I am approaching my sixth year since I landed in the United States as a refugee from Iraq.
Since then, there have been so many changes—gaining eighty pounds is the most obvious of them—but I can say now that I can speak with some authority when I engage in discussions about extremism, and in particular Islamist extremism, in North America. Since my arrival in the United States, I have been consulting, attending, and speaking at institutions in more than thirty states and provinces and at events reflecting pretty much all sides of the political spectrum (except the far Right and the far Left, of course).
I never thought I would say this, but discussions about Islamist extremism where I came from (the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular) tended to be far more honest and nuanced than the ones in which I’ve taken part in North America.
I attribute this to multiple factors. First, interlocutors in the Middle East are in constant contact with the enemy. (In Iraq, Islamists won May’s parliamentary elections, and Jihadists took over more than a third of the country). Second, Middle Easterners are understandably more familiar with the religion of Islam, its history, and its various divisions. In contrast, most Americans and Canadians knew little about Islam until 9/11 and the subsequent terrorist attacks. To put it mildly, this is not the best introduction to a religion, a culture, and a group of more than 1.2 billion individuals who live all over the planet, most of whom are not members of terrorist organizations or have any relationship to terrorism in general.
The third factor is race. The Middle East has a much different racial history than North America. While it has also had its history of brutal practices, including the enslavement of native Africans, most Middle Easterners are either not familiar with that history or simply don’t associate extremism with people of a darker skin color.
As a result, accusations of “Islamophobia” and “racism” hardly ever arise when Islamic extremism is discussed in the region. Islam is a majority religion; therefore, statements critical of Islam are not perceived as an “attack” on a vulnerable minority group. (Granted, minority religions have few rights in the region, but that’s another matter.) So in the Middle East, there is no such thing as the dynamic we so often see in North America, where even valid criticisms of a minority religion or group are viewed as attacks by the majority group (white people) on a minority group (brown people), triggering defensive attitudes among minority-rights advocates determined to take the side of the underdog.
The fourth factor is the existence in North America (and especially the United States) of the far Right, many of whose adherents genuinely hate people of different skin colors and faiths. This creates the reaction one might expect, a form of “Right-Wing-Phobia Phobia” among critics of extremism in the Muslim community. Far too often, these critics feel that to protect their reputations, they must bash the far Right and Trump in a hysterical way at every opportunity, whether relevant or not, just to demonstrate that they are not right-wingers or advancing some right-wing agenda. “I am not right-wing! I am not right-wing! Please look at my skin! I am brown too!”
Which is why many critics of Islam sound hysterical these days: On the one hand, they have to fight accusations that they are spreading “hatred” and “Islamophobia”; on the other hand, in the eyes of critics on the far Right, they look as “Muslim” as any other Muslims and are either viewed with mistrust or as tools, either of which undercuts their effectiveness.
For all these reasons, it’s tremendously difficult for North American critics of Islamism to engage in discourse that stands the chance of making a difference. As I’ve maintained in previous essays, if the Middle East is to change for the better, this change has to come from its people fighting for their rights by themselves. If foreign allies offer their support, that is well and good, but those who live amid the conflict should not rely on salvation from outside.