Too many misconceptions about Islam Can a Muslim ever become president?

Bollywood actor Arshad Warsi feels that there are too many misconceptions about Islam and that 90 percent of what people know about the religion is a myth.

“Islam is a very nice religion, but it’s been misinterpreted very badly. Quran means a book to be read; it doesn’t claim to be a holy book,” Arshad told IANS. He said, “Ninety percent of what people say about Islam is a myth. People say that in Islam you get a divorce by just saying the word talaaq three times. All that is rubbish. It is not that you say the word three times and marriage is over.” Explaining the divorce process, he said: “You go to the court, say talaaq there once. Then you have to live together (with your wife) for a month…and again you go back to the court and say the word again and then again stay together for another month. Even then your problems are not resolved, then you go to the court again and say talaaq again. That’s how it happens. Even after that you have to give maintenance to your divorced wife.” Arshad also said that the four marriages concept is not exactly the way it has been perceived so far. “It’s not that you can marry four women.

You can’t get married again without the permission of your first wife. Half of the people don’t know the truth about Islam,” said the actor who is married to Maria Goretti, a Christian, and they have two children, a son named Zeke Warsi and a baby girl named Zene Zoe Warsi. The 43-year-old actor however says he is not a very religious person. “I’m not religious. I don’t believe in rituals. However, I’m not an atheist. I believe in god. I believe that there is a power and I believe that all the religions are just different roads of reaching that one power. But those roads are made by people that I don’t like,” said the actor, who made his debut in 1996 with “Tere Mere Sapne”. “I go everywhere, I celebrate everything. My kids if you see, you’ll see them more as Christians as they go to church very often. I have no problems with that,” he added. Arshad, popular for his role as Circuit in “Munnabhai MBBS” and its sequel “Lage Raho… Munnabhai”, is right now looking forward to the release of his comedy film “Double Dhamaal” slated for June 24.

There are many reasons to be glum if you are a Muslim living in Britain today. For starters, a 2010 YouGov poll revealed that the overwhelming majority of respondents in Britain believe that Islam is synonymous with both extremism and the repression of women. And many Muslims believe that Britain is becoming increasingly Islamophobic.

I was talking to my 4-year old the other day, and asked him a simple question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” His innocent, yet ambitious response was: “A baseball player, soccer player, doctor, hafiz (one who memorizes the entire Quran) and an elevator-man” – He is obsessed with pressing the buttons on elevators, so much that he has apparently made this his lifelong dream – so who am I to stop him? As a parent, I admire the youngster’s energetic, wide-ranging dreams – I told him if he becomes all those things, he could eventually have his own elevator in his house. My belief is that with hard work, sincerity and determination, any professional aspiration is achievable.

But when the time comes, what if either of my children tells me that they want to be the President of the United States? What do I tell them? Do I tell them, “Sorry boys – we’re Muslims, and that is not a reachable goal? “ The current state of race relations in the U.S. tells me that it would be a potential dream-deferred.

As children, we seemingly all used to have the same list of future potential jobs: athlete, astronaut, doctor, and President. Even as a child born and raised in the Deep South – I never felt a doubt that my professional aspirations would ever be limited. With a family that has roots in the U.S. since the 1950’s, I felt as much as part of the fabric of America as anyone else. But now, we are living in the post-9/11 reality – with Muslims constantly under the microscope. The term “Islam” has been co-opted, and turned into a political poker chip in order to spread fear and distrust of the American Muslim community.

When my father went to work each day in Opelika, Alabama in 1966, his co-workers didn’t ask the question on whether or not he was plotting against them. The handful of Muslims that gathered in a house to do Friday prayers in Auburn, Alabama weren’t being watched by the FBI – to see whether they were spreading a militant message. But this was the same Islam being practiced in the 1960’s, as is being practiced today – so why the change in perception? The answers simply boil down to the fact that it has become politically beneficial to embed fear among the public, along with a sense of “otherness” of the Muslim community.

Cain Enablers

In the last 40 years, bigotry and xenophobia have resided mainly beneath the surface. It was considered taboo and a career-killer to insinuate that you would not hire a person based off race or religion – that was until the most recent wave of Islamophobia has infected the American landscape. For an example of how this paradigm has shifted, just examine the case of Presidential candidate Herman Cain.

As the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and talk-radio host hit out on the campaign trail, Cain was asked by an interviewer whether he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim cabinet member or Supreme Court Justice. His reply:

“No, I would not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. And little by little, to try and be politically correct, they made this little change, they made this little change.”

Cain’s short statement was a litany of right-wing talking points, bigotry and factual inaccuracies – a statement that should have raised a firestorm of criticism from left and right.

More disheartening than the actual comments was the actual response from the public and news media. We have seen many recent instances of anti-Semitic, homophobic or misogynistic comments from talking heads or celebrities be punished heavily in the court of public opinion – and rightfully so. In those instances, jobs have been lost, fines have been levied and careers have been derailed. In the case of Cain, there was hardly any outcry – and in fact, we saw his early poll numbers rise. Media outlets such as Fox News, who find any reason to be outraged, threw their support behind Cain – declaring him the “winner” of a recent televised debate.

Even though Cain is still considered by many to be a fringe candidate – many other high-profile Republicans have shared similar vitriol toward Muslims – with Donald Trump referencing a “Muslim problem” in the world, and Newt Gingrich comparing Muslims to Nazis on multiple occasions. Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann have also made disparaging remarks about Muslims, in light of the faux-shariah threat that has engulfed the political world. In fact, a prominent fringe talk-show host Bryan Fisher recently stated that Muslims are not subject to 1st Amendment rights – an extreme position to say the least. Rather than distancing themselves from Fisher’s incendiary comments, many of the aforementioned candidates continue to appear on his radio show, pandering to his audience. Thankfully my children are not old enough to understand the level of hatred that is being kindled in mainstream politics – Will they grow up in amongst a public that hates them, based upon what faith they belong to?

Birther Control

We now have a black President with an exotic sounding name. Halfway through his inauguration speech, when Justice John Roberts flubbed a line – we had a birth (excuse the pun) of a new movement to delegitimize this President. Many from the far-right wing have spread the rumor that Barack Hussein Obama – is a secret Muslim. Political operatives have spent the past few years planting seeds of doubt in the public, so much so, that nearly a quarter of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. This is aside from the fact that he has continually professed to be an adherent of the Christian faith for years. From the left, we have seen many commentators come to his defense – but the question is: Why does this question even need to be defended?

Of course we know that Obama is a self-professed devout Christian – which is should end the discussion right there. But what if the President or a prominent politician happened to be a Muslim? Would that delegitimize him as a person, or make him unfit to lead? One of the few prominent figures in the political world who has properly addressed the nuance of this subject matter was former Secretary of State and General Collin Powell. When approached by an interviewer on the topic of Obama’s faith, he said:

“Well, he’s not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the right answer is, well, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in America? …Is there something wrong with some seven year old Muslim-American kid believing that he could be president?”

As General Powell so eloquently stated, the issue shouldn’t be whether Obama is a Christian or a Muslim. In the 21st century, the public discourse should have advanced far beyond the race or religion of an individual. The same opportunities that are afforded to all U.S. citizens should be afforded to Muslim-Americans. Sadly, it appears that Powell’s words reflect the exception in American politics, rather than the rule.

The Rise of the Opportunists

So in this era of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how will it be possible for Muslims to gain a voice in the American political spectrum? Are we just guests of the state, who should be happy that we are allowed to partaking in the American Dream? Unfortunately, many talking heads believe that this is the case – and some of these voices happen to be Muslim.

In recent months, there has been a dangerous term that has been coined, known as “Political Islam.” This term is being thrown around like verbal confetti by pseudo-scholars and social commentators as a perceived threat to western civilization. These talking heads are then invited to speak to government employees or appear on the aforementioned media outlets to scare…I mean educate their audience on the dangers of so-called militant Islam. In the past, I have written about other terms that have been coupled with the word “Islam” in order to build negative perceptions in the public’s minds. Terms such as “Islamo-fascism” and “Islamism” have previously been the go-to words in the right-wing lexicon.

To Muslims, this is very troubling and insulting – that the word Islam – something which we perceive as beautiful, and our source of meaning – has been co-opted for political gain, and being coupled with negative connotation. Anyone who has studied psychology and propaganda knows that coupling a target word – Islam in this case, with other words of negative connotation will in-turn foment a negative perception among the target audience. The same has been done with “sharia” fear-mongering in the US. Take one look at the imagery depicted at the protests. When politicians and mainstream news outlets enable and cater to the public’s fear, it is no wonder that the public discourse turns in such a negative direction.

The term “Political Islam” is thereby a loaded one. Those who have coined and continue to use the term have also enacted a campaign against the most visible and active Muslims groups in the U.S. We have seen groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Political Action Committee targeted by these very critics – in an attempt to tie their political activities into something much more sordid and grey. These groups have unfairly been criticized for not speaking up after terror attacks, or a perceived lack of denouncing violence in the name of Islam. These allegations are obviously false – and it is clear to those who have interacted with and have received these groups’ communications throughout the years. But once again for the general public, perception becomes reality. In an attempt to paint the only politically active major American Muslim groups as some sort of fifth column, or “soft on terror,” it gives credence to the negative connotations created by the terms “Political Islam.” Various anti-Islam websites keep dossiers on these groups, along with prominent Muslims who are involved in politics, in order to create further panic. For many who are profiting off the Islamophobia business, Americans should be alarmed at the sheer existence of Muslim Congressional Staffers, lobby groups, Muslim political party activists.

After looking at the precedents that have been set for American Muslims, there is definitely an uphill battle that we face moving forward. And while the voices of hate and ignorance are seemingly getting a free pass when it comes to making anti-Muslim comments – we are seeing that their character flaws ultimately catch up with them. Just ask Newt and Trump, who used anti-Muslim rhetoric for short term gain, however ended up marginalizing themselves from the race due to continual lies and moral ambiguity. The same can be said of Cain – who is now distancing himself from his divisive comments regarding Muslims. Even the Pizza Man realizes that he has no hope in getting elected on an agenda of fomenting hatred and xenophobia.

But what do I tell my sons? After seeing the level of anti-Muslim sentiment, along with the depths that individuals are willing to sink to in order to discredit Muslims at any level within the political spectrum – do they have any hope for the future? My hope is that the answer is YES. In American history, we have seen fear and political marginalization of many groups – much worse than that which Muslim-Americans are experiencing. In the past, we have seen the black community being counted as 3/5th’s a human being – along with a struggle for political acceptance that persists even today – as in the case of the President Obama “birther” movement. We have seen the Irish and Catholic communities struggle for political acceptance – as recently as the 1960’s. When he was campaigning/elected for President, John F. Kennedy was being viewed by many as a stooge for the Vatican. The Muslim community is now being faced with the same bias – with many questioning the loyalty and enacting those fears into illogical hypothetical doomsday scenarios.

When the time comes, we must be able to tell our children that history is on our side. While it is true that we are seeing many who are benefiting from the denigration of Muslims today, their gain is only short term in nature. Although we may encounter more hurdles than other groups – we must teach our children that the same things that make Islam great: Strength, Loyalty, Integrity and the ability to overcome obstacles – are also attributes of great leadership. And even though we are living in a time of great fear and misinformation – the dreams and aspirations of American children should include the dreams and aspirations of American Muslim children.

But some might be surprised to learn that despite frustration and fear among Britain’s Muslim populace, a generational shift has occurred in the last decade. The Muslim community has shifted from being isolated to being self-reflective and ready to take on challenges. This is the natural expression of an inquisitive, creative, empowered and articulate generation of British Muslims. And at the forefront of this changed community are women who are the driving force for change.

Take Tahmina Saleem and Sara Khan, for example, who in 2009 established Inspire, an organisation that seeks to empower British Muslim women. After having witnessed numerous “cultural crimes” committed against women, Sara and Tahmina decided to redress the wrongs and start a debate. In the process, they have stood up against patriarchy, challenged extremist Muslims and thrown the gauntlet down to far right extremists. As part of their ongoing struggle to restore gender equality within contemporary Islamic discourse, or what could be described as “gender-jihad”, they are organising a conference next month in London for policymakers, grassroots organisations and the media called “Speaking in God’s name: Re-examining Gender in Islam”.

Samina Rehman, from Nottingham, is a prolific writer and director of Mona Media, an innovative film and theatre company specialising in issue-centred drama, workshops and participatory arts projects. Samina has written and produced plays and films that tackle a range of issues – from bicultural identity and cultural bigotry, to drug abuse and attitudes that lead young Muslims to social isolation.

Their passions are derived from their faith, which is unashamedly encapsulated within a sense of being British. And it’s not only Tahmina, Sara and Samina who have a strong sense of belonging; it’s something they shares with most of their fellow British Muslims. In fact, a 2009 Gallup poll revealed that 77 per cent of British Muslims identified “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” with Britain, a higher percentage than the British public as a whole (at 50 per cent).

It’s no surprise then that an energetic group of young Muslim professionals lie behind the creative input of the public educational campaign “Inspired by Muhammad”, which aims to challenge misconceptions about Islam and inform the British public how the Prophet Muhammad inspires Muslims to contribute to society. A similar message was expressed by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – the first female Muslim to serve as a Cabinet minister in the UK and co-chair the Conservative Party – who proudly declared: “As a British-born Muslim, I believe my faith makes me a better person.”

Yet the impetus for these Muslims’ newfound confidence has, perhaps surprisingly, come from the unlikeliest of places: the gloomy news that has plagued the Muslim community. Remona Aly, Campaign Director at the Exploring Islam Foundation, an organisation that challenges the damaging stereotypes about Islam through the medium of creative resources, explains that “since the horrendous events of 9/11 and 7/7, Muslims have felt it ever more vital to get their voices heard – to speak for ourselves rather than being spoken for, to be proactive rather than reactive. And through this has emerged a greater need for and a greater sense of confidence.”

It appears that this generation of British Muslims does not want to be ghettoised, nor remain on the fringes of society demanding special privileges. Rather, they want a fair deal. They want their contributions appreciated, their commitment to this country valued and, above all, they want to be treated as equals.

As the famous 13th century Sufi poet Maulana Jalalluddin Rumi advised: “Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story.” Clearly, this new generation of Muslim activists, leaders, artists and thinkers see themselves as stakeholders in the future of Britain, keen, confident and able to forge their own paths, write their own stories of success and overcome the challenges they face.


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