This month, the second edition of my book The Islamophobia Industry will be released. It was first published back in 2012, and since then has realized some success within the world of people who are concerned about anti-Muslim prejudice. For that, I’m grateful, and I’ve spent some time over the past few years reflecting on the reasons I wrote it, why this issue is important to me, and how people of faith can recognize prejudice that affects Muslims and try to do something about it.

 

Fear Merchants and People of Faith

In short, the book takes aim at a small but interconnected group of fear merchants who have labored since 9/11 to convince their compatriots that Muslims — all of them — are the enemy, and that Islam is imbued theologically with messages of violence and moral depravity that thus make Muslims violent and immoral people. I trace the influence of these people and groups, and show how they have managed to make careers out of this. They’ve developed extensive speaking and teaching platforms; published best-selling books; influenced Congress; injected their voices in the media; and have taken over Internet real estate, turning Google searches for “Islam” into horror shows.

Back in 2010, when I started this project, I didn’t envision the book as having a religious angle, and didn’t view myself as an especially religious person. But to my great surprise, some of the most supportive voices in the wake of its publication were religious groups, especially Christians and Jews, who found in its content a call to embrace pluralism and engage in productive interfaith work with their Muslim neighbors to counter the type of prejudice that I identified. This led me to think more about the book’s impact, my own time in graduate school where I study religious pluralism, and how people of faith can (hopefully) take its message to heart and help build a world where religious minorities are treated with dignity and respect.

Prejudice

One of the questions that I am often asked is: Why call people out? In other words, isn’t there a less-provocative way of bringing attention to the issue of Islamophobia — one that may align better with religious notions of humility and charitable human interactions? Can’t I be more like Jesus the Pacifist and less like Jesus who expelled the money changers from the Temple?

It’s a good question. We’re not all social activists, nor are we all wired with the impulse to stand up and say something when we see an act of prejudice occurring. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a symptom of being a complicated human. My hope with this book, though, was to bring attention to the fact that prejudices are not simply organic. We’re not born with racist, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic tendencies. Our environments teach us to perceive others as different and therefore frightening. As the musical South Pacific tells us (in a not-so-politically-correct way), “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin’s a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught!”

That’s true when it comes to Islamophobia, and if we recognize that there are people in our societies who produce this fear, and who teach us to hate, is it not our responsibility to counteract it? That doesn’t mean we must agree with the people on the receiving end of such prejudice. I, for example, make no claims about Islamic theology, nor do I make any claims about Christian theology. Why don’t I take a position? Because I don’t think that one must in order to agree that harboring ill will towards religious people of one stripe or another is a problem. To put a finer point on it, defending Muslims from prejudice doesn’t mean you must agree with their religious views. It does mean, however, that we recognize them as fellow travelers along life’s path.

Progress and Change

Thus, in the book I name names. I call spades by their faces. I take shots, and intentionally shed light on people and groups who I have identified as actively promoting anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and Europe. I do this precisely because of the constructed nature of Islamophobia that I see. Making progress is not only a matter of simply changing people’s minds. It is also a matter of stopping the source of bad information that is purposefully disseminated in the American populace — images, narratives, memes, email chains, videos, social media clips, political rhetoric, policies, and the like that disparage, smear, slander, and overall mispresent Muslims by suggesting that the violent fringes are representative of the peaceful majority.

I encourage people of faith to stand up too, in their own way. To search their religious traditions for inspiration or examples, and recognize that regardless of their theological positions on certain issues that may appear to divide us, the greater good of humanity in the “here and now” depends on us getting along and living free from fear of persecution and bigotry.

Worthwhile Wounds

Since my book’s initial publication, I’ve been wounded. Not physically. But a quick Google search of my name will bring up an array of hit-pieces, unfair attacks, criticisms, and smears that aim to tarnish my reputation by associating me with a host of unsavory characters or positions. It doesn’t bother me much. In fact, it reminds me of the Alan Paton novel Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful, in which a black South African community leader, Emmanuel Nene, joins in solidarity with a white principal, Robert Mansfield, who resigned his position in protest of segregated sports teams in that country. Mansfield tells him to be careful: “You will be wounded if you join me. Do you know that?” Nene replies, “Yes, I expect that might happen … but I don’t worry about the wounds. Because when I get to Heaven, which is my intention, the Holy One will ask me: ‘Where are your wounds?’ And if I say to Him ‘I don’t have any,’ he will ask me one simple question: ‘Was there nothing on earth worth fighting for?’”

I often think about how I’d answer that question — if I’m doing enough to speak out and stand up against Islamophobia. I’d encourage you to do the same. People of faith are often branded as the source of divisions in this world. But I’d like to think that it’s our commitment to our faiths, and the sense of confidence that they instill in us, that can lead us to heal those divisions. I hope you’ll check out my book, and I’d be delighted to engage you in conversation.

 


Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.


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Nathan Lean

Author: Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is a PhD student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, and a writer and public commentator on Islamophobia and Muslim-Christian relations. His research interests focus on religious pluralism, discourse and religion, anti-Muslim prejudice, and the dynamics of engagement between Muslims and Christians in North Africa. Prior to his doctoral study, Nathan served as the Director of Research at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative. Nathan is the author of The Islamophobia Industry (Pluto, 2012), the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States (Praeger, 2010), and the co-editor of The Moral Psychology of Terrorism (Cambridge Scholars, 2013). He is the author of an upcoming volume, Understanding Islam and the West (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017). A native of North Carolina, he enjoys watching baseball, surf fishing, and spending time with friends and family.

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