A phobia is an extreme fear, extreme to the point of irrationality—a fear so large that it exceeds the danger posed. Sometimes it incapacitates us. Other times it incites us to violence.
Risk is inherent to life. That’s commonsense.
Americans crossing a busy London street are endangered by a traffic pattern contrary to their ingrained expectations. They habitually look left before stepping off the curb. Consequently, they miss seeing the bus coming at them from the immediate right lane. One might be traumatized by the possibility of being run over by a bus—which has happened to some unsuspecting pedestrians—to the point of never walking the delightful streets of London or even visiting the UK. That is being paralyzed by fear of the possible.
Muslims have perpetrated terrorist acts in the US and abroad. In Manhattan, Boston, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere. A Muslim neighbor, no matter how harmless he or she appears, could be planning another terrorist attack. Therefore, Muslims in general should be considered an existential danger? That’s an irrational conclusion provoked by fear of the unlikely.
The unspoken premise of Islamophobia is that life should be free of risk, which is contrary to commonsense, which is why the premise usually remains unspoken.
We drive cars knowing accidents occur and lives are lost—over 30,000 highway deaths per year in the US alone. We fly in airplanes even though they sometimes crash. We eat at restaurants even though the food might be tainted. We transact business in banks even though they are occasionally robbed. We stroll or jog through public parks knowing that we could be assaulted. Living a normal life requires taking daily risks.
Succumbing to Islamophobia—withdrawing from and/or striking out at all Muslims because of what is possible, yet unlikely—distorts who we are as a people and diminishes the lives we lead. And it violates commonsense.
President Obama is right to say, as he did in a December 6 prime-time television address to the nation just ahead of the Sunday night NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, that “the threat of terrorism is real,” but we should neither abandon our values nor give in to fear. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight [against terrorism] be defined as a war between America and Islam.” Groups like ISIL, and individuals who act in their name, “account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world,” including millions in the US.
I saw the first reports of the December 2 shooting in San Bernardino upon returning to my hotel just after visiting a world-class exhibit of Muslim art in Copenhagen. The David Collection is so vast in scope and depth that it requires many visits to absorb. It includes works from the Islamic cultural sphere that reach from Spain to India and span the 7th century CE to the mid 19th century CE. Viewing the collection made me realize how little I know about the rich and diverse world of Islam and its influence on Western culture.
I returned from Denmark the next day to witness a further escalation of Islamophobic political rhetoric in the US. Cooler heads cautioned against targeting Muslims because of their religion. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, whether those cooler voices of caution were blowing in the wind of cultural ignorance. David’s collection stood as a measure of how little the general public knows about Islam, which makes it so much easier to conjure up a stereotype to frighten the commonsense right out of us.