For some months now, I have struggled greatly with the realities of hatred and bigotry. Much of my research, writing, and public speaking these days focuses on Islamophobia–the hostility and hatred toward Muslims as well as the discrimination that results from such sentiments. To engage in educating the larger public about Islamophobia is to enter into a world in which bigoted, racist and venomous comments and attacks are sadly all too common.
I write occasionally for The Huffington Post, a news website that has a pretty broad readership. It is a tremendous privilege to have this outlet as a scholar. It enables me to reach a much larger audience than most scholarly journals or books would allow. And there are many benefits as a scholar to writing for the larger public, but one of the problems with this sort of writing in the age of the Internet is that the type of people who write comments on articles and who frequently circulate these articles in social media are increasingly those who perpetuate hatred of Muslims and Islam. At times, these "trolls" (a word I only learned a few months ago) target me and other authors in their criticisms, but the criticisms often have little to do with who we are, what we are trying to do, or the substance of what we are writing.
It has come to a point in which the sheer amount of hatred on the Internet toward Muslims and those who write nuanced reflections on Islam for the public makes me sometimes wonder if it is worth it. Some of my friends and colleagues have heard me struggle with whether or not it is time to throw in the towel and "retire" from public scholarship.
I feel fortunate, however, that I also have experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, that remind me that there is still an audience out there that longs for a better dialogue about Islam, that craves an engagement with Islam, and that digs deeply and earnestly into very delicate and difficult issues. Two experiences in particular are worth noting that give me hope in spite of the hatred. First, I have the privilege this semester of teaching a course on Islamophobia. I have 26 wonderful, thoughtful, insightful students who are unafraid to wrestle with difficult questions and who have the courage to think critically about facile assumptions concerning Islam and Muslims that they encounter in political discourse and the media. At the same time, my students are cautious (rightfully so) about labeling all criticisms of Islam as "Islamophobic," so they continue to wrestle honestly with one of the central questions of the course: What distinguishes legitimate criticism of Islam from bigoted views of Muslims? Their efforts to take this question seriously and to respond to it in an informed manner remind me that there is indeed hope that a new generation of adults is emerging that is capable of elevating the discourse about religion in general and Islam in particular.
Second, I recently gave a talk at a colloquium in Nashville titled "To Work Toward Mutual Understanding: The American-Muslim Experience and the Catholic Response." I shared the stage with Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Dr. Bahloul has been in the media spotlight for several years due to the intense opposition that Muslims in Murfreesboro, a city of just over 100,000 people outside of Nashville, have faced over the construction of a new Islamic center. Dr. Bahloul and I had the opportunity to address a very receptive audience at a Catholic high school and to reflect on the challenges facing Muslim Americans when it comes to bigotry as well as how Islamophobia can be challenged through interfaith dialogue. The Q & A time with the audience, and particularly with the high school students that were present, was spectacular. They asked great questions and articulated a strong desire to learn more about how to challenge prejudices against Muslim Americans through a deeper engagement with interfaith dialogue.
The hatred against Muslims in the West is real, and it is powerful. There is enough of it to lead to despair if you dwell on it too much. But my experiences inside and outside the classroom as of late remind me that hope is stronger than hate, that faith is stronger than fear, and that the courage to challenge Islamophobic bigotry by building bridges across religious traditions is alive an well among the younger generations in America.