AS I WRITE this, the top story on The New York Times website reads “Anti-American Protests Over Film Expand to More than a Dozen Countries.” The slideshow includes images of angry young men with their fists in the air and masks over their faces protesting on dusty streets filled with riot police and open fires. As if Americans’ view of Muslims was not dark enough.
The film in question is the 14-minute YouTube clip called Innocence of Muslims that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoonish clown and even a child molester. It was created and promoted by individuals with a long history of anti-Muslim activities, who were perfectly aware that it would provoke a small segment of Muslims around the world to violence. And it is now that violent response that is defining the Muslim world to many people—just as in the case of the attacks of 9/11 and the riots provoked by the Danish cartoons in 2005. As @TheBigPharoah said on Twitter: “The sad thing is that those who attack embassies are like hundreds, barely a thousand. Millions are tarnished by what they do though.”
It is impossible to overstate how frustrating it is to be constantly represented by violent thugs and to be asked to explain their actions. Here is the question one African-American seminary student I recently met asked me over email: “Why do so many Muslims ... become so enraged when someone from the West deliberately breaks an Islamic rule they take as offensive?”
The question, coming from someone from the young man’s race, stopped me in my tracks. I realized that when I was growing up in the white western suburbs of Chicago, I asked very similar questions about violence associated with African Americans—largely because most of the African Americans I was exposed to were in the mug shots on the evening news. When the term “Muslim” comes up for this bright African-American student, he replays the images of Muslims he’s seen on the evening news and assumes there are “so many” of them, just like I did when it came to African Americans and crime.
Scholars call this the “availability heuristic”—assuming that larger events or broader populations reflect the examples you can call easily to mind. The view that I had of African Americans when I was young was twisted by the small, skewed number represented on the evening news. The view that many Americans have of Muslims is twisted in a similar way by a similar dynamic.
So what’s the solution? Well, we know that there are active machines of hate and provocation out there working overtime to put ugly images of entire populations in our minds—the fools who made this film; the fiery Muslim preachers who told their congregations that violent riots would restore the dignity of their faith. So we have to put different images in our minds, and in the minds of others. We need to be reading about Muslim beauty and righteousness, and spreading those stories (those in the Muslim world need to do the same about America).
Some of America’s most celebrated artists and athletes—from Muhammad Ali to Lupe Fiasco—are Muslims. There’s a good chance that in your community there are a number of doctors, nurses, or therapists who are Muslim, whose faith inspired them to become healers. Let’s talk about those examples; let’s tell those stories.
And let’s be crystal clear about one thing. This is not a debate about free speech vs. religious violence. This is a question of whether we use free speech to tear people apart or to bring people together.
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American. His latest book is Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.
Image: Muslims protest, Morgan Rauscher  / Shutterstock.com