Excavating Truth Through Spiritual Activism (On the Fear of Muslims)
I guess I should have been surprised when I read in a news report in The Times earlier this week of the extreme reluctance many Americans have about coming to Europe because of their fear of terrorism. But this seemed like old hat to me. I recall that on the day I arrived in Washington DC over ten years ago to take part in a meeting convened by the EastWest Institute on how to ‘reframe perceptions’ of Islam in the USA, there was an article in the Washington Post describing how mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, were finding such an increase in extreme fear and suspicion of the ‘other’ that they believe it had reached a stage in the national consciousness where it had become an identifiable pathology that needed to be described and treated as a mental health problem. Its main symptoms were irrational prejudice, a constant feeling of threat, and an incapacitating sense of isolation.
More recently, in 2015, the American public was informed by Steve Emerson, a Fox News commentator, that Birmingham, the second largest city in Britain, was a ‘totally Muslim city’, a ‘no-go zone’ for non-Muslims. There were areas of London too which were, so he said, patrolled by ‘Muslim religious police’ that ‘actually beat and wound seriously’ anyone who does not dress according to orthodox Muslim dress codes. As David Cameron, the British prime minister at the time, said, ‘When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools’ day. This guy’s clearly a complete idiot.’ And yet, Emerson’s website described him as ‘one of the leading authorities’ on Islamic extremist networks, and states that he and his staff ‘frequently provide briefings to US government and law enforcement agencies, members of Congress and congressional committees.’
The atrocious crimes and horrendous brutality of so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh) and its perversion of Islam are not in doubt, and call for unequivocal condemnation by all decent human beings, whatever their religious or political affiliation. Nevertheless, as Adam Johnson, a contributing analyst for FAIR.org (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), has contended in his response on 6 February to Trump’s ban on Muslims from seven Muslim-majority countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen), the actual threat to the US ‘homeland’ of terrorist groups like Islamic State has been ‘consistently magnified wildly out of proportion by US media’. Johnson lists a series of news stories in the second half of 2014, including one by Fox News about the ‘training camps’ ISIS were supposedly building in Mexico, another by ABC News on a scary ‘ISIS Caliphate map’ lifted from a neo-Nazi website, as well as various fake stories – ‘none true’, as Johnson assures us, ‘but all reported as such by mainstream outlets.’
The pariah status of Muslims in the US and the cruel impact of Trump’s ban on innocent families has been described by Sudanese commentator Nesrine Malik in a moving article in the Guardian on 29 January. ‘The arbitrariness of the ban is brazen,’ she writes. ‘No Sudanese citizen has ever perpetrated an attack in the US. But Sudan is poor and has no strategic importance to Trump. This wasn’t even a proper Muslims ban. It was a Muslims-we-can-afford-to-cross ban.’ Johnson points out that ‘while it’s important to lay the primary blame for the ban at the feet of the man who signed it, years of Islamophobic coverage in corporate media—right-wing, centrist and “liberal”—laid the propaganda groundwork to get us here.’ Malik agrees: ‘This did not start with Trump, it’s something that’s only reaching its climax.’
Johnson cites many examples brought to light by FAIR over the years of how the media unfairly reserve the word ‘terrorism’ overwhelmingly for political violence leveled by Muslims. This asymmetry is plain to see in the coverage of white supremacist Alexandre Bissonnette’s attack on a Quebec mosque on 30 January. This was not typically described as ‘terrorism’ by the press, despite the fact that it took the lives of six times more people than the October 2014 attack on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill by Muslim Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Furthermore, it received only one-sixth as much coverage in the US media. As Johnson contends, ‘Americans’ perception of terrorism is, for the most part, not informed by actual terrorist activity, but rather what we call “meta-terror”, the fear caused by the coverage of terrorism, unconnected from any actual threat.’
In view of such inaccurate reporting, it is perhaps not surprising that in a widely publicized Ipsos Mori poll on public perceptions in 2014, Americans were found to believe on average that Muslims took up 17% of the population of the United States, when the actual figure is only 1%. This poll, involving 11,000 respondents in 14 countries, has been appropriately subtitled ‘The Ignorance Index’. Americans came second to bottom (just above Italy) in the accuracy of their estimates in answers to a range of questions that also included the percentage of immigrants in each country. I was reminded of a survey from 2005 which found that six out of ten Americans aged 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world, despite media exposure about the country since the invasion. More than 40 per cent could not locate Pakistan in Asia. An earlier survey carried out in 1989 had revealed that among the same age group worldwide, Americans were, on average, least able to provide correct answers in identifying places on a map of the world. Only one in four could locate the Persian Gulf, and one in seven could not even identify the United States. The president of the National Geographic Society, which commissioned the survey, attributed this ignorance to a prevailing culture of isolationism. ‘Geography, he says, ‘is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places. Without it, our young people are not ready to face the challenges of the increasingly interconnected world of the 21st century.’ At about the same time, the Vice-President of the American Geographical Society went so far as to accuse geographical illiteracy as the factor that led Americans to be ‘hoodwinked’ into the war in Iraq. ‘In a world where the gap between political rhetoric and reality is growing by the day,’ he wrote, ‘public accountability is impossible in the absence of a basic level of global understanding.’
It is hard not to see President Trump’s recent ban on Muslims as a sop to the ignorance, misperception and bigotry of the large number of his supporters who do not have a clue where those countries are or how they actually figure in any index of terrorism. The fact is that none of them has been responsible for a single terrorist-related death on American soil.
What actually are the chief causes of death in the USA? Well, in the 15 years from 1999-2014, of the 39,458,188 recorded deaths in that period, the top eight causes, accounting for about three-quarters of those deaths, were all due to ill-health, mainly heart disease and cancer. According to the National Institute of Health, obesity is the second leading cause (after tobacco) of preventable deaths, accounting for 300,000 deaths per year. Traffic Accidents (633,870 deaths) come in at number 9, and Firearms (437,870, averaging 29,000 a year) at number 12. There were also 560,612 suicides in the USA during the same period, of which 291,571 were caused by firearms and 129,187 by suffocation. In fact, suicide accounts for more firearms-related deaths than homicide. In 2013, for example, 63% of such deaths were attributed to suicide and 33% (11,208 people) to homicide. The USA also ranks 1st worldwide in mass shootings. Its population is 5% of the 7.3 billion global population but accounts for 31% of global mass shooters during the period from 1966 to 2012, more than any other country. The 90 killers who carried out mass shootings in the USA during this period amounted to five times as many as the next highest country, the Philippines. What’s more, more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on the battlefields of all the wars in American history. The numbers are eye-watering. From 1968-2015, there have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths, compared to 1,396,733 cumulative war deaths since the Revolutionary War in the 18th century, including the Civil War and the two World Wars.
As for deaths caused by terrorism, leaving aside the 2,908 American fatalities in the US in 2001, the Global Terrorism Database shows that the other 14 years in the period 1999-2014 accounted for a total of 73 American fatalities in the US (averaging 5 per year) and a total of 219 (16 per year) worldwide. In 2014, there were 32,685 deaths from terrorism worldwide, up 80% from 2013, out of which only 38 deaths (a mere 0.11%) were recorded in the West, including 18 in the United States, which ranked 35th on the Index.
In the light of all this, we need to ask some urgent questions about what underlies wild misperceptions of the truth. We hear much about ‘fake news’ in a ‘post-truth’ world, and we might want to leap at the simple explanation that the main cause, apart from lack of information, is misinformation, whether disseminated through ignorance or malice.
Lest I be accused of anti-American prejudice, let me dispel any complacency that we Brits might have about our own media culture. We might easily deceive ourselves that it could never sink to the level of Fox News and the risible pronouncements of its self-styled terrorism experts, but it is well to remember that in his book Flat Earth News, the award-winning journalist Nick Davies, lamenting the debasement of journalism in Britain today, points out in his analysis of over 2000 UK news pieces gleaned from the quality press that only 12 per cent consisted of a story that a reporter had found out and pursued on his or her own initiative or checked the facts. The rest is all rewritten wire copy (mostly from a single source, the Press Association) and PR. Davies coined the stinging word ‘churnalism’ to describe 88 per cent of what people read even in the posh papers. A professor of journalism reviewing the book summed up its ‘ultra-bleak portrait’ (likened by Davies himself to a ‘terminal illness’) like this: ‘The British news media are crushed by commercial pressure, squeezed by the need for speed, corrupted by PR, indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts, systematically lied to by commercial interests and governments, and, in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth.’ And this is the situation in a country which came out relatively well in the Ipsos Mori ‘Ignorance Index’, ranking 5th out of 14 in the accuracy and fair-mindedness of estimates.
I believe, however, that we need to go even further than the rigorous exposure of the debasement of journalism (crucially important as that is), whether we describe it as misinformation, propaganda, fake news, or even in more overtly religious terminology as a manifestation of the one-eyed ‘Dajjal’ in Islamic eschatology. This evil figure, equivalent to the Antichrist or the Armilus in Christian and Jewish eschatology respectively, is anticipated to appear in the ‘end times’ as the ‘deceiver’ or ‘impostor’, pretending to be the Messiah. One of the vivid concrete senses of the Arabic root of the word ‘Dajjal’ is to ‘spread tar on a mangy camel’, to cover over what is defective to make it more saleable, to impart false glitter to what is corrupt, to give the appearance of total veracity to what is entirely fabricated. And the capacity to do this is being amplified exponentially in the digital world, as Daniel Finkelstein recently pointed out in an article in The Times: ‘Soon’, he wrote, ‘it will be possible to create almost flawless films of apparently real and recognizable people engaged in activities that are entirely made up.’
We do not, of course, need to believe in the eschatological dimension of the Dajjal to apply the concept of ‘deceptively covering the truth’ to our contemporary culture, whether in the domain of commerce or public discourse. The single eye, the one-dimensional perspective lacking any depth of field, and incapable of reaching, as the Qur’an says, ‘to the furthest horizons’, is ever with us. Sure, we can do our best to be impeccable researchers, to strive to excavate the truth, and we must continue to do so in every possible way. As Finkelstein contends, the preservation of democratic values and civilized discourse will also depend on teaching children how to distinguish fact from forgery, truth from falsehood. No one in their right mind would deny the centrality of a decent education in this endeavor. Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said (in a spurious quote, but probably reflecting nevertheless the essence of what he originally said) that ‘an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people’. But the big question is surely this: what is it in human nature which makes us so susceptible to deception and self-deception? How do we counter it at an even deeper level than providing better information, more accurate facts and statistics? Again, Finkelstein homes in on a pressing priority: ‘We need to teach people to understand their own cognitive weaknesses’, one of which is ‘the tendency to seek out information, however unreliable, that appears to confirm the point of view we already have.’
I’ll come to this ‘big question’ in my concluding thoughts to this article, but before doing so I need to return to one contentious issue that often bedevils constructive discussion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Let me repeat what I wrote earlier about ‘the atrocious crimes and horrendous brutality of so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh) and its perversion of Islam,’ which call for ‘unequivocal condemnation by all decent human beings, whatever their religious or political affiliation.’ Many would say that it is particularly important for Muslims to make it very clear that they denounce violent extremism and terrorism, and by positioning themselves in this way to ensure that their messages convey the humanity, moral compass and sense of moderation which will make it more likely that they will be listened to. This pre-emptive, corrective approach is shared by those members of Jewish communities who are equally unequivocal in making it clear that they denounce the behavior of West Bank settlers in Israel and the failure of the American Jewish community to stand up to those settlers who claim that the Torah authorizes their illegal occupation of the West Bank. And this nailing of one’s colors to the mast so as to dispel wrong assumptions becomes all the more necessary in the face of the increasing number of young people, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, who feel alienated from their religious heritage because of perceived injustices perpetrated in its name.
However, the experience of many activists and researchers often tells a different story, at least in relation to the way in which Muslims are perceived. The fact is that ever since 9/11, the vast majority of Muslims have been continually repeating that they oppose violent extremism. I know this for sure as a contributing editor of Sheila Musaji’s online journal The American Muslim which has collected together vast numbers of such statements from Muslim organizations and individuals, but despite this, anti-Muslim prejudice has only increased to the point where it is now mainstream in US society. It seems that the pariah status of Muslims is not reduced even by their emphatically and repeatedly expressing an anti-extremist stand. It is therefore not surprising that one might be led to believe that people are not really interested at all in listening to Muslims who denounce extremism. They would rather have their existing biases confirmed.
One does not have to look very far in more enlightened sections of the Western press to encounter the anguish and sense of injustice felt by Muslims as a result of the oppressive public expectation that all of them carry the collective burden of guilt for the actions of groups such as Islamic State. And what’s more, this burden is continually increased year on year despite their repeated condemnation of terrorism. Is it not unjust to give Muslims no right to express their views on anything unless they apologize profusely and forever about the actions of those who pervert Islam? Integrity and a sense of justice surely have their own inner compass which does not depend on the need always to ‘position oneself’ so as to allay irremediable fears and suspicions. There is surely such a thing as universal justice which stands on its own merit and has its own validity irrespective of the identity one attributes to oneself.
The following articles might convey a taste of that sense of injustice felt by many Muslims:
Dalia Mogahed, research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, makes the point rather well in an interview on MSNBC (reported in the Guardian on 24 November 2015) in answer to the question ‘Should more Muslim leaders speak out against terrorism?’
‘I think we should take a step back and ask a different question, which is: ‘Is it justified to demand that Muslims condemn terrorism?’ Now that might sound a little radical even asking it. The reason I say that is this. Condoning the killing of civilians is, to me, about the most monstrous thing you can to do. And to be suspected of doing something so monstrous, simply because of your faith, seems very unfair. Now when you look at the majority of terrorist attacks in the United States, according to the FBI, the majority of domestic terror attacks are actually committed by white, male Christians. Now that’s just the facts. When those things occur, we don’t suspect other people who share their faith and ethnicity of condoning them. We assume that these things outrage them just as much as they do anyone else. And we have to afford this same assumption of innocence to Muslims.’
And this brings us back to the ‘big question’, the prevalence of confirmation bias, that directs us to reflect seriously on the conduct of our own spiritual activism. We know from the psychology of perception that the human mind tends to see what it wants or expects to see. Perceptual preferences are of course necessary and understandable. Without the rapid automatic routines generated by ‘normal’ expectations we would not be able to function in the world, for we would have to analyze everything laboriously from the bottom-up as if we were encountering it for the first time.
The perceptual advantages of being driven by expectations derived from our concrete experience of the world are obvious, but top-down processing of this kind is a mixed bag when it comes to the way we think, feel and behave. The human penchant for confirmation bias (which can be ingrained even in scientists who rate themselves as ‘objective’) comes through in the notion of the ‘narrative fallacy’ introduced by Nassim Taleb in his popular book, The Black Swan. Referring to this at the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘The Illusion of Understanding’ in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman refers to narrative fallacies as ‘flawed stories of the past’ that ‘shape our views of the world and our expectations for the future.’ They are simple (even simplistic) but compelling explanatory stories which arise from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. Reiterated in political discourse and the media, or, indeed, within education systems (none of which are ideologically free zones) they become the ‘dominant narratives’ that condition our worldview. Embedded and cemented more deeply, where they are increasingly difficult to dislodge, even to the point of becoming impervious to modification, they become the rigid schemata, fixed frames, repetitive mantras, psychological fixations, conditioned mindsets and bigoted attitudes associated with the foreclosed mind.
And this brings me to the heart of what I want to say. It is simply this: to be effective activists committed to progressive spiritual values, we surely need to root our own activism in psychological awareness and self-knowledge. Authentic action in the world for the wider betterment of society emerges first and foremost from the polished Heart, from the inner space of deep reflection, contemplation and love. As the Qur’an says: ‘God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their own souls.’ And the prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord’. This imperative is powerfully expressed by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton:
‘Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. They will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.’
In sum, we might discern two complementary tasks of excavation in spiritual activism: the excavation of truth through rigorous and committed evidence-based enquiry, and the excavation of those aspects of the ego and conditioned mind that may unconsciously drive us to adopt an agenda based not on genuine altruism but on the axes we wish to grind and the personal opinions and judgments we are keen to voice.
Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is a Research Associate (and former Visiting Fellow) at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge and an Associate Editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and the first Chair of the UK Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), he is Founder and former Executive Director of the Book Foundation, a registered UK charity which works with partner institutions in the UK, Europe and the USA to improve understanding of Islam in the West.