s Flaws Cannot Go Unnoticed in Discussing the Term ‘Islamophobia.’” The article, written by a self-titled “liberal” Kort Driessen, displays an ignorance and disrespect that cannot go unaddressed.

The first false claim is that responses to Trump’s travel ban calling it “Islamophobic” were “well-intentioned” but “held no merit or logic.” Based entirely on the statements made in the article, it is possible to extrapolate that the author does not believe that the countries impacted by this ban were specifically targeted in part due to the fact that they are Muslim-majority countries. A few examples of how we know this travel ban specifically targets Muslims are as follows:

  1. The seven countries addressed by the initial travel ban were majority-Muslim nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This included legal permanent residents of the United States, as well as those with travel visas. Despite supposedly existing to “stop terrorism,” “none of the perpetrators of the major US terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam in the past 15 years have come from the nations on that list,” as noted by Vox. Based on this evidence alone, it is evident that there is a greater purpose behind this ban and it is not rooted in preventing violence from entering the country.
  2. Trump has specifically called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in the past, and this rhetoric followed him throughout the U.S. election. As revealed by The Chicago Tribune, Rudolph Giuliani, one of Trump’s advisors, has stated that Trump specifically “wanted a ‘Muslim ban’ and requested he assemble a commission to show him ‘the right way to do it legally.’” These are words directly from the horse’s mouth.
  3. There is a religious test for gaining admittance on a case-by-case basis. “When the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution,” they may be admitted, with Trump specifically mentioning that he intends for this to benefit Christians. This statement, of course, fundamentally brings religious discrimination into the context of this ban, in case it was not already made clear in the first two points.

The author’s next claims reveal a deep-seated ignorance about Islam and how religious doctrine is separate from religious practice, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of how language functions in social context.

As an English major with a heavy background in both history and science, I understand the importance of analyzing and critiquing language. As the author notes, “words do matter,” but he evidently did not take the time to think of the harm that his would do.

The claim is that the use of “Islamophobia” “silences honest criticism of Islam, which is both necessary and warranted.” He then goes on to erroneously list what he, a non-Muslim who has no experience with the Islamic faith, sees as Islam’s faults. He resorts to scare tactics, citing calls “for the death of unbelievers” and for women “to be stoned to death for adultery.” This is a prime example of using inflammatory rhetoric and dog-whistle politics to polarize an audience, and is as irresponsible as it is nitpicking. He could easily have brought into discussion the Five Pillars of Islam, one of which is charity to be distributed among the needy. He could have easily spoken to a Muslim woman about how her hijab is her way of presenting herself how she chooses and is empowering. At the very least, he could have brought this up in conversation with other religions, many of which share the same values of community, faith and kindness.

What the author fails to recognize is that doctrine and practice are two separate subjects. You can address the violence inherent in religious doctrines, but that does not mean that religious practice is a clear transfer of that doctrine. There are beautiful examples of Muslims leading interfaith movements, including their fundraising to support repairs of a Jewish cemetery after anti-Semitic attacks earlier this year. There are plenty of Muslim organizations which provide resources and support to their LGBT community. And there are many powerful women who follow Islam, among them U.S. Olympians, presidents and scientists. The way in which Driessen’s article makes assumptions and uninformed claims about Islam does a disservice to members of the Muslim community and is a deliberate attempt to create bias.

Working around to the manipulation of accredited sources by this author reveals yet another unsettling element of this piece: he only provides information which suits his end goal of creating bias and bigotry toward the Muslim community, and does so under the guise of reliable sources. He specifically mentions a Pew Research Center poll that marked Afghanistan as a country where “99 percent of Muslims… supported Sharia being imposed as the official law of the land.” The fact that the same poll recognizes that “the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims vary depending on many factors” is deliberately mentioned only briefly—without analysis, I might add—by the author, as are the dramatically different shifts based on country of origin. For example, in Turkey only 12% of Muslims held the belief that Sharia should be the law of the land, with other Eastern European and Central Asia countries following suit. Not to mention, nowhere in this poll specifies the extent to which Sharia would be implemented or what Sharia means to those individuals who were surveyed. It is a terrifying example of how individuals will manipulate facts and resources from well-respected organizations in order to lend credibility to their lies.

It’s also important to note that the countries analyzed with the highest positive response rate to this question, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, have all been destabilized by U.S. military intervention that purposefully created extremism and allowed violent, oppressive groups to come into power. Just jumping on the Driessen’s use of Afghanistan, it’s important to note that Afghanistan was directly exploited by U.S.-Russian conflicts on their soil in the 1980s. Not only did the U.S. orchestrate a governmental collapse, but the CIA also funded factions of religious extremists and created violent internal conflict in the form of competing, U.S. trained mujahidin groups. These factions would eventually become the Taliban and institute an oppressive regime—one that uses religion as a means of control, no less. Believe it or not, the facts are clear: U.S. military exploitation of Middle Eastern countries was a deliberate move by the U.S. government to destabilize the region in order to gain military superiority and economic resources.[1] They did so by weaponizing Islam and promoting extremist groups. That is something the U.S. and its citizens must accept responsibility for. By extension, this also requires a strong critique of the (false) narrative surrounding Islam and its practice as something “violent” and “oppressive.” “With the privilege we have been granted, we can give a voice to those who most need one,” and that means addressing the blatant ignorance and Islamophobia of authors, like Driessen, who can’t be bothered to spare even five minutes actively analyzing research and engaging with the history surrounding discussions of Islam. This is evidently not the type of criticism the author hopes to encourage.

The final point made by this author is that words with “-phobia” are somehow invalid because they aren’t actually “an extreme or irrational fear.” That can be easily explained by anyone who has an interest in linguistics. Language exists in a social context and is defined by social use. As a suffix, “-phobia” functions to recognize inherent biases, often perpetuated using fear tactics, against marginalized groups, including structural, institutional and social factors. To harken to an earlier example, Trump’s Muslim ban participates in the long history of Islamophobia by crafting an unsubstantiated fear around terrorist activity, which allowed for the justification of a travel ban that in text supposedly works against terrorism, but in practice is meant to target Muslims. It has also allowed him to create fear around Islam as a religion, using unsubstantiated, blatantly false “alternative facts.” That generation of national fear and state sanctioned violence? That’s Islamophobia.

The author then goes on to list how the fear of Islam is somehow “justified” because of various examples where violence and terrorism was reasoned through Islam, including the attack on Salman Rushdie and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. What gets ignored is that violence has been (wrongfully) committed in the name of Christianity and other religions, but that is something which the article blatantly states is not the case. This is a lie manufactured to create bias and it serves to attack an entire community and religion without regard for the fear and violence it will create toward Muslim people. There is a distinct lack of journalistic responsibility in the way Driessen misleads his audience and speaks on events which had multiple, complicated contributing factors. Violence exists everywhere, but you cannot expect an entire community to shoulder the burden of individual members; this goes for all religions, all communities, all identities. It is irresponsible, ignorant and frankly, dangerous to provide a partial narrative that pits religions against each other in order to prop up xenophobia and Islamophobia.

“Islamophobia” is not a word that gets lightly, but it is a word that describes this article. An article that so wants to set itself up as critical of the term but resorts to sensationalized rhetoric and misleading examples in order to vilify an entire religion. “Islamophobia” describes this article in the sense that its author couldn’t be bothered to do basic research on a religion he has no part in, yet seeks to criticize. “Islamophobia” describes the blatant ignorance perpetuated by the author of this article in his failure to uplift the words of actual Muslims in this community and elsewhere. “Islamophobia” describes any and all rhetoric which demonizes a religion and its followers, thereby perpetuating the violence this author attempts to position himself against.

Situations can always be worse elsewhere. As this author’s failed attempt at pathos reveals, “every night you lay in bed, satisfied with yourself for sniffing out another ‘Islamophobe,’ a young girl in Afghanistan… lies voiceless in her bed.” But that in no way invalidates the lived experiences of Muslim people in this country and others. Many Muslims here and abroad face violence for their religious values, and even the smallest amount Islamophobia requires clear and forceful rejection to block its entrance into social discourse. The willingness to sweep oppression and violence under the rug because it “could be worse” does nothing to prevent the very real consequences faced by victims of this violence, and the underhanded rhetoric and false information presented by this article is just as insidious as outright violence.

The fact that this author thought it necessary to impose his voice on a subject he clearly has no understanding of is a problem that not only displays his own ignorance, but demonstrates the need to curate information more effectively and thoroughly so as not to spread ignorance and discrimination. As Yusra Murad notes in her article, “Editors must insists not only that all claims are substantiated, but must vehemently oppose and consistently reject those opinions that endanger lives and target marginalized groups.” The fact that this blatantly hateful piece made it past an entire team of editors in order to be published, when someone should have taken the responsibility to check that rhetoric at the door, is a failure that never should have occurred.

“Islamophobia” as a word is not the problem. The Islamophobia in our words and in the actions of others is the problem. As writers, as potential journalists and editors and more generally as human beings we have a responsibility to reject hatred in all forms, even the hatred that masquerades as the well-meaning, “liberal” ally.

Source: [1] “Chronology: Afghanistan: the making of U.S. policy, 1973-1990.” Digital National Security Archive, ProQuest. June 16, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/1679041932?accountid=465.

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