Talking about Islamophobia in the United States can get tricky. Similar to discussions about racism, raising awareness about Islamophobia often result in fallacious flip tactics, where the ignorant non-Muslim fellow turns the tables and accuses you of being divisive, confrontational, and even racist. This reaction occurs, I believe, because such discussions about racism and prejudice not only address social problems that we’ve been largely conditioned to think are “not real,” or “not as prominent,” but also generate the perception and fear that you are trying to create conflict. And people don’t like conflict, especially about these issues.
I’ve noticed a pattern when talking with certain non-Muslim individuals about this issue (and they may or may not be Islamophobes; sometimes they’re actually well-intentioned, but just misinformed). You may be talking to them about Islamophobia and the struggles of Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America, but their responses often mystify you because they’re completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about. They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical, racist, and exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world.”
It goes something like this:
Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week in the banquet room, you should come!” The colleague, Person B, lights up with excitement, “Awesome! I Love research, what’s your project on?” Person A replies, “It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.” Person B’s smile fades. “Oh,” he says. Person A shares a bit of information from her research, but then Person B shifts the focus of the conversation and says something like, “Hey, it’s not as bad as the way Christians are persecuted in Arab countries!”
Before she knows it, Person A finds herself on a flying carpet and sent to some random Muslim-majority country. It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute, how the heck did I end up here?! I was talking about–” and then she gets dragged into a discussion that wasn’t even what she was talking about in the first place. But she is not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, she is sent to an orientalist fantasy of the “Middle-East,” which only exists in person B’s imagination — a flawed imagining of “Arab countries” that is consistent with the stereotypical and often racist discourse perpetuated about Islam and Muslims in mainstream American media. Person B is poorly equipped with the knowledge and experience to hold an intelligent discussion about Islamophobia and Muslim-majority countries, and his magic carpet takes you to a place that blurs the distinction between Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Turks, Afghans, and the various nations and regions they belong to. That is, what he terms as “the Muslim world,” is simply a single entity in his mind, sort of like an “Indian shop” I know in a nearby suburban town that sells Middle-Eastern and South Asian clothing, belly dance outfits, and plays Far Eastern and New-Age music over the radio for customers. Yeah.
But Person A may also run into Person C. Unlike Person B, Person C is quite informed about the social and political dynamics of certain Muslim-majority countries and has actually traveled to one or two. However, he resorts to the same fallacy, but only after showing off his “credentials” first. Regardless of how intelligent and articulate he may sound, he still makes the error of using comparative arguments to negate the experiences of the initial group (Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America). This is why Person B and C Love using the flying the carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for you to come back. The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed. You may have heard variations of these flying carpet fallacies before when talking about Islamophobia in western media and society (feel free to add to the list):
1. “Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!!” (real comment)
2. “However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.” (real comment)
3. “You cannot be a real Muslim and a feminist. The true representation of Islam is to kill the infidel and oppress women. Just look at the Middle-East.” (real comment)
4. “Try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!” (real comment).
5. “By the way, in my knee-jerk American way, I have to say, I am so sorry you are discriminated against here, but have you any, any idea how even Pakistani Christians are discriminated against in Pakistan?” (real comment).
6. “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby. It’s a damn movie. I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too” (real comment).
If you encounter Person D, then you’re really in for it. Person D is the Islamophobe. Person D hates Person A solely because she is Muslim. Prepare to be taken to a place where bearded, scimitar-wielding mullahs chase non-Muslims around from dusk till dawn, where a man wakes up early in the morning and then decides to strap a bomb to himself because “the Qur’an told him so,” and where oppressed, veiled Muslim women await their White non-Muslim male saviors to liberate them (depending on Person D’s ideology, the savior for the “Muslim world” may not just be Western civilization, but also Jesus, peace be upon him). Person D is only concerned about demonizing you and your faith; there is no compassion in his heart. Person D wants to get under your skin and is so hell-bent on vilifying Muslims that he often comes looking for you, whether on your blog, Facebook page, at CAIR events, or even in your classroom. If I were to describe Person D theatrically, he’s the guy with the sword shouting, “Fight me!” There is no point in wasting your time with someone who spends the lot of his time reading hate-literature just for the sake of using that propaganda to argue with Muslims and bully them.
The key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, whether it’s used by Person B, C, or D, is to (1) not get dragged into their orientalist fantasies and (2) bring the conversation home. One can also refute the fashion in which the said Persons use their comparative arguments and then bring the discussion back to your original point. Countering this fallacy does not mean that you reject, deny, or ignore the real problems that exist in Muslim-majority countries, whether they concern minority groups or the rights of women. The point is that comparative arguments by Person B, C, and D are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.
Often times, when discussing race, we hear people say, “Racism exists everywhere, no matter where you go in the world!” Yes, it does exist everywhere, but that does not make everything “ok.” The statement behaves as if it is futile to do anything about it and that we should just “not talk about it.” Similarly, when we talk about Islamophobia and someone responds with a point about minority groups being mistreated, stigmatized, or persecuted in a Muslim-majority country, the implication is that (1) it’s worse “over there” for “people like me” and (2) Muslims should be “more grateful” to “be here.” If we’re going to talk about Islamophobia in the US, then let’s keep the conversation centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Muslim-Americans. The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country. Neither topic is “more important” than the other; discuss them separately and individually instead of comparing.
Bring the discussion home. Don’t get on the magic carpet. Take it home with you and use it for fun stuff. But be warned, when you emphasize and stand by your point, the person using the fallacy may get impatient, frustrated, and even rude with you. He may start hurling insults and personal attacks at you (especially true for Person D).
Stay calm and don’t get discouraged. Because when someone demonstrates their inability to engage in civil and mature discussion/debate, they simply expose how ignorant and close-minded they really are. It is my hope that in most cases, raising awareness about Islamophobia doesn’t result in personal attacks and racism, but in dialogue and understanding.