Are Muslims Real People?

To clarify at the start, I think that the answer to this article’s title is clearly yes. But if my social media feeds are any indication, plenty of Americans think otherwise. While nobody has actually said so, it seems to be the assumption that many Americans use in analyzing world events. Always bubbling under the surface, the combination of the current Middle Eastern refugee crisis and the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks has led this week to another eruption of the anti-Muslim geyser.

The scapegoating of 1.6 billion people makes understanding the news really easy. There’s a mass of Muslim refugees seeking to escape from places like Syria? Well, that must be because they’re trying to infiltrate Western countries to further the cause of Muslim world domination. Yes, this is a real point that I saw this week.

As a result of having such a convenient group of scapegoats, Americans, by and large, can’t be bothered with trying to understand why things actually happen. I commented to a friend this week that to the casual American observer, the world is a mess of effects without a cause. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. The cause in their minds is that Muslims are a universally evil people – if they’re people at all.

But what if there were an actual explanation for why this current group of refugees exists? Turns out, there is, and it’s the primary cause for refugees in world history: war. Furthermore, this is not just a Syrian problem, but is a larger regional issue. A report on Iraq last October showed that there were 850,000 refugees – mostly religious minorities, including Christians – who were fleeing conflict. A report earlier in 2014 put the total number of Iraqi refugees at 1.9 million. That same study estimated the number of Afghan refugees at 3.7 million.

It is surely no coincidence that the United States has invaded or otherwise meddled in the affairs of each of these nations. America’s influence in the region has for decades been destabilizing to the point of chaos. It’s worth remembering that the United States, due to a succession of foreign policy blunders by two administrations, is at least partially responsible for the creation of ISIS.

But rather than recognize the unintended consequences of their failed foreign policy, Americans would rather see in each refugee a devil-horned monster. We then have the audacity to wonder why these refugees are trying to get away from the Middle East. Gee, maybe they’re just trying to go somewhere where the U.S. won’t bomb them.

The 14th anniversary of 9/11 also brought the opportunity to point out how those evil Muslims – all of them, apparently – attacked us on that tragic day. One comment on Facebook make the confident claim that “True Americans will never forget what the Muslims did that day.”

This kind of sentiment dovetails with the standard explanation of 9/11. But ignored in the standard explanation is that the United States, and the West in general, have intervened in the politics of Middle Eastern countries for nearly a century. Included in these interventions were the arbitrary boundaries that the Western powers carved out of the defunct Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, the American installation of the Shah in Iran (who turned out to be a brutal dictator), the U.S. support of Afghani “freedom fighters” (who eventually became Al Qaeda) in their fight against the U.S.S.R. and the support of Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s.

As the United States increased its military and political presence in the region, it made enemies – people who resented the effects of our interventions and people who just resented the fact that we were there. When the CIA and other observant people warned of the very real possibility of blowback as a result of those policies, they were ignored. But on 9/11, they were proven correct.

Not that Americans understood the full story. The simplistic “they hate us for our freedom” narrative immediately became the official explanation, a role it has not yet relinquished. In The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich observed,

“The grievous losses suffered in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had seemingly rendered all that had gone before irrelevant. Nothing that had happened previously counted, hence the notable absence of interest among Americans in how the modern Middle East had come into existence or in the role that the United States since World War II had played in its evolution. In an instant 9/11 had wiped the slate clean…”

Of course, seeking to understand causes and effects doesn’t excuse the acts of terror that killed 3,000 people. But to understand what led to 9/11 would have in turn led to dramatically different policies than those that were actually pursued. Instead, the U.S. doubled down on its failed strategy and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in civilian deaths that conservatively number in the hundreds of thousands. Other reports reach into the millions.

But among good Americans, not a tear can be shed for these people. They can’t really be “innocent” because they’re Muslims (also a real argument I’ve heard). They can’t really have rights either. In the accepted commentary, these people have none of the same desires or goals that other people possess. They don’t love their families the same way, or desire a better life for their children, or economic opportunity for themselves. Because they’re Muslims.

The unspoken assumption underlying these opinions is that these people in a different region of the world, adherents to a different religion are not created in the image of God. Nor are they imbued with the worth that is inherent in all human beings, worth that is entirely owing to their status as human beings. When people express no concern for foreign dead and wounded, no sympathy for displaced peoples, these are the ideas that they are ultimately espousing.

There are, of course, difficult questions that the current state of the Middle East raises. There are very real concerns and valid points that must be addressed, among them cultural preservation, national security and economic stability.

But ultimately, any response that does not begin with the acknowledgement that every person on earth – even people we’re told to hate and distrust – bears the image of God and therefore has inherent worth, is built on a faulty foundation. As such, it is destined to reach the wrong conclusion.