Column: Debunking stereotypesSAN DIEGO — Arsalan Iftikhar has an important message for his fellow Americans: “Have no fear.”
By: Ruben Navarrette, Worthington Daily Globe
SAN DIEGO — Arsalan Iftikhar has an important message for his fellow Americans: “Have no fear.”
The 34-year-old Chicago native of Pakistani descent is now a Washington, D.C.-based human rights lawyer, media commentator and founder of the global news site, The Crescent Post. Most recently, Iftikhar is the author of the book, “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”
He is also a friend and fellow commentator on National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More with Michel Martin.”
Iftikhar’s passion is peace and nonviolence, and his mission is to use every form of media imaginable to dispel the popular stereotypes held by many Americans in the post-9/11 era — beginning with this one: that Muslim Americans are partial to radical Islam and sympathetic to those who want to harm the United States and its people.
Not even close, Iftikhar said.
“Since Sept. 11, everyone has been asking for a Muslim Gandhi,” he told me recently. “So I’m basically putting that platform out there. I’m saying, ‘Don’t view Muslims or Islam as monolithic entities. The vast majority of mainstream Muslims subscribe to a platform of nonviolence.’”
Iftikhar is riding that wave. For him, how you see Islam has a lot to do with when you were born.
“Our next ‘millennial’ generation — the one coming up now, people of all faiths and ethnicities — is probably the least racist generation that our world has ever seen,” he said. “It’s because they’ve been exposed to a diverse group of people throughout their lifetimes. So they’re much less likely to feel any kind of xenophobia toward people of different backgrounds.”
There is some truth to that. The polling on millennials’ attitudes toward diversity, immigration and multiculturalism backs it up. But generations don’t raise themselves, and young people can also adopt some of their parents’ views on these matters — not all of them positive, constructive or enlightened.
Besides, the millennials are the 9/11 generation — those who see that September morning as the defining moment of their lives. Couldn’t that make them more hostile to Muslim-Americans?
For Iftikhar, that’s where the death of Osama bin Laden offers an opportunity — to start anew. At one point, I asked him to list the more popular (and off-base) stereotypes of mainstream Muslims.
“First, that we don’t condemn terrorism,” he said. “If I stood on the street every day of every month of every year and condemned terrorism, it wouldn’t be enough for some people.
“Next, that we somehow value human life less than other religions. It’s absurd. Murder is condemned in Islam just like it is in any major religion.
“And finally, that we’re not somehow contributing members of society. We have Muslims in the arts, in sports and in the media — like myself — who are trying to show that we are contributing members of society.”
They are also not monolithic.
“We’re as diverse as anyone else,” he insisted. “We have conservative Muslims. We have liberal Muslims. We have non-practicing Muslims.”
As a Mexican-American, I hear myself in this story. The bit about how some folks always assume that Muslim Americans condone terrorism sounds like what Mexican-Americans go through — where, it is assumed by the ignorant and prejudiced, that anyone of Mexican descent condones illegal immigration.
And Mexican-Americans aren’t monolithic either. We’re liberal and conservative, too. In fact, many of us represent the typical swing voters — liberal on some issues but conservative on others. In this respect, we’re much more complicated than the parties that vie for our support.
There’s one more similarity. Muslim Americans have to live with the paradox of not being a “race” and yet still experiencing something that looks and smells like racism.
Iftikhar tried to “unpack” it all.
“Prior to the 1990s,” he noted, “racism in America was seen purely through a black and white prism. What people like me — and you — do is that we’re teaching Americans that racism is no longer black and white. There is a shade of gray.”
Most of all, Iftikhar said, he wants to shift the “meta-narrative” about Muslims in America.
“Even if the haters out there still want to see Islam or Muslims as violent or extremist,” he said, “I’m putting them on notice that at least they know one Muslim pacifist who doesn’t subscribe to that thinking. It’s a ripple in the water, but it’s my contribution.”
And a valuable one it is.
Ruben Navarrette’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.