Forum on Faith: Humanity, not discrimination, is our uniting link
The events of 9/11 were the catalyst for my classmates taking on a decidedly negative attitude towards me. People were holding me, an 8-year-old American-born Muslim, responsible for one of the most heinous crimes to occur on American soil.
Not only was my country attacked, but someone else’s actions turned me from a citizen into a suspect. They effectively stripped me of my humanity for a crime that I did not commit, all in the name of national security.
Nearly 18 years later, Muslim parents report bullying in K-12 schools at nearly double the rate of Jewish and Protestant children and triple the rate of Catholic children. In some cases, that bullying is from teachers. Daily micro-aggressions are shaping the identity of the American Muslim youth.
Persistent exposure to trauma, like anti-Muslim rhetoric, is taking away their sense of safety. It robs them of their ability to trust, relate and connect, leaving them feeling isolated. As a result, Muslims must manage their mental health while constantly being asked to prove their worth and humanity.
Dehumanization redefines people by making them seem less than human or inferior. It is a mental loophole that allows us to harm others, effectively acting as a precursor to violence. The process of depriving an individual of human qualities may start as divisive or prejudicial rhetoric, but it can escalate into violent extremism.
Media portrayals of Muslims, immigrants, and other minorities are creating a wave of dehumanization. Distorted representations of American Muslims account for the majority of what Americans know about Muslims.
According to the Institution of Social Policy and Understanding, more than 80 percent of media coverage about Islam and Muslims is negative, and only 38 percent of Americans know someone who is Muslim. This minimal exposure to people who may seem different from us is creating a breeding ground for harmful rhetoric to become the norm, splitting people into factions.
The “superior” group reassures themselves of their greatness by seeing the other as having inferior morality or intelligence. The rhetoric used tends to reduce people to animals or pests.
One study by Kteily, Waytz, Cotterill, and Bruneau showed participants (mostly white Americans) the scientifically inaccurate picture, “The Ascent of Man,” and asked them to rate “how evolved” members of different groups were using a scale of 0 to 100. Participants rated white Americans as being highly evolved, with an average score in the 90s.
Disturbingly, Muslims received an average of 77 and Mexican immigrants received an average of 83 - even though humans across all races and ethnicities have equal potential intelligence and morality. As the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) said, “a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white, except by piety and good action.”
Dehumanization can quickly turn from being a prejudicial issue into a precursor for violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations stated that hate crimes against Muslims rose 15 percent in 2017. The FBI stated that hate crimes against all groups rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Just four months ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, a white supremacist opened fire on Muslims worshipping in their mosques on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, massacring 51 and injuring 49. The youngest victim was 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim. This terrorist act was designed to instill fear in a marginalized community.
That shooting was just one of many acts of violent extremism. On May 12, 2019, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Diyanet Mosque of New Haven was devastated by a two-alarm blaze that was intentional and incendiary in nature, according to New Haven Mayor Toni Harp.
Dehumanization continues to allow Muslims to be spoken of as terrorists, but also Mexicans as rapists, and African Americans as thugs. Dehumanization allows the burning of numerous houses of worship, including mosques, synagogues and black churches. Dehumanization allows for the crisis at the border where an immigration policy of family separation disguises cruel living conditions as a deterrent.
Dehumanization allows for the president to tell American citizens who are people of color to “go back” to where they came from. This incendiary rhetoric escalated into a chant of “send her back” by his supporters, effectively saying that people of color are “outsiders” or guests of this country and don’t have the same rights or privileges as other citizens, despite the fact that citizenship in the U.S. is absolute and irrevocable.
But just as we have the mental capacity to dehumanize, we have the ability to forge trust and understanding. I believe that we need to engage each other in conversation, seek out diversity in our social circles, and learn more about each other’s views and values.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Humanity is our uniting link. And I believe that our shared humanity will be our greatest strength moving forward.
Mariam Khan is an Islamic Studies teacher and youth mentor at Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury. She is also pursuing her MA in Marriage and Family Therapy at Fairfield University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.