Shaykh Uthman Khan on Bias, Prejudice, and Xenophobia Against Muslims

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen 

Shaykh Uthman Khan completed his ʻĀlimiyyah degree from Madrasah Taleemul Islam from the United Kingdom. He received a traditional Master’s Degree in Arabic and Islamic Sciences and Specialized in traditionalism and the traditional sciences. He also received an Academic Master’s Degree from the Hartford Seminary in Muslim and Christian Relations and specialized in Theology, Philosophy, Religious Scripture, Historiography, and Textual Criticism and Analysis.

His other academic achievements include certificates in Adult Psychology, Accounting, Phonetics, Phonics, and Phonology. Here we talk about anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia, and terminology.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, when we look at the landscape of North America and some of Western Europe, we can see increases in what has been termed Islamophobia, which, in more colloquial terms, is anti-Muslim bigotry.

What are some of the more negative impacts on Muslims who have been living in these countries for a long time? If someone has been a citizen for a very long time, a Muslim who is Canadian, a Muslim who is American, and so on.

One of the obvious negative impacts of Islamophobia could be smears. It could be slurs against them. It could be attacks against them. Some might be more subtle in terms of an individual’s self-concept.

An older person might think, “Do I even belong?” For younger people, they might think, “Do I even fit?”, especially in adolescent years when they are trying to find their identity. What are some of the more nuanced impacts of things like Islamophobia?

Shaykh Uthman Khan: [Laughing] I think Islamophobia itself is overrated. Basically, the reason I feel Islamophobia is overrated: because I feel that Muslims put themselves into Islamophobia. They created this whole situation.

Jacobsen: What would be some of the mechanisms socially and culturally to create Islamophobia in the first place, not only as a term but as a phenomenon?

Khan: Sectarianism is one of them. Not assimilating with the West. “Assimilating” is a bad word. The mixing with the West and becoming more Western. A lot of cultural baggage, which tends to define what basic Islam is.

This cultural guise becomes a problem in how Islam is defined. There is a generation gap between how the older Muslims see Islamophobia and the younger Muslims see Islamophobia. It is essentially how they themselves see Muslims.

So, they will see Muslim in a certain way based on what the media is telling them. There are so many disparate ways to look at it.

Jacobsen: Also, part of that sociological conundrum comes from some sub-sects of Islam within North America or the West generally being insular. So, some Muslim communities in the West keeping excessively to themselves and becoming self-enclosed enclaves.

Khan: Yes, of course, you have two types of Muslims. Ones who are traditional. You have those who aren’t traditional. It goes with every religion. So, everyone who does not follow in a particular way become an outcast from the system. When they are outcast from the system, the intra-religious problems become an issue.

Jacobsen: Should we even be using the term Islamophobia?

Khan: That’s a good question. The term “Islamophobia,” it is a made up word but I am afraid of Islamophobia and any harassment that can come my way because I am a Muslim.

But I feel the reason I am afraid of Islamophobia is because Muslims created this situation paired together with the way the West has portrayed Muslims to be. You paint a scary picture and promote it through the media. What else would you expect?

Jacobsen: Also, I note, at least, two definitions of Islamophobia in the media. One is the one any or most reasonable people would agree with. It is the obvious bigotry against Muslims as individuals. Another conflates that with bigotry against Muslims as individuals but also critiquing ideas.

That second definition, I think, is where people have their most disagreements.

Khan: Critique of the ideas means what?

Jacobsen: If someone says, “I disagree with the ideology of Islam. I do not think Muhammad was a prophet or the last prophet.”

Khan: So, are you talking about disagreeing with the ideas or Islamophobia against the people who disagree with the ideas?

Jacobsen: I think it’s a disagreement on the ideas. I think someone would be very likely delusional to think there isn’t bigotry against Muslims as individuals, as other sectors of society experience bigotry against them as individuals.

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: I think they conflate when someone says, “I’m a polytheist,” or, “I’m an atheist. I disagree with the monotheistic conception of the universe propounded in things like Islam and Christianity.” People will say, “That’s Islamophobic,” in some cases.

But that doesn’t get used for Christians in that case. That term then is used for both anti-Muslim bigotry as well as the critique of ideas.

Khan: I haven’t seen that so much here, though. I haven’t experienced it so much. I have experienced them both together, like when I am reading in the news. It goes together, based on the fact that Muslims are doing a particular thing.

People say, “We don’t agree with the Muslims and what they’re doing.” So, they are having an idea with Muslim ideology – everyone believes in their own thing – but why is there Islamophobia because of it, or is there islamophobia because of it?

Jacobsen: There may. It may lead to it. For instance, some people may have the phrase in their head, “They don’t believe in my God.” In a way, it is a disagreement with the conception of God in Islam and then acting out based on it.

Khan: That’s interesting [Laughing]. I haven’t experienced it. It is part of the bigger Islamophobia. The bigger picture is having some sort of prejudice against Muslims.

I am not going to believe one side. It takes two hands to clap. There are the monopolized Muslims. They will promote a particular ideology and sectarian idea. The closed Muslims, those not willing to make civil society. Pair that with the media portrayal.

As for within an ideology I don’t know if I would call it Islamophobia. Within Islam, one sect would falsify another sect because it would falsify their beliefs but that is not Islamophobia.

Jacobsen: Now, I see. That’s interesting. Within some of these big net definitions of Islamophobia, they would include one sect of Islam disagreeing with another sect of Islam as Islamophobia, which is interesting.

Would it clear the air in the conversation to explicitly make that distinction between people and ideas by using terms that have a prefix like “anti-” in terms of “anti-Muslim bigotry” rather than “Islamophobia”?

Would that be a small turn of phrase to grease the wheels of the conversation publicly, in terms of what we’re condemning and what we’re not condemning?

Khan: What do you mean? I understand what you’re saying. But you mean a change of term.

Jacobsen: In place of Islamophobia, we use anti-Muslim bigotry.

Khan: I don’t like both terms [Laughing]. To use Islamophobia and to use anti-Muslim bigotry, either/or is fine. The word Islamophobia has a bit of a bad rep now. Anti-Muslim bigotry: but it is a pretty general term across the board for all Muslims.

I don’t think we need to change the term. Islamophobia is still there. It is so vast and general. A lot of people don’t know what it means. [Laughing] anti-Muslim makes more sense. Because the term “Islamophobia has the word “Islam” in it.

It is more ideological, “I am hating you. I am going to torment you because I do not agree with your ideology.” Versus anti-Muslim bigotry which reflects the different crazy situations that took place in Canada and the US. They were attacking Muslims and not Islam. Two attacks could have been to two people with different set of beliefs and both identifying as Muslim. For example, the Sikh individual who was mistaken as a Muslim and attacked.

They were mainly attacking Muslims. They did not care about the ideology. The term Islamophobia has more of an ideological connotation versus anti-Muslim bigotry, which is more of a Muslim connotation.

It is just like Christianity versus Christians.

Jacobsen: Yes.

Khan: It is a totally different ball game now.

Jacobsen: I like it. For instance, we can note the likely more dangerous threats in, at least North America, of these ethnic and nationalist supremacist ideologies or people oriented towards that way.

They have explicit bigotry against black people. It could even be in a church. One of these white young men goes to a church and kills several African-Americans.

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: We don’t make sophisticated intellectual arguments. We simply identify, “This is a person who has bigotry against African-Americans, against black people, and kills them for it.” It amounts to what I have heard called “homegrown terrorism.”

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: It is a similar thing. A person looks at a woman wearing a hijab and thinks, “I hate that person, because she’s Muslim.” Whereas, these other people think, “I hate that person, because they have black skin.”

Khan: Do they hate them because they wear the hijab or do they hate them because of their beliefs? I am talking as a theologian. It’s both. It’s Islamophobia, hating Islam, while also hating a Muslim.

Jacobsen: That person would be harassing or harming a young woman with a hijab. They wouldn’t know about this woman. “Is she Ismaili? Is she Sunni? Is she Shia? Is she part of the Nation of Islam?”

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: It is one of those pixelated two-dimensional images of a person that they have in their head.

Khan: Would you consider that Islamophobia or anti-Muslim?

Jacobsen: It would be this weird characterization, or, rather, this caricature of a faith that they have in their heads. That they identify with this person wearing particular garments.

Khan: There’s no specific term for Christianity. There’s no specific term of Judaism.

Jacobsen: We do not have the phobias for those.

Khan: The existence of the terms – for Islam – tends to put Islam on the spotlight and creates it to be more of a target. Imagine if those terms didn’t exist. That anytime an Arab person did something. No one would assume Muslim, whether a Persian person or a brown person.

In a way, we have created an enemy by creating the term.

Jacobsen: That is an intriguing point. If I understand you, it is an automatic othering.

Khan: That’s right. It is an automatic othering.

Jacobsen: It even arises in an American context. For instance, if one takes ethnic and geographic heritage, people will say, “African-American, European-American, or Asian-American.”

Each with a hyphen to connect the terms [Laughing].

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: So, yes, I think, in some ways, it does poison the conversation.

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Uthman.

One thought on “Shaykh Uthman Khan on Bias, Prejudice, and Xenophobia Against Muslims

  1. “Not assimilating with the West.”

    I do not assimilate with the West; even though I’m from here.
    Most Canadian Indigenous people do assimilate because they accept Roman Catholicism. This separates me from the majority of my indigenous friends and neighbors. Neither do I assimilate with most Pilipino Immigrants for the same reasons. I do not assimilate with Muslim immigrants for similar reason’s, even though there is a different foundational fiction involved.

    There are lots of people with Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or Muslim family backgrounds who I do assimilate with because of a mutual adherence to secular concepts.

    The secular humanist community in Canada is a robust minority, but it is far from dominate. When it comes to immigrants and refugees, no matter how beneficial they are to the economy, they do bolster the various faith communities much more than they do the secular humanist communities. Also, secular majority countries provide very few immigrants or refugees.

    The Templeton million dollar prize went to a Canadian intellectual who coined the term Islamophobia. This Taylor recipient obviously does not belong to the secular community within Canada.

    The ‘Canadian Atheist Society’ has a huge job ahead and Immigration and refugees are increasing the amount of work there is to do.

    I think my point is this: assimilation is a two-way street.

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