This past year has been a busy one for those who study Muslims and societies where Muslims live as majorities. Headline events included the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the US withdrawal from Iraq. High points included Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman’s joint Nobel Peace Prize and this week’s demonstration by thousands of “daughters of Egypt” for democracy and against military violence. Low points included the brutal beating of “blue bra girl” that sparked the women’s protest and, sadly, today’s series of deadly bombs across Baghdad.
Scholars who focus on the Middle East have been understandably in great demand to explain these events. But so have those who study Islam, even when their expertise is not contemporary Muslim life. This demand for ceaseless explanations from scholars of Islam dates back a decade. Before 9/11, one could potentially spend an entire career researching and writing about Islam without talking to a reporter. Now, outreach to the press and the general public is a critical component of the job. Still, despite efforts to make high-caliber scholarship accessible, accurate information and thoughtful analysis has had frighteningly little impact on widespread ideas about Islam and Muslims. Some misconceptions (e.g., Obama is a Muslim; Muslims want to impose sharia in America) are the product of lavishly funded
misinformation campaigns, which have led more Americans (49 percent), according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll) to view Islam negatively in September 2010 than in 2002 (39 percent). Scholars of Islam have to contend with these new errors as well as the older assumption that anything involving Muslims—from women’s participation in Egypt’s recent uprising to mommy-and-me playgroups for Indian immigrant families—can be explained in religious terms. This focus on religious motives is continually reinforced through media framing of a conflict between the West and Islam, with fundamentalism at its center. Broader economic and social realities are too often ignored.
The 9/11 attacks shook the basic presumption of security that middle-class Americans had taken for granted, but that many outside our country and some inside it, such as the poor who were overwhelmingly Katrina’s victims six years ago, did not then and do not now enjoy. The war on terror, with drone attacks in Pakistan and the invasion of Iraq, has exacerbated global violence and instability. The direct civilian death toll in Iraq since 2003 is, taking lowball estimates, perhaps 200 times as significant a proportion of the population as the 9/11 victims were to the United States (only a fraction of these deaths are directly due to United States/coalition forces—see iraqbodycount.org). This bigger picture is impossible to explore in a sound bite, difficult in an op-ed. Good journalism is a start, but real change in people’s thinking must come through sustained engagement with facts and ideas. I hope that 2012 will bring more thoughtful reflection and, in its wake, more peace.
Kecia Ali is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. Her most recent book is Imam Shafi‘i: Scholar and Saint (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2011).