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Headline: America still clueless about Islam
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
October 9th, 2014 (5 Comments)
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The events of the past couple weeks have confirmed something we Arabs and Muslims have known for some time:

America is still clueless about Islam.

Now, I'm a Palestinian Arab Christian Muslim American. My parents are both Palestinian Arabs.  My dad is a Christian, and my mom is a Muslim.  We affectionately call ourselves "Chrish-lims."  Now, many people say, "Well, you can't be half this and half that."  Hey, take it up with my parents. But I should warn you.  Arguing with Palestinians is no fun.

In any case, there is a bright side.  In a world where Muslims are required to condemn ISIS on a daily basis, I am in a pretty good spot.  As just a half-Muslim, I don’t need to waste as much time on this exercise. For those interested, condemnations are available 3.5 days a week, depending on my schedule, but never on Sundays. Since I'm related to Jesus, I rest on that day.

Of the many professional activities I engage in, one of them is conducting seminars to educate American companies and organizations on Arabs and Muslims. The National Football League should hire me immediately.

On Monday, September 29, I was watching as Husain Abdullah, a Muslim member of the Kansas City Chiefs, celebrated after returning an interception for a touchdown. He intercepted the quarterback of the New England Patriots, the great Tom Brady, a living legend. A defensive player returning an interception for a touchdown is a fairly rare occurrence in the NFL. Abdullah had every reason to celebrate. And celebrate he did.

As he reached the end zone, Abdullah slid to his knees and knelt down in Muslim-style prayer. The referees quickly penalized him for "unsportsmanslike conduct." Football players are not allowed to celebrate “excessively” after scoring. This includes dancing, taunting, miming, pirouetting, back-flipping, and the such. Prayers, however, are not subject to penalty.

Now, if he were celebrating the fact that he was a Muslim who just embarrassed someone from a team called the “Patriots,” then I would squarely condemn such action. But let’s assume he was celebrating the touchdown, only the second of his six-year career.

I should say that I don’t think the referees were penalizing Abdullah for performing a Muslim prayer. They simply had no idea what he was doing. They were clueless.

Of course, we all remember Tim Tebow kneeling in prayer multiple times on the football field without penalty. Other players routinely make gestures to the sky whenever they score, and sometimes even when they simply catch a ball. None of this is ever penalized. Referees tend to have a very clear idea of what Christian prayers look like.

But why should the NFL even care about Muslims? Football is the all-American game! Well, first, as we all now know, there are at least two Muslim players in the league, Husain and his twin brother Hamza. There are more Muslim players that we do know about, of course. And there are even more undercover ones that we don’t. Second, there is at least one Muslim owner in the NFL, Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now, the Jaguars have been terrible under his reign, so I don’t like to brag about him too much. But here is there nonetheless, and as far as I know, he is not related to any terrorist activities, so that’s good. Finally, the NFL has millions of Muslims fans. If you visit any café in Dearborn on a Monday night, you will find yourself among scores of Muslims watching American football, cursing at the TV in a foreign language.

Now, to the NFL’s credit, the organization quickly announced the following morning that Abdullah should not have been penalized at all. But the bigger point is that the referees on the field did not correct their call, although they had ample time to do so. None of the seven officials on the field approached the others and said, “Um, guys, I think he was praying.”

Now, if the NFL had gone through some sort of Arab/Muslim sensitivity training, it could have avoided this whole episode.

A few days later, I was watching “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Bill definitely needs to hire me as well.

After Maher brought on renowned atheist and author Sam Harris, the two started discussing the ills of Islam. The duo proceeded to basically blame all Muslims and Islam itself for ISIS and other extremist elements. Now, Maher is famous for criticizing religion in general, but he has a special love affair with Islam. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has a special love affair with being clueless about Islam.

Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof, two of Maher’s guests that evening, took much umbrage to what Maher and Harris were spewing. “It’s gross. It’s racist,” cried Affleck. “The picture you are painting is to some extent true, but it hugely incomplete,” noted Kristof.

Maher and Harris were regurgitating the same old things about Islam and Muslims. “They support female genital mutilation.” “They support killing people who leave the religion.” “They don’t condemn ISIS enough.” “They hate apple pie!”

And we also got the whole “Let’s empower the moderate Muslims” line from Harris. Of course, Islamic society around the world (like other societies) has some major issues it has to deal with, but it is simply not the place of Western civilization to cure Islam of itself. This is even more true when we take into account that as America has dealt with the Arab and Muslim worlds over the past 40 years or so, it has decided to use its bombs, not its words. If one were to say that Islamic nations need to take action to gain more credibility with the United States, one could also say that the reverse is true as well.

As Maher continued his rant, he cited surveys noting this many Muslims in this Muslim country say those who leave the religion should be killed, and that many Muslims in that Muslim country engage in female genital mutilation. Of course, he left out the other (and more numerous) Muslim-majority nations where such practices are extremely unpopular and denounced. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims walking the Earth today. Taking a small sample of an extremely large and diverse group of people, attributing the opinion of that small sample to the rest, and then saying, “See how bad they are?”… Well, that is simply the definition of bigotry.

It would be as ridiculous as me saying something like, “Of the 10 Arab women I have dated, 9 have dumped me. They must all hate me.” As it turns out, there are about 150 million Arab women walking the Earth today. I have no reason to think I don’t have a chance with the rest of them.

Now, I am not shocked that white guys like Bill Maher and Sam Harris don’t understand how dehumanizing their words and arguments sound to someone like me. In fact, quite sadly, I am very surprised when people like Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof do.

But Bill Maher is doing something much worse than simply engaging in bigotry. He is trafficking in it. He is profiting from it. He is gaining fame from it.

Then he’ll say something like, “Well, I am not saying they are all bad.” This is not a concession. Nor is it any sort of intellectual argument at all. It is a statement meant for the lowest common denominator. It is meant to soften the prejudice. It is a narrow-minded and brainless utterance masquerading as a progressive and intellectual declaration. It’s clever bigotry. It’s something Sean Hannity would say… and has said.

Despite Maher’s intelligence, however, I truly believe his bigotry comes from a lack of understanding. Of course, he has every reason and opportunity to know better, but he doesn’t. He is simply clueless.

Now, if Bill Maher had gone through some sort of Arab/Muslim sensitivity training, he could have avoided this whole episode.

Of course, the cluelessness I am describing is not unique to the NFL and Bill Maher. It is an American epidemic. In this country, if you’re smarter than a fifth grader, you win a million dollars. In Russia, the most educated country in the world, if you’re smarter than a fifth grader, you just go to the sixth grade. There’s no prize.

And here’s the main problem. America being clueless about these things is not the same as a country like Iceland being clueless about these things. (My apologies to Iceland. I actually have no idea whether or not Iceland is clueless about Islam and the Arab world. It just happened to the funniest-named country that popped into my head as I was writing this.)

America, more than any other country in the world, has the resources.  It has the influence.  And, it has the bombs.  Seriously, how many of our countries do you need to bomb before you pick up on at least some of our history and complexities? How long is it before you start understanding our traditions and customs, and not just the ones that scare you?

Luckily, cluelessness can be cured quite easily.  I am available for training sessions on Islam and the Arab world at all hours of the day and night.  I am at your service.  You no longer have an excuse to be dumb.

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (5)
  1. Halina Minadeo ... October 10th, 2014 - 04:31

    Excellent commentary on the silliness of today’s misinformed morons who pontificate on Islam without the slightest idea of what the religion teaches. Forty years ago, Islam was not pictured as it is today. It is essential to know the history of Western intervention in the Middle East to understand the phenomenon of the current Islamohysteria.

  2. The more checkboxes you can check off that more align with the source texts such as the Koran and the Hadith, the more you should be naturally considered more representative of Islam. Same with Christians and the New Testament. Secular humanists are under no obligation to take seriously the intellectually convoluted claims of moderates and nominally religious people that their version Islam is at all plausible. If you don’t like that, that’s a point of disagreement that moderates and nominals will lose in extended debate. Pointing to your hurt feels clearly based on definitions not being used (as though every single self-identified Muslim gets 100% credit for even remotely representing Islam) and calling people like Maher bigoted even when they go out of their way to clarify what they obviously always meant is a copout. It is justified to have an educated opinion on what more or less counts as more or less Muslim as we are people too in this world and these religions are trying to sell themselves to *us* personally. Self-identified Muslims especially cannot plausibly shut the door to understanding what a real Muslim is while simultaneously keeping the “evangelical” one open. It is therefore not an intellectually hands-off issue and such an idea taken to its logical conclusion cuts *every* human off from having any idea what a true Muslim or Christian is *including all those self-identified Muslims and Christians.* Oops. Making comments about the Muslim world (clearly framed as generalities, not absolutes, based on actual polls representative of that actual extent of actual Muslims) that significantly weight the Muslims who are actually more or most Muslim constitutes meaningful criticism of the religion at play. Hash out the details all you want but Islam overall will not come out unscathed. Majority Muslim countries that have significantly modern values at play represent the influence of the modern world *over and above* Islam. Good for them! Maher also regularly criticizes the US for its tendency to bomb first and ask questions never. But that doesn’t play well for your narrative here that wants your readers to walk away with a “hate and kill all 1.6 billion self-identified Muslims because of false generalization x” on behalf of Bill Maher as though that’s even a remotely plausible take away. It seems you can’t figure out the message of Bill Maher, Jesus, or Muhammad.

    • Ben –

      Let me see if I understand the point that you’re trying to make correctly.

      As you were defending Maher, you said “The more checkboxes you can check off that more align with the source texts such as the Koran and the Hadith, the more you should be naturally considered more representative of Islam.”

      Are you trying to say that ISIS and the Saudi laws Maher cited more align with those religious texts? I’m no expert on the Qur’an, but I do know that historically leaders have a habit of twisting and distorting religious texts to accomplish their goals and raise support. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, and others dating way back to the Christian Inquisition and as recent as abortion clinic bombers cited the bible to defend and raise support for their actions. None of those arguments hold water when examined fully, in context, and honestly.

      You say that “Self-identified Muslims especially cannot plausibly shut the door to understanding what a real Muslim is while simultaneously keeping the “evangelical” one open.”

      I don’t think this is what Amer and other’s criticizing Maher are trying to do. They’re simply stating that the conclusion that Maher draws about what a “real Muslim” is is incorrect. What makes ISIS and other extremists a more accurate portrait of real Islam? Simply that they’re more extreme?

      You say “It is justified to have an educated opinion on what more or less counts as more or less Muslim”

      Of course it’s justified to have an opinion. But if you’re a TV host stating that opinion on a national show that influences millions of people, it is also justified for that opinion to be criticized and debated.

      You say “your narrative here that wants your readers to walk away with a “hate and kill all 1.6 billion self-identified Muslims because of false generalization x” on behalf of Bill Maher”

      That’s not the narrative in this piece at all. The narrative is that Bill Maher cited limited and extreme examples because they fit his overall point and that Maher’s overall point and generalization of Islam is wrong.

      You say “calling people like Maher bigoted even when they go out of their way to clarify what they obviously always meant is a copout.”

      I’ve always felt and seen that people who need to go out of their way to clarify that what they’re saying is not bigotry/racism/something-ism are the ones who are actually and truly bigoted and biased. People without that bias typically don’t need to go out of their way to “clarify” anything because the points they’re making would not come across as bigoted/biased in the first place. That’s the old “I’m not racist, but…” line that is all too common in white America.

      You say “Secular humanists are under no obligation to take seriously the intellectually convoluted claims of moderates and nominally religious people that their version Islam is at all plausible.”

      So…non religious people are the ultimate judge of what a religion truly represents? That seems like an odd position to take and defend…But OK. Can you define nominally religious for me in this context? Do I expect all people to consider every single claim about what a religion is and means? Of course not. But is it really too much to ask to hold a “secular humanist” accountable when they point to a small subsection of a religion and deem it representative of the whole? Really?

  3. Bill Maher and Sam Harris do understand how dehumanizing their words and arguments sound, it’s not surprising that Affleck and Kristof also understand, to me it’s more surprising that you don’t understand or don’t want to say that Maher and Harris understand and doing that with very specific purpose !

    You are surprised that Affleck and Kristof understand bigotry of Harris-Maher just because they are actors, entertainers.
    Meanwhile you think that two intellectuals like Maher and Harris don’t understand that their war on Islam and American people minds and reason is racial bigotry and ethno-religious chauvinism ?!
    On top of that Maher and Harris are both Jewish open supporters of right-wing apartheid Israel, occupation, maltreatment of indigenous population (Palestinians and other non-Jews), or in general politically and militarily extreme Israel !
    Are you affraid to say or you simply don’t understand that Maher and Harris doing their part in helpin and supporting Israel, by painting Arab-Muslim world as barbaric, so that westerners have no problem when our fighter plains bombing dehumanized populous of these countries.

  4. White guys like maher and Harris ? No they’re jewish guys, that’s why they have such a hard on for Islam


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