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Disparaging Islam and the Iranian-American Identity: To Snuggle or to Struggle


By Sasan Seifikar, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca (photo by Newsha Tavakolian)

I feel a little uncomfortable with writing this piece because I love philosophy, critical thinking, and examining established views. So I feel a little odd about saying good and nice things about Islam (or any other orthodox religion) even while remembering its serious shortcomings, because I am not a traditional believer nor believe in an omnipotent God and the existence of heaven and hell in another realm. But this is a political and existential task which I find myself having many good reasons for setting upon.
Reader, you may have noticed that Islam is under heavy fire these days in the West. I want to argue that while Islam is susceptible to various important and serious criticisms, it is wrong and unfair to demonize Islam, and in some ways, it is counterproductive for Iranian-Americans to uncritically go along with this trend. 
It is uniquely awful
Islam is an Abrahamic religion. It is heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity and it is similar to them in its monotheism and its basic outlook on life and death and various other broad issues, and in its legal system and rituals. So it is unfair and a contradiction to single out Islam as evil and to treat these others at the same time as worthy and decent. Islam has in a broad way a civilizing effect and promotes living in peace with others. On the other hand, it also can provide justification for violence, particularly against non-Moslems, and for patriarchism. But these tendencies also appear in Judaism and in the history of Christianity. 
Islam is anti-Modern
Some opponents of Islam argue that Islam is anti-modern and that Moslems reject modernity. From this perspective, Moslems societies are viewed in terms of what they lack, namely, modernity, progress, democracy, and rationality. These can of course only be imported from the West. But this view is based on the narrative of exceptionality of the West. This is what legitimizes it and gives it its force. It is built on the contrast between modernity and pre-modernity which is seen as backwards, darker, less civilized, less scientific and more authoritarian and cruel. This contrast is then transferred from the temporal plain to a spatial one and into a contrast between the West and its Other. 
People in the West and those who consider themselves pro-West or influenced by the West latch on the view of Islam as anti-Modern with ease, because they are subtlety invited to feel good about themselves in virtue of this false contrast. This is almost irresistible. I however think that whatever are the problems with Muslim societies and people, disparaging them and calling them uncivilized will not address these.     
There are many Moslems who do not want an Islamic state or to be ruled by the clergy. They live in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and in just about every Muslim country. Many Moslems are educated and cosmopolitan and they are interested and open to other cultures and ways of being. Many Moslems also live under tyranny and under rulers who instead of development only care about holding power and establishing a total security state. I think that the main problem with many Muslim societies is lack of development, that is, poverty, and lack of good roads, good hospitals, good schools and universities, and good governments. If these problems were addressed and people in Muslim societies had basic democratic rights, then we would probably see Muslim societies transform themselves and become more dynamic. 
It is a total way of life
Some opponents of Islam argue that this can never happen because Islam is not merely a religion, but a total way of life. But it is ridiculous to talk of a monolithic Islam. There are over a billion adherents of Islam and they live in many societies each with their own history and pre-Islamic culture. Islam is always influenced by the local histories and cultures. There is no pristine and pure Islam. Moreover, the lives of Moslems, much like the lives of others, are influenced and touched by many sources. It is a fact that there are many Moslems who do not have a religious life-style. There are many Moslems who do not even pray or fast. There are also many Moslems who do these things but do not regularly go to a mosque, and so on and so forth. For these Moslems, Islam is simply not an all encompassing ideology. This makes you wonder, how is it that many people in the West are often completely sure of this, but it is so difficult to find any Moslems who actually believe it, except a few mad lunatics who the media treats as our spokesperson? How is it that the identity of everyone else is also shaped by their job, education, interests, and political leanings, but the identity of Moslems is solely determined by their religion?     
The response to the attacks on Islam
Islam shows up in the Western media most often in connection with Islamic fundamentalism, acts of terrorism and political violence. In this way ordinary people in the West and even many scholars connect and associate Islam with extremism and violence. Needless to say this negative perception began with the Iranian revolution, hostage taking and the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. It is prevalent and very loud and powerful. But the response to this negative characterization has been varied among Moslems.  
In Europe this negative focus on Islam has made many Moslems offended and defensive and many in turn have embraced Islam even more strongly than they had previously. Many European Moslems, a large portion of whom originated from North Africa, have become aware of their identity for the first time. In this context many Moslems are going back to mosque and some Muslim women have taken up the scarf. This kind of retrenchment is a bit reactionary and superficial. It is also often uncritical.
Many Iranian-Americans however have taken a different path and that is distancing themselves from Islam and in some cases rejecting and leaving it. The reasons for this renunciation are various. For one thing, Islam is the religion of a great majority of Iranians, but it is not our native religion. It is an import. The Koran is in Arabic and since this is not our language, it is always a bit remote and alien. Moreover, while we often voluntarily practice it (mostly because we are born into it), initially it was imposed on us through war and invasion. These facts make it easy for us to think of it as not truly ours when it is being vilified and it means trouble.   
Many Iranian-Americans, like our brothers and sisters back home, are also turning away from Islam because of the damage that the clergy and their gang have done to it. Many of us can hardly help ourselves from equating Islam with authoritarianism, brutality and corruption. One can not get ahead in Iran unless one is always playing the role of the pious Muslim. This means that for many of us Islam also signals conformism, social-climbing, and embracing the regime. 
Forsaking Islam as a coping strategy 
Not withstanding these reasons which I just outlined, I want to argue that Iranian-Americans are mainly distancing themselves from Islam and in many cases leaving it as a coping strategy for dealing with the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Middle East sentiments in the United States. Iranian-Americans are dissociating themselves from Islam as a repositioning strategy to deal with the prejudices and suspicions which have been directed at them since 9/11. Feeling vulnerable and helpless, many Iranian-Americans have often unconsciously absorbed the fears and the sensibilities of their ordinary fellow Americans and the mainstream media about Islam and Moslems. They have accepted the negative characteristics associated with Islam and Moslems, and so they are trying to deflect these by pushing Islam away.
In some sense it is not unreasonable to think: well! Islam is like a sinking ship, who would want to stay around and drown? A lot of abuse and crap is being thrown at it, and frankly if you do not want to get some of it on you, you got to get out of the away. This is also how we sometimes act when a friend, acquaintance, or even a family member is in some kind of trouble or someone is saying something very bad about them. We look after number one and then tell ourselves that we are doing it for good ethical reasons and legitimate concerns or we line up and use the opportunity to settle any grievances we may have with this person and to see how we can use this to our own advantage. Alas the mind somehow freezes and we can not think of any good reasons to resist these charges or to doubt them, but only scenarios which support them come to mind. Overcome by fear and the concern for self-interest, we show no courage and we will not use our own mind and judgment but give way to the authority of others. Meanwhile, let us not forget, as long as we go with the flow, we do not have to worry about any possible harm to us and we are immune. When we apply some of these ways of being to politics and to the current social environment, we get the fellow Iranian-Americans who are targeting Islam and Moslems on behalf of the powers to be and do this with glee.
Despite these considerations, I want to argue that there are good reasons for Iranian-Americans to defend Islam or at least not to disparage it publicly, even if we are not religious or believers. Reader, please note that my concern is not mainly directed at those who are leaving Islam, particularly if they are doing this for reasons that are not superficial. By this I mean if they are in search for better systems of belief or looking for a spirituality that is more humane and egalitarian, then more power to them. But I am primary addressing those who publicly bash Islam and incite hatred towards it by openly baring witness to its oppressions and playing into the fears and concerns of Americans about Islam. I want to give four reasons why abusing Islam is not a good idea.

Reasons not to hate 
The first is that when we portray Islam and Moslems as violent and aggressive, in a way we play the part of the foot soldiers in the War on Terror which is a war on Moslem nations. Even when we do this as powerless ordinary citizens, we unwittingly help to prepare a social environment in which there is support for such attacks. We are also contributing to a domestic environment in which more pressure is directed at those Moslem-American citizens whose origins are different than ours or who have not left Islam behind. In other words, we are helping to make Moslems the enemy within and outside the US. 
The second reason that depicting Islam and Moslems as evil is a bad idea is that this is a form of racism and bigotry. Recall that there are over a billion adherents of Islam, living in many different cultures and nations. Putting Moslems under the same umbrella, painting a very unflattering caricature of them, and consistently attributing the worse motive to Moslems as a whole, is promoting prejudice and racism. Portraying Islam as a demonic and murderous religion is certainly not a criticism of Islam, which is done in a different spirit. I think that if we care about prejudice, racism and bigotry, then we should not do this. If it was wrong for the Nazi's to promote hatred of Jewish people and to portray them as bad, devious, and alien in virtue of their religion and culture, then what those who promote fear and hatred of Islam and Moslems are doing is also wrong, even though there is no immanent threat of violence or mass-killing of the Moslems who are living in the West.
The third consideration is that if when there is a conflict one is always conforming to the prevailing way of things, offering no resistance, acting mainly out of fear and self-interest, then one is liable to end up with a very thin and superficial sense of self. Personal strength and believing yourself comes from thinking for one-self, resisting strong forces, and acting out of other considerations besides what is good for me. No doubt, there is a lot of pressure on us, but we got to not let these social forces crush us and take away our individuality and ability to think for ourselves. We do not just chance upon character and substance; they must be aimed at and worked on. We are certainly not going to end up with much character or substance if we are always following other people's suggestions, if we fail to take a stand every once in a while against the currents, and if we do not stand by or have any faith in anything or anyone besides personal interest and safety. Power and money can make us feel secure and better off than others, but they can not strengthen us or add much to our self-worth.
To Snuggle or to Struggle
Finally, the US is the home of a variety of different religions, cultures and peoples. This is one of the sources of its richness. So it is rash for us to try to hide and get rid off our differences and change who we are just because of the current ultra-patriotic climate. This is an unnecessary accommodation. There are undoubtedly many ways of being an American and some are better and more humane, considerate, thoughtful than others. I think that it is a mistake to uncritically imitate the most common and jingoistic Americans. It is also a mistake to give up part of our identity and our choices about who we are under social pressure.  
Instead of carelessly accepting and adapting the identity and views which are presented to us by the mainstream media and projected by the majority culture, we ought to struggle against these and try to create our own unique identities utilizing all the options and resources which the broader American culture holds for us. The choice of whether we should embrace or struggle against the narrow identity options which are imposed on us by the American majority culture is not unique to us. Historically all minority groups have had to and continue to contend with them. Malcolm X was in part addressing this dynamic when he contrasted 'the house nigger' with 'the field nigger' in plantation life. 
It is important to recognize that the coping strategies and responses to the post 9/11 patriotic environment which are available to Iranian-Americans go beyond the reactive and defensive options of behaving in a subservient manner towards the majority culture and giving up our religion and identity in order to be accepted into the mainstream culture. The repositioning moves and tactics can also be pro-active and assertive. We can be Americans and assimilate while still retaining our identity, dignity and self-respect, and without succumbing to blind conformism. We can protect ourselves from any kind of harassment and intimidation by standing up for ourselves in a civil manner and by appealing to our rights as equal citizens, to our freedom to worship, to live as we see fit and peacefully with people of other ethnicities. We can learn how to communicate better and find out a little more about Islam and about the other relevant social and political issues, so that we can politely resist hate speech and foolish claims, maybe raise consciousness, and even promote peace.  
We can also protect ourselves from hostility and pestering by authorities and ultra-patriotic fellow Americans by utilizing the American social and political system and the tools provided by it. Many Iranian-Americans have taken up the task of informing themselves and others about their legal and political rights and have become more political. In the past decade, Iranian-Americans have formed various political and civil organizations in their communities, universities and at the city, state and national level, to raise awareness about us, our presence in the US, and our issues. Some Iranian-American scholars are trying to raise consciousness about Islam and to humanize it, while not overlooking its outdated and inhumane tendencies. Others are working on issues of international politics and are trying to show that things are more complex than those who divide the world into good and evil nations want us to believe.

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