Muslims, Evangelicals and the countering of prejudice

Muslims, Evangelicals and the countering of prejudice:

A conversation with Prof. Marcia Pally and Prof. Mustapha Tlili, New York University

By Chantal Bax

Muslims and Evangelicals – one may not think that these two groups have much in common. Yet just as Muslims regularly have to fight the prejudice that all people of the Qur’an are fundamentalist extremists, Evangelicals who do not belong to the religious right often encounter disbelief that their religion also comes in a non-fundamentalist form. I sat down with Mustapha Tlili, founder and director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, and Marcia Pally, professor of Multilingual Multicultural Studies at the same university, to discuss some of these similarities. Professor Tlili’s Center was established in the aftermath of September 11 and has since then devoted itself to promoting mutual understanding between the Islamic world and the West; Professor Pally recently published a study on “The New Evangelicals”, in which she gives voice to a growing number of Evangelicals who have turned away from right-wing thought toward a focus on environmental stewardship, poverty relief, and immigration reform. This is the account of our conversation on religion and immigration in Europe and the United States. We discussed historical developments behind the prejudices against Muslims and Evangelicals, as well as possible strategies for countering these preconceptions.

Chantal Bax [CB]: Let me first of all thank you both for meeting. We are here because you already had some conversations about the Muslim and the Evangelical experience, and came to realize that there are some striking similarities in the prejudices that Muslims and Evangelicals – or New Evangelicals – encounter. Professor Tlili, could you describe in a little more detail what the prejudices are in the case of Muslims, and what you think is behind these preconceptions?

Mustapha Tlili [MT]: From what I gather from the media, people often think that Muslims believe in strange and different things, that their religion has nothing to do with the modern world, with the history of civilization, let alone with Christianity or with Judaism. The idea is that they are not like us, that they are weird. I recall Pat Robertson talking on television about “this Allah thing”. It makes you wonder how much such people actually know about Islam.

CB: So the keywords here are “strange, “different”…

MT: Yes, strange, but at the same time also dangerous. You can’t say much about it but at the same time you fear it. And this also seems to be the attitude towards Evangelicals. Without making the distinction that, yes, there are Evangelicals who might be “extremists”, you have this vast majority of Evangelicals who are going on about their lives or who sacrifice their lives for good things – I encounter them throughout the world.

CB: Professor Pally, do you think that the prejudices against Evangelicals can be described in the same terms?

Marcia Pally [MP]: Yes, and what is behind this is a distinction that is often made between, on the one hand, religions that are benign, that change with time and are therefore compatible with modernity, and on the other hand, religions that somehow inherently do not change, that are benighted, unmodernizable and incompatible with democracy. Now this is nonsense. All religions change over time and place. If you look at Islam practiced in Minneapolis today, it isn’t exactly the same as in 14th century Nigeria, and in 14th century Nigeria it isn’t the same as 21st century Nigeria. This bifurcation between benign faiths that change and archaic ones that don’t, is false. But it’s very difficult to get people to change their categories. Whatever you try to tell them about changes in Evangelicalism over the last 400 years, or if you try to tell them that Evangelicals were a progressive force for most of American history, you encounter a resistance to changing their thinking about this suspect group. And I think Muslims in the US encounter the same kind of resistance: “I know what they are, don’t try to confuse me with the facts, they are creepy.”

MT: And people who harbor this kind of attitude, they always have the proof to support their claim. It is almost always related to some essence of religion, they do not even care about the practice because the facts may contradict their belief. It is a real pre-judice, it comes before informed judgment. Some people do not even consider Islam to be a religion, they will say that it’s a cult, and whatever goes with the notion of cult: it’s weird, who knows what they do behind the scenes. Compare this to what has in other times been said about the Jews: “We don’t know what they do, they kill the Christians and they drink their blood.” The object of that now is the Muslims. People do not even look at the practices that might contradict their prejudgments, because there is an essence and that is the essence of some very dangerous belief.

CB: So we can say that what is at play here is real black-and-white thinking, ascribing a certain essence to these religions without looking at the various ways in which they are actually practiced. Can you talk about the historical developments that may be behind this essentializing?

MP: I think that both Evangelicals and Muslims suffer from the universalization of the French narrative of democratization. Before the 1789 revolution, the French encountered a handshake between the Catholic Church and the nobility, and this handshake certainly worked against the masses of the people. So when France democratized, they had a double salvo: they had to undo the aristocracy and they had to undo the partners of the aristocracy, which was the Catholic Church. So the idea has crept into modern thinking that democratization requires this double attack: that if you want to modernize or democratize then you must get rid of your monarchs and dictators, and you have to get rid of your religion, whatever that happens to be. I think this is one of the unanticipated outcomes of the French Revolution: a blackening of religion per se and therefore a well-worn groove of blaming religion for all kinds of things that happen in the world. And then through time certain religions will be picked out as the unmodernizable ones; Catholicism actually went through this in the United States.

MT: I would add that with regard to Islam, it goes even further back than the French Revolution. Islam was the third kid on the block: the last of the three monotheist religions and the one that was going to be seen as a competitor by the two first religions, the same way Christianity became a competitor to Judaism. So from the beginning there was this kind of suspicion. Then come the Crusades, the fall of Andalus, the Vienna Siege – there is a sense in Europe that they finally saved Christianity from this big satanic danger. This notion will go deep into the cultural narrative about Islam. Though of course you also had the dialogues between Averroes and Maimonides and all of that great theory that will lead to Saint Aquinas and the flourishing of Western philosophy. And a lot of the European rationalists, including Hegel and Voltaire, they found in Islam some rational concepts they did not find in Christianity.

MP: This also goes for Montesquieu.

MT: Yes, Montesquieu, of course. This positive outlook changes when industrialized Europe starts to look for new markets in the 19th century, which will lead to colonial adventures. When you start with this kind of project you have to demonize those that you are going to conquer. Take Tocqueville, the great Tocqueville we all admire and teach our students. He was sent to Algiers by the Third French Republic and comes back with this report that he will present to the parliament: he describes Muslims as beasts that we have to burn alive. I read that and I shudder. But at the same time I can see this in the context of that whole European project within France and Great Brittan and Germany. They had to justify this new adventure that they were going to launch, and the demonization starts again. What I think we should retain from this is that the attitude towards Islam varies in history and that it has a self-serving purpose.

CB: I would like to jump on this and ask whether we should distinguish between the situation in the United States and the situation in Europe when it comes to prejudices against Muslims and Evangelicals. Professor Pally, could you comment on this?

MP: Owing to the vast difference in self-image regarding immigration between Europe and the United States, there is a substantial difference in the reaction to newcomers. Let me start with the United States. Although it is true that being an immigrant here was never easy, the dominant immigrant narrative is up and inclusion. There is great pride here in one’s family’s immigrant past. Even those Americans that are very angry about the immigration from Latin America will talk with tremendous pride about their family’s coming to America and working hard and working their way up. So immigrants today come into that tradition: it’s very tough to come here, you’re going work miserably hard, but then the dominant narrative is up and inclusion. We see that happening in the Hispanic communities, and it applies as well to Muslims. The porousness of the American economy also helps. You may not have some of the cushioning of the social market economies of Europe, but it’s much easier to get in. It’s a much more flexible, porous, open market. That is why if you have a choice between going to Germany or going to America for economic reasons, you will have people going to America, where you get in faster and you can move up faster. Now the situation isn’t perfect anywhere, but when we are doing a US-Europe comparison, none of that what I have just described about the United States is a part of the European tradition in the same way.

CB: Professor Tlili, can you say some more about situation in Europe?

MT: The immigrants who came to Europe did not have the education to prepare them for professional jobs. There were brought in the reconstruction period after the devastations of World War Two, hard workers for hard tasks with no French or German. The Muslims who come to America come as professionals. They are for instance doctors, engineers. If you see the Muslim population in this country, their income is above the average American. Contrast that with the bulk of German Muslims for instance, or French Muslims, they are still today in minimum wage jobs that no Frenchman will accept. Also, when the Muslim workers were brought to Europe, they were not supposed to stay. But they stayed, and the second act was to bring their families. They were parked into special housing projects and then they brought their families. From time to time you have outbursts in these projects, every five years or so; think of the recent riots in England. And why? Most of the sociological work that has been done proves very clearly that it has nothing to do with religion or with whatever myth that the press was trying to sell, but mainly with economic and social reasons. You do not have these outbursts in the United States, that is a second difference.

MP: I actually wanted to weigh in on the first point, because we have to be careful about the claim that Muslims in Europe are poor and unskilled and that Muslims in the United States come here as doctors and lawyers. That is in part true but it’s not across the board. Poor Muslims come here from Africa for instance. And yet there is not the resentment against the dominant culture and the conflicts that we see in Europe. I think that that has to do with the porousness of the economy. There is the necessity of absorbing immigrants, the pride of immigration, and the economy that in fact absorbs immigrants; that triad of synergistic factors does not exist in Europe. So we get the bizarre phenomenon that even poor immigrants in the US do not form terrorist cells, whereas in Europe the –very very few- people who do commit acts of violence, as we for instance saw with Mohammed Atta, come from the middle class. Europe needs to think about this inflexibility, both culturally and economically. Europeans do not see themselves as “other acceptors” in the way Americans do, and their economy is far too rigid. The other thing that I wanted to say is that there is an irony here, because one group that holds prejudices against Muslims are right-wing Evangelicals. This is ironic because Evangelicalism was one of the strongest buttresses for freedom of conscience in this country. Evangelicals were the persecuted of Europe, they came here because they were rejected by the state churches and came here insistent on freedom of conscience. This tradition has benefitted newcomers, from Catholics to Jews to Muslims. So it is very ironic for Evangelicals to be anti-Muslim, given what they have done for freedom of religion in this country.

CB: Having discussed these prejudices in some detail, maybe it’s time to talk about strategies for countering them. Professor Tlili, your Center has been established precisely to promote mutual understanding between Islam and the West; what are your thoughts on the possibility to change prejudices about religious groups?

MT: Yes, to come back to a more hopeful note, we have to underline the role of education. My experience is that when you tell people about the similarities between Islam and Christianity, they will be very interested and will want to know more about it. And we find that with children, when they are educated together, they do not have that prejudice. But when you look at the interaction between Muslim states and Western states, you do not find that much when it comes to education about religious histories. When you read some of the textbooks, you do not get any notion that Islam has existed as a great civilization of the world. Yet a tremendous part of the Western historical narrative, whether in science or philosophy, can simply not be understood without the contribution of Islamic science and philosophy. This absence in schools and universities is a big problem if you want to conquer prejudices. But education is beyond my or anyone’s personal will. States have to make clear whether their claim to world peace and harmony and so on is real; this should have implications for state programs, collective programs – or it is simply a claim until we hit the next wall and the next complication.

MP: This explains why people with academic and educational credentials can nonetheless have essentializing ideas. They claim that Islam must be a violent religion because people who are Muslim commit violence. But using that logic Christianity must be a very violent religion, because millions of people who have been Christian have committed violence. So you can’t have it both ways: if Islam is a violent religion then Christianity must be, or we have to find new ways to talk about these things, and that is the refining of the categories.

CB: And that’s where education comes in, right?

MP: And knowing people personally. This was one of the great realizations to come out of the gay rights movement: it makes a difference when you know somebody personally. So when you know someone who is Muslim personally, or someone who is Jewish personally, it shakes the walls of those hermetic categories. Suddenly you realize that your favorite person that you’re always chatting to at the water cooler is a member if that disparaged group. And then you have tremendous cognitive dissonance: you have to give up your friend or you have to change your categories.

CB: I would like to come back to an earlier claim you made, that both Muslims and Evangelicals are affected by the Enlightenment blackening of religion per se. I am wondering to what extent the prejudices against these groups are really a matter of prejudices against religion, because like you said, Evangelicals have prejudices against Muslims too, and it is not the case that everybody in the West is atheist nowadays. So maybe something else is at play here as well?

MT: I think I will refer here to Europe in particular. Over the last 40 years or so the trend in Europe has been towards loss of importance of religion. If you look at countries like France, those who say they go to church on a regular basis or who still somehow define themselves as Catholics make up about 15 percent of the population. So you see churches closing down, or transformed into discotheques, in many villages in France and other European countries; people are losing their religious identification. Contrast that with a group that still defines itself as part of a religion. Even if they do not go to the mosque on a regular basis, they will go to the mosque more often than their countrymen go to church. And they identify themselves as Muslims and believers. So the negative attitude towards immigrants is about a religion which is still solid and still has its sway on people. “Why do they still pray, go to the mosque, and in such huge groups – why?”

CB: And the situation in the US?

MP: Just to finish the European piece first, I think that the supposed secularization of Europe was very much the case with the ’68 generation, but the latest statistics are indicating that the generation that is between currently 20 and 35 is less antipathetic to religion. Now the United States is the most religious of industrialized countries, and the religiosity of America makes the religiosity of the Muslims quite compatible. In fact, according to Pew, 40% of Americans say they go to church once a week – exactly the same number of Muslims in the United States say they go to the mosque once a week. Muslims and Christians come out very close here and this makes Muslims less alien. And this brings me to another ironic point: among people for whom religion per se is suspect, Evangelicals are in no better shape than Muslims. In the United States, however, the percentage of people for whom religion per se is suspect is smaller than in Europe.

CB: That’s very interesting, because it does not mean that there are no prejudices against Evangelicals. I mean, we have talked about this narrative of inclusion and that there is not necessarily this anti-religious sentiment in the US, but still we encounter a number of prejudices, like people assuming that all Evangelicals are right wing.

MP: Immigrant inclusion will work more for Muslims and faster for Muslims than it will for Evangelicals. The narrative of inclusion works very well, even in small towns, but it will not work for Evangelicals because they are not immigrants. So for those Americans for whom religion per se is suspect, Evangelicals are out in the cold. They do not get a side boost from the immigrant narrative.

CB: Does this mean that changing prejudices against religious groups may in fact be more difficult in the US than in Europe? Because this narrative of inclusion that people believe in may make it harder to see prejudices at work: it goes against a conscious story you tell yourself about the kind of country you are. So on the one hand the situation may seem more open, but on the other hand prejudices may be even harder to break. Is there an irony here as well?

MT: Well with regard to Islam, if you go back to the period before September 11, Islam did not exist in the public consciousness. Hollywood had its notion of Islam: the sheik with the turban and the Bedouin with the camel…

MP: …a few belly dancers thrown in…

MT: …a few belly dancers thrown in. But there was no very definite image of Islam. Then September 11 comes, and Muslims are equated with terrorists, with danger. I remember some of the TV shows I was invited to, there was no way I could have a discussion because these people were there to propagate their anti-Islamic agenda and to implant it in the public consciousness. So some kind of innocence in this country also prepared for becoming the most prejudiced. It’s the prejudice of the innocent who doesn’t know anything and suddenly you flood him or her with so-called knowledge. In this sense you are absolutely right. But if you provide people with more information – according to Pew, the curve of prejudice is now actually descending. This means that education, knowledge and information play a key role. You can hope for integration and inclusion in this country. I am not talking about Europe because Europe is exactly the reverse: whatever Muslims do they are first going to be perceived as Muslims. Atheist Europe is in an uneasy situation when it comes to these people, and that is not going to change that easily.

MP: I’m involved in a transatlantic comparison of American and European Evangelicals, and the prejudice against Evangelicals in Europe is quite similar to the prejudice against Muslims, in that the average person does not know anything about them. They think that they are a weird cult; people will use the word “sect” or “cult” rather than religion. And that comes from the religion per se as suspect. My book about the New Evangelicals is now just out, so I have talking to people about it a lot, and sometimes they are curious but still find it difficult to refine their categories. They find it difficult to accept that there is not a monovocal movement but polyphony, that there is a range of beliefs among Evangelicals; what else would you expect? But they find it very, very difficult – and some people are even outright hostile. That is very dismaying. We were talking about education, but if you run into people who resist the information you give them, then what does one do?

MT: Well, then what we have is wars. That’s exactly where the game stops, regardless of all the efforts to overcome difference. If you look at the history of the relationship between the “West” and the Muslim world, quite often it has led to these big antagonisms.

CB: I didn’t mean to end on such a negative note!

MP: I would like to say one thing to end on a positive note. The whole idea that Islam is not part of the West is a very strange idea, since it’s an Abrahamic religion of people of the book, and Muslims have preserved much of Western culture for several hundred years. But when you talk to someone from Korea or China they will tell you: “Absolutely, Islam is part of the West, what else would it be part of?” It depends on your point of perspective. Someone from China will say: “Of course Islam is part of the West – we are not part of the West.”

MT: So we are always the West or the East of someone.

MP: Exactly!

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Marcia Pally

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