In Arabic-speaking and predominantly Muslim parts of the world, Christmas is known as Eid al Milad, or the Festival of the Birthday, referring to the birth of Christ. Although not an essential part of Muslim tradition, the season of Christmas and Hanukkah is still revered among Muslims because it is seen as important to the “people of the book,” or the Christians and Jews of the world. And in Muslim tradition, Jesus is considered a prophet, and the story of Hanukkah holds a place in Muslim teachings.
Criticizing Islam as “dangerous” is never OK, but for these reasons and more, this holds doubly true during the holiday season. So when President Trump retweeted posts by far-right British politician Jayda Fransen last week, portraying Muslims as violent criminals, it struck a particularly harsh and ignoble tone.
This season should be a time of understanding and giving, not bigotry and fear-mongering, so the response by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders that the retweets “elevate the conversation,” and “talk about a real issue and a real threat” only perverted that ideal.
According to a Pew Research Center study, Muslims are among the fastest-growing ethnic or religious groups in the U.S., and are projected to make up roughly 2 percent of the population by 2050. This shouldn’t be a cause for alarm, however. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are law-abiding citizens who want nothing more than to live in peace.
Mosques in Nassau County are regular participants in food drives and charity benefits to aid the poor. In fact, it is part of their mandate to aid those in need. At the same time, they work to increase tolerance and understanding among people of all faiths. The Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, for example, has done tremendous outreach work, partnering with a range of local institutions, including Molloy College in Rockville Centre.
A November Pew report, however, revealed that in 2016, assaults against Muslims in the U.S. surpassed 2001 levels, when they spiked in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. There were 127 reported victims of assault in 2016, compared with 93 in 2001, according to FBI statistics. It appears that the inflammatory rhetoric we have seen over the past two years has emboldened people who feel threatened by a religion that is unfamilar to so many.
While recent years have seen an uptick in attacks on U.S. soil by radicalized American Muslims, mass shootings by non-Muslims are still far more common. On Long Island, where there are roughly 80,000 Muslims, there is no indication that they commit crimes at higher rates than members of any other religious group.
We can’t know whether proposals from the top for travel and immigration bans and tougher vetting of Muslim migrants are inspired by cynical political opportunism or of genuine fear caused by ignorance. Either way, they are woefully misguided and, most important, dangerous.
Treating religion as the problem only serves to mask the real causes of religiously motivated violence, which is often rooted in political and economic factors. Yes, many predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have been rocked by violence in recent decades, but much of it has origins in local and international politics. Many of these countries were once colonies of European empires, and many have limited economic autonomy under international banking agreements.
These factors have frequently been identified by scholars as leading to gross inequality, disenfranchisement and resentment of corrupt, ineffectual and often authoritarian governments, often backed by Western powers.
In Europe, where terrorist attacks by Muslims are more common than in the U.S., economic and social factors have led to mass disenfranchisement and segregation of Muslim communities. We also must not forget the billions of dollars of Saudi money flowing into religious schools, spreading a uniquely conservative brand of Islam that preaches exclusion and intolerance.
Make no mistake: This isn’t an appeal for political correctness at the expense of safety and security. Instead, it is an entreaty to think of our Muslim neighbors as people with the same concerns and aspirations as anyone else. This holiday season, try to dig deep to find empathy for them. Claims that they have a greater potential for violence have no basis in reality. Don’t buy into them, especially now. This should be a time for understanding.