Talking about Islam in America
When a Western journalist and colleague recently asked, with an air of nonchalance, whether I was Sunni or Shia, I was surprised to take such offence to the seemingly innocent inquiry. After all, I think nothing of asking colleagues if they are Catholic, Protestant, reformed or observant Jewish or whether they belong to the now ubiquitous “spiritual but not religious” categorisation.
The conversation about Islam in today’s environment, though, inevitably ventures into contested territory, both in the public and private spheres and, just as I found myself taking offence at an otherwise innocent question, I also recently caught myself offending someone with what I thought was an innocent question: I asked a Muslim woman if she was a convert or born and raised Muslim.
“I don’t like to answer this question and I don’t recognise that there is any difference between the two. We’re all Muslim, just like we’re all American,” she said.
Her indignation reflects not only the defensive posture that many Muslims strike in the face of a barrage of offensive rhetoric and threats but also the diverse and heated discussions that unfold among Muslim-American communities.
Questions tackled within the community include: What makes a Muslim? Birth or piety? Is there such a thing as a secular Muslim, like there are secular Jews? (Many religious Muslims will tell you no, there is not; one is either observant or simply not a Muslim.)
Also, what is a “cultural” Muslim? Does someone such as the prominent critic of Islam, Aayan Hirsi Ali, qualify as such? If so, does that give her more credibility?
Even in academic circles these questions are not settled. In a recent private online debate, the conversation among half a dozen academic experts on Islam quickly deteriorated to personalising the matter.
“If you’re personally offended by Hirsi Ali… you’re too close to the material. This is an academic list. Critique is part of what we do here,” said one Islamic scholar in response to a string of personal attacks between academics.
“Aren’t we responding in utterly predictable terms on criticism of Islam and aren’t we demonstrating the worrisome role of small tribal academic politics (and troubling ethics) in our scholarship?” she continued.
Muslims with no scholarly training in Islam are equally polarised, as is the conversation about Muslims in the public sphere. At least in some Washington circles, there seems to be an undertone of a sort of Islamophobia that is bizarrely reminiscent of medieval thinking about pagans — something to do with the Muslim soul being inherently corrupt and untrustworthy.
This claim becomes tangible among many Washingtonians who have jobs that require a government-issued security clearance, which typically involves regular polygraph testing to ensure no wrongdoing. Within such environments, there seems to be some clichés taken almost as uncontested truth.
“Catholics make excellent polygraph subjects because they’re used to confessions,” one insider told me casually, reflecting a general belief among colleagues in the intelligence community. By contrast, Muslims are inherently suspect.
One former CIA officer said there is a perception that Muslims can more easily beat a polygraph test than other groups. As examples, he referred to incidents of Muslim non-US citizens who worked overseas with the US government or its contractors. Allegedly such individuals were able to deceive with relative ease polygraph tests conducted by the US government. However, because such things are shrouded with secrecy, it is near impossible to ascertain the facts and circumstances, such as the linguistic and cultural training of the polygraph operator, who must be highly skilled to produce a valid test.
These examples might be trivial. They certainly go unmentioned in the US national conversation about Islam. But one can infer it from the loudest Islamophobes such as activist and blogger Pamela Geller, who is among the least bashful to verbalise what might otherwise go unsaid outside fringe groups.
One of the advertisements that her organisation sponsored stated: “In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man.” The ad, which ran in 2012 on public transportation in New York, was in support of Israel but the reference to some inherently “corrupt” soul of the “other” is clear and it resonates in some of the rhetoric in the US presidential election campaign.
As for me, when asked about my religion or sect, I like to recall a time from earlier years in the Middle East, when I lived there as a child and no one asked such things. I am not about to indulge such questions now.