Spencer Pennington doesn’t fear Muslims, he fears Islamophobia.
I realized even though I belong to the dominant culture, I feel gripped with a sense of fear and a feeling that it would be wise to keep quiet. The fear is compounded by the recent tragedy in Paris. But why should I, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned Western man feel this way? I don’t fear becoming a victim of religious extremists. I fear the anti-Islamic uproar arising in reaction to the slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine famous for its satire of religion in general and Islam in particular.
I’m not a Muslim; I’m actually a Christian
Like most, I was horrified by this attack. I was aghast that free speech, however controversial, would be met with such carnage. I was also deeply hurt that the perpetrators carried out such barbarity in the name of Islam. Now I fear what will follow.
From a young age, I was exposed to many different forms of spirituality. My parents, especially my father, taught me to have an open heart and mind. I remember being a child and learning about the lives of both Jesus and the Buddha, or being exposed to the ideals of both Greek philosophy and Native American wisdom. When I began studying religion independently, I was just shy of twelve – and the first religion I began studying was Islam.
I absorbed everything I could about Islam; my father even bought me a copy of the Qur’an. In Islam, I discovered a religion championing the ideals with which I was raised: Tolerance, forgiveness, charity, courage, faith, and most importantly, respect for other religions. It amazed me that the Qur’an affirmed the Judeo-Christian tradition: According to the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are “People of The Book” – worshippers of the One God. The Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels are recognized as divine revelations prior to the Qur’an. The same prophets, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus are recognized by Muslims as predecessors to Muhammad.
Islamic history revealed a civilization to which the West was indebted.
Thanks to Muslim scholars, the West recovered the knowledge of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, which had been banished in much of Christian Europe. Great advancements in science and mathematics – including our numbering system – come from the the Golden Age of Islam. In cities like Baghdad and Cordoba, the heart of Moorish Spain, Muslims, Jews, and Christians often lived in relative harmony. Indeed, it was common for scholars of all three faiths to work together.
While I was aware of the theological differences between some of my own beliefs and those of Islam, the core message was identical. Islamic inclusiveness was unlike anything I had seen. It was a far cry from fundamentalist Christianity, which proclaimed itself to be the only path to God.
Nearly a year after encountering Islam, the unthinkable happened on September 11, 2001. I looked on in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed and a gaping wound opened up on the side of the Pentagon. My heart ached for the innocent people murdered in the name of God – of Islam. This wasn’t the religion I had come to admire.
I knew there would be a backlash against Islam in the West. I knew that any sense of coexistence that had been accrued by Muslims in the West would suffer. I knew that as a Westerner who had studied Islam, I was an outsider. I learned that it was pointless to have religious debates with other teenagers. Unfortunately, 9/11 provided many of my generation with their first impression of Islam.
Over the last several years, I’ve continued studying religion. I’ve met some who shared my views, others who didn’t. I’ve met countless Muslims of different backgrounds who were more Christ-like than some Christians. Now, at twenty-six, I’d hope that my perspective is better-rounded: I don’t deny the dangers of fundamentalist Islam – or fundamentalist anything – nor do I deny that several places in the Islamic world are in need of change.
As a student of history, I understand that each civilization faces a Dark Age. For centuries, from its birth in the seventh century through the Renaissance, Islamic civilization served as a beacon of light. Yet, since the rise of Western dominance in the last few centuries, things have reversed. Just as Europe fell into darkness with the collapse of Rome, it seems that now, much of the Muslim world is experiencing its own form of the Dark Ages, and is trying to pull itself out.
Despite all this, I remain convinced that Islam’s core teachings are rooted in the universal ideals of spirituality mentioned earlier. Furthermore, I maintain that these same principles, present in Islam’s most basic concepts, are the principles by which most Muslims live.
I know my view is unpopular in the West, especially after the killing of twelve innocent people – one of whom was a Muslim police officer named Ahmed Merabet – which was committed in the name of fundamentalist Islam. Social media abounds with Isamophobia, this recent terrorist attack only fanning the fire of anti-Islamic sentiment. Just days before this tragedy unfolded, a rally was held in Germany calling for the expulsion of Islam from Europe. Unsurprisingly, following the massacre that took place in Paris, mosques and businesses owned by French Muslims have been increasingly attacked.
This series of events holds me in a dark place.
I’m angry that people were butchered for free speech, controversial or not. I’m angry that another terrorist attack, carried out by fanatics, has only heightened the animosity between Islam and the West. I’m sad because I feel as though I can never truly share the beauty of this faith with others in the West – and how we might learn from it.
I’m sad that those advocating compassion are drowned out by growing hostility. I fear expressing my views at a time when understanding falls before confusion.I fear being an isolated voice, seen as only an enemy. I feel I should keep my views secret. I nearly feel compelled to go into hiding. I feel like a man who does not belong in this world.
Though I hurt, I will always hope for a better world, believing that such a thing can one day be realized.
“He who slays one innocent person, it is as if he has slain all mankind.
But he who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the whole world.”
– The Qur’an, 5:32
We talk about the intersectionality of social issues in popular culture all the time. Want more stories like this? Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter here.