Daniel Tutt from the Unity Productions Foundations shares his views on combating Islamophobia in the United States.
Am Johal: You’ve been engaging in dialogues around Islamophobia and the general representation of Muslims in American society in a post 9-11 context for some time now. How would you describe the current context for Muslims in America, more than 10 years after the trauma of that event?
Daniel Tutt: The context for Muslims in America right now is a bit paradoxical. They make up about only one per cent of the total population, and they are the most diverse religious minority. The largest two ethnic groups that make up the Muslim community are South Asians and African Americans. According to many polls, Islam is the most negatively viewed religion, and we have seen the growth of institutions and hate groups that have specific anti-Muslim agendas since 9/11/2001. This growth of cottage industries that pedal anti-Muslim hysteria in the blogosphere and amongst national security and law enforcement agencies has led to a number of flashpoints in mainstream culture such as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and other more serious incidents such as the movement to preemptively ban Shari’ah law in American courts. This cottage industry of course isn’t the only source for growing prejudice towards Muslims and Islam. The economic downturn, President Obama’s election, and America’s steady changing racial and ethnic landscape have also set a larger backdrop to this rising fear of Islam in American life.
Despite this negative environment, Muslims socio-economic status tends to be fairly affluent overall, and many Muslims claim to be thriving in America. Since 9/11, the American Muslim community has been forced in many ways to come out of its shell, to become more vocal in the political and civic arena, and this is an ever-evolving process that comes with the usual growing pains and challenges that other ethnic and religious minority communities have faced historically. The common challenges that face ethnic and racial communities are facing Muslim Americans: the conflict between integration or assimilation, and the balancing of the hybrid identity of “Muslim” and “American.” In some ways, the Muslims are the last group to go through what a long line of others have experienced, including the Irish, the Catholics, African Americans, and so on. Of course many of these struggles for full representation and inclusion in the American experiment are still ongoing, and for Muslims, I think they have a lot left to still teach America as it figures out how best to make this plural democracy work.
AJ: Part of your outreach work includes visiting with a number of faith-based groups. How would you describe the fears of people and what approaches do you find effective in combating racism?
DT: Most communities are open to a dialogue with people on the topic of Islam and Muslims in America. Even Evangelical churches in the Bible Belt are generally open to learning and engaging with our program, which combines film and dialogue. The exception in their case is that they are not always comfortable with having Muslims in the dialogue itself. This is part of the reason whey we have used film, it offers a way to spark a curiosity in the other.
While Islam is the most feared religion, it is most often the religion Americans are the most curious about. What I seek to do is find the common center in a lot of my work. I consider myself a social progressive, but when it comes to combating racism and fear of the other, I favor a common ground approach that is radically inclusive. So if we really want to combat Islamophobia, we should be aligning with other marginalized groups in society, LGBT, Sikh and Hindu groups who also face the brunt of Islamophobia, and equally important, we should be reaching right wing groups and more fundamentalist churches. I have done a number of campaigns and initiatives that seek to do this and have found that when you present it as an issue of religious freedom and as a value that we all share, people get behind it.
In terms of the fear, I would refer to social psychology, where the concept of contact theory helps us to understand how racism can be lessened. Contact theory stresses that coming into contact with the other leads to a lessening of fear and a potential for a transformation of perception that one holds of the entire group the other represents. The way that contact theory is actualized, is through relationship building at the grassroots level. In sociologist Robert Putnam’s new study on religion in America, “American Grace” he argues that this contact theory is the answer to solving religious-based differences. The mere exchange of information about the other’s culture and religion proves insufficient. We are emotional beings that are dependent upon complex webs of relationships, and the linkage between someone who knows a person from an out-group makes a major difference about how they can shrug off prejudice they have towards the entire group.
Unfortunately, the Gallup organization is finding a startling trend emerge. They have found that the environment towards Muslims in America and the west, particularly in the media, is so bad that even for Americans that claim to know a Muslim, they still tend to hold negative views about the entire religion. So we see a trend emerging that basically says, I will accept your right to practice your religion and be a full American citizen, but I don’t respect your religion. This issue of a lack of respect for Islam is one of the central sources for much of the anger that Muslims outside of the west express.
AJ: Part of your work includes consulting with Hollywood over the representation of Muslims in popular culture. Has there been some improvement by the film and television industry in the depiction of Muslims in popular culture?
DT: As writers like Jack Shaheen have documented, the media’s depiction of Muslims and Islam has grown even worse in a post 9/11 era, particularly because the symbols and semiotic modes of representation have most often involved evil, violence, and political themes. We miss more humanistic and cultural portrayals of Islam, which really sets the big picture context for how Islam is understood in the west. I have argued after doing some studies of media portrayals of Muslims that the environment is slowly changing towards a more nuanced portrayal. Muslims are starting to be introduced into television shows, films and importantly, they are being introduced as average westerners, not exotic or violent prone fanatics.
For example, Grey’s Anatomy has introduced minor Muslim characters and their ratings have gone up as a result. What we have yet to see, which could be a real game changer is the introduction of a Muslim personality who could become immediately recognized and well liked, such as the “Muslim Oprah,” or a “Muslim Cosby Show.”
What we know from the field of neuroscience is that the nature of prejudice is a malleable thing, capable of undergoing radical changes through exposure to experiences and with coming into contact with the other. Most of our fear of Islam is actually quite distant form the source. Over 63 per cent of Americans claim they don’t know a Muslim personally.
AJ: Given the toxic nature of the American public sphere which often reaches new levels of incivility, is there a point at which dialogue isn’t possible, or becomes irrelevant to achieving your objectives?
DT: It depends on how the dialogue is set up. When people are wrapped up in rage and anger at Islam they can’t be engaged, and the idea of taking the rage on through debates is important and must be happening because most of the arguments that support anti-Muslim hysteria is totally devoid of factual analysis and poor readings of the Islamic tradition. When incivility does break out in the public sphere most of it occurs virtually, online and over the web, but as the FBI has shown, hate crimes and work place discrimination towards Muslims has increased substantially over the past three years. What’s important at this point is to return to the relationships that you built prior to the crisis. I don’t think the environment against Islam is so bad that it’s incapable of changing. I’ll share an example, the infamous Qur’an burning Pastor Terry Jones in Florida was actually engaged in a dialogue by a local Imam whom I know and his visiting of Jones’ compund prior to the planned burning of the Qur’an in September 2010 was the reason why he decided not to burn the Qur’an.
It’s also important to note that for some Christians, particularly Southern Baptists, which is the largest denomination of Protestants in America, dialogue is not something they have an interest in. I think the reason they don’t care to dialogue is because of the way it is framed. Most dialogue is put forward as a dialogue that seeks common ground, what I have found from my Baptists friends is that we must start a dialogue that is based on strong differences and that does not necessarily seek to reach reconciliation or new projects together, but one that simply reaches a modicum of understanding and respect for the differences.
AJ: The debate in Europe has taken some unfortunate turns. The U.S. and Canada also have worrying trends. Do you have a sense of the trend lines over time — what is worrying and what is hopeful in the polling data?
DT: I think public opinion polls can be very significant indicators of social change, for example in Egypt, the Gallup organization found the source of frustration in economic distress and rising levels of poverty running right up to the bursting of the seams with the Tahrir Square protests. At the same time, we should of course pull from a number of other theoretical and practical methods to understand where things are headed. What we notice with the rise of the Islamophobia network of organizations and the institutionalization of anti-Muslim sentiment is that much of these ideas and thinkers are having a major influence on European civil society. This trans-Atlantic diffusion of anti-Muslim ideas is something we should closely follow, particularly because there is a direct relationship between economic austerity and the rise of racism and marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities.
I think the most promising things coming out of Europe is that even though they are a predominately secular society, many and I would say most Europeans have a deep sense of historic memory about the capacity to marginalize ethnic and religious minorities during times of distress. This is why you had a number of Jews and Muslims taking to the streets arm-in-arm on the streets of Paris and all around France immediately following the recent terrorist attack. This outpouring of support for interfaith justice is radical in today’s time because the government doesn’t care to even support it, and most of the candidates in France’s elections are using anti-Muslim hysteria to drum up votes.
So I would say that we need more interaction at the grassroots level, and a wholesale change in the depiction’s of Islam and Muslims in the media that highlights the human and cultural dimension. We also need to more clearly define the debate about Islam and Muslims role in the west as an issue of justice. The mere suggestion that Islam and Muslims can’t integrate into western society should be discussed and debated until we reach a point where society has exhausted the limits of the dialogue and Muslims, like other communities before them have come to be included as an important contributor to society.
Daniel Tutt will be speaking at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on May 15 at 7 p.m. More info here.