“Who here has read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel?” For the first time in three years, not a single person raised their hand. At book club meetings, church gatherings, women’s groups, and Islamic presentations across this country, countless hands usually shoot up in the air in response to my question. My predominantly non-Muslim American audiences love to embrace Hirsi Ali’s experiences as applicable to Muslim women the world over. Why are they so quick to believe one ex-Muslim woman’s autobiographical tale?
Is it because she denounces Islam as ‘barbaric, backward, and bigoted’ – all traits which resonate with people unfamiliar with Islam? If people are truly curious about Islam, then why aren’t books by practicing Muslim women flying off the shelves – books like Why I Am A Muslim by Asma Gul Hassan, War on Error by Melody Moezzi, or Living Islam Out Loud by Saleemah Abdul Gafur?
My sneaking suspicion is that people are willing to believe the worst about Islam because they can then justify the public airing of their private intolerance – they are given free rein to voice their misconceptions, smug with complacency that anything they read in print must be true, especially when it’s spreading poisonous hatred about Islam. This willful ignorance seems particular to the topic of Islam because, funnily enough, books like In the Shadow of the Cross: The True Account of My Childhood Sexual and Ritual Abuse at the Hands of a Roman Catholic Priest by Charles L. Bailey Jr. or Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust by Charlotte Schwab didn’t seem to garner either the public’s interest or the media’s attention. According to Amazon’s Sales Rankings, Bailey’s book, released January 2007, just one month prior to Hirsi Ali’s book, presently comes in at 566,088. Schwab’s book languishes at 2,173,819 sales rank seven years after publication. Infidel is ranked 1,386.
I’m troubled by this disconnect. True, Amazon’s sales rankings certainly aren’t the definitive word on America’s book buying habits, but as a useful barometer of mainstream popularity, I do find these statistics to expose an undercurrent of Islamophobia/Islam Allergy. In these uncertain times people seem willing to believe the very worst of their neighbors, and are all too eager for propaganda books like Infidel which offer a politically correct outlet for their otherwise concealed bigotry. Hating Islam outright isn’t socially acceptable (yet), but if it is done in the name of women’s liberation or equal education, one goes from a lowly bigot to a lofty crusader for social change. This disturbing media trend gives people license to maintain hateful views about other people, all under the convenient guise of justice.
Regardless of the many intelligent, reasonable Muslims who strive in word and deed to prove their essential humanity, the masses seem to be massing, restless to blame the ‘other.’ When the hushed whispers of hatred become a drumbeat across this country, it’ll be too late to turn the tide. We need to redouble our efforts, whether they be interfaith dialogue, community service, public service, media, the arts, education, sports – speak up to define Islam! You don’t need to be a religious scholar; after all, Hirsi Ali acknowledges her total ignorance about Islamic principles but her admission didn’t give millions of people pause when they accepted her pronouncements as coming from the voice of an authority. This article is not an incitement for proselytizing, but rather a plea for us to open our eyes to the damage one woman has single-handedly done to the understanding of Islam. It’s up to us to painstakingly suture this gaping wound before American Muslims find their wellbeing as citizens of this country irreparably damaged.
As co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, my son, Imran, jokes with me that he could have sold ten times the number of books if he had written a book titled Rebellion: One Boy’s Escape From The Tyrannical Clutches of Islam. Sad…but true. It is far easier it is to believe the worst about a group when you simply don’t know them.
In case you’re curious about the last presentation – we were speaking to a progressive Jewish reconstructionist group. It seems one religious minority had no interest in reading the narrow-minded ravings of a person out to slander another religious minority. Thank you, Kadima – you made my day and gave me hope that there are others out there who are willing to suspend judgment until they’ve actually met a Muslim.
(Photo: Mutasim Billah Pritam)
Dilara Hafiz is the co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook and the former VP of the Arizona Interfaith Movement.