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Faith Under Fire

by Laela Zaidi

It was piercingly hot summer morning in Missouri when my mother stepped into my room and announced that our family’s mosque had been burned down during the night. I shot my eyes open, and asked how it had happened. Yet even in asking, and despite losing my home in a tornado just one year prior, I quickly realised that weather was an unlikely cause. When I sat up in bed and registered the mixture of fear and sadness in my mother’s eyes, I knew this had been a deliberate act.

Visiting the burnt remains of my family’s regular place of worship, I felt more anger and fear than surprise. Despite the growing number of Muslims in my sleepy Missouri hometown, most of whom are immigrants and first-generation families, Islamophobia is rampant. Less than a month prior to the arson, an attempt to burn down the building failed. Over the years, racial slurs were shouted out of car windows to Muslims en route to pray. When the first sign reading ‘Islamic Society of Joplin’ was erected outside the mosque, it was also set aflame and vandalised. The charred words were never replaced. Weeks after the fire, the sign remained outside the debris-filled property. Yet, immediately after the hate crime, there was an outpouring of support from the Christian-majority townspeople to support us following the loss of our only Muslim space. Briefly, the city turned into an interfaith, multicultural heaven. A public park ‘love’ rally was organised by a student at the local Christian college, and local churches, as well as the synagogue, immediately offered free worship spaces for the month of Ramadan.

This warm embrace did not last. Since 9/11, vitriol against the entire Muslim religion has been unshakable in in rural America. According to the billboards lining cornfields near to my hometown, my religion hates the ‘Judeo-Christian West’ with inexplicable fervour. In my part of the country, Donald Trump’s suspicion of Obama’s birth certificate made him a hero far before 2016. Trump’s suggestion that President Obama was born in a Muslim-majority country affirmed what many in Southwest Missouri already believed – that a Muslim fifth column had infiltrated the American government.

Trump’s antipathy towards the Muslim faith is not a novel trend. Rather it is a worldview grounded in historical scholarship on the ‘West versus the Rest’ or ‘Clash of Civilisations’. The clash thesis, proposed in 1992 by Samuel Huntington, held that the post- Cold War era would see conflict develop between ‘civilisations’. Regions bound together by history, language, culture, religion and political values would become the primary ‘fault lines’ of global conflict. Inner divisions within these blocs of the world would be superseded by an ‘us versus them’ mentality and non- Western civilisations, especially Islam, would be most likely to mobilise against the rest of the world.

In a 2014 speech to the Vatican, Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, expressed a similar view, speaking of the ‘metastasising war against ISIS’ as an all-encompassing threat to the ‘underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West’. His choice of words resembles those of Michael Flynn – who briefly served as National Security Advisor before resigning in scandal – that ‘Islam is cancer’. According to Bannon, a global conflict on the scale of the Second World War against Islam is inevitable. Proponents and allies of the clash thesis, whether academics like Huntington or politicians such as Bannon, are fixated on proving that the single most important threat to Western civilisation is the Muslim community. But this has been disputed by historians and postcolonial critics, not least because it conflates Islam with the Arabian Peninsula, Wahhabism, and specific anti-Western trends in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, it assumes that all Muslims are possessed by an irrational fear of the West, born of self-loathing for their lost status in global power.

History is a creative enterprise. Piecing together a story of time and place is interpretive, yet the clash narrative is the lens through which our nation’s present-day priorities are justified. As a consequence of this, the clash worldview reaps what it sows, both politically and culturally. A ‘clash’ mentality leads the American government to react with hostility rather than diplomacy. And the same attitude forces immigrants and diaspora communities, who are not sufficiently ‘Western’, to pick between ‘civilisations’. Even if we happily straddle the lines between our ancestral backgrounds and newfound homelands, or hybridise our identities, the clash crusaders force us to choose. Or, as Trump’s vengeful rhetoric demonstrates, they choose for us.

Despite the President’s insistence in 2016 that ‘Islam is the enemy’ and his call to bar Muslims from the country, he used softer language during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, where the President celebrated a $100-million arms deal with the country, he claimed to believe that the fight against terrorism is ‘not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.’ He went further, saying that Saudi Arabia and the United States share a common goal in ‘stamping out extremism’ around the world. The irony, of course, is that the administration is now supporting an Islamic regime that is itself guilty of mass violations of human rights, which are ostensibly the reason to be wary of Islam. Thus, we see another hypocrisy of the clash mentality: despite its isolationist rhetoric, its proponents are rarely able to withstand the necessity of alliance with other supposed ‘civilisations’. And to any observer of Trump’s presidency so far, clearly the softer rhetoric does not imply a true change of heart. In the same speech, Trump used the words ‘Islamic terror’, ‘Islamic extremism’ and ‘Islamist’ interchangeably, thereby lumping together distinct groups under the banner of religion rather than the areligious root causes of terrorism. His words also served to downplay the West’s role in generating terrorism, instead calling for Muslims to remake themselves in the image of the West’s religious and governmental system.

The administration’s swift change of tone – and its duplicity – does, however, embody many aspects of my family’s Muslim- American experience. My mother and father, both practicing physicians in rural Missouri, are shown the upmost kindness and respect in their offices. In public, when recognized by their patients or colleagues, they are approached lovingly and treated as equals. Many of the small but growing number of Pakistani immigrants in Southwest Missouri are doctors or engineers. But what any Muslim living below the Mason-Dixon line can tell you is that underneath Southern hospitality is a thick layer of distrust. When my parents step out of their offices at the end of a work-day and become anonymous Muslims praying at a newly built mosque, they become targets. Protestors’ signs outside of our mosque have read ‘Islam Hates Jesus’ or ‘Islam Hates America’. For my parents and Muslim friends, such accusations are puzzling. The Qur’an frequently mentions Jesus and affirms several of his miracles, including the virgin birth, and most Muslims in our community see themselves as sharing their story with Christians and Jews throughout the centuries. The question is whether clash crusaders can come to see this as well.

LAELA ZAIDI is a visiting student reading Theology and Religion at St Peter's. She is proud to have never been stung by a bee.


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