x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Ordinary people are the answer

Survey data on other Muslims' views of the Arab world offer a useful starting point for efforts to build new bridges.

A t the heart of the US-Libyan crisis is misunderstanding. That misunderstanding has been spun into hate speech by Islamophobes on one side, and into violence by militants on the other, but in the middle is the vast majority of ordinary people, many of whom also deeply distrust each other.

The events of September 11 still haunt us on the 11th anniversary. Not just because of the violence, but because of the poison that has seeped into the popular discourse. In the United States and elsewhere, attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs turned virulently fearful as people failed to understand the difference between a few murderous extremists who hid behind a false version of Islam - and the actual religion of peace. In turn, discrimination and racism engendered resentment and anger.

Some of the people who will be immediately affected by recent events will be Arab and Muslim Americans. Ranting Islamophobia has become an accepted voice in US politics - an extraordinary development in a country that has done so much to eliminate racism and ensure civil rights. The frothing politicians, however, exist only because of deep currents of fear and ignorance in the body politic.

Last month, The National columnist James Zogby reported a recent poll that found that less than half of US respondents had a positive view of Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans and American Muslims. People from these four overlapping groups are often targets of hatred in the United States, told in heartbreaking stories about a young woman wearing a headscarf who is taunted as a "terrorist", an immigrant university student beaten by strangers on the street, communities of Muslims that are identified as "hostiles" and isolated. This is a throwback to an earlier, more prejudiced America.

Events such as Tuesday's attack in Libya feed this xenophobia. In the Middle East in the coming days, we will also see far too much anti-American sentiment, and not just from gun-toting extremists or demagogues pandering for support. There is a bias, here too, that fails to distinguish ordinary people from the worst extremes.

It is ordinary people who must challenge the hatred, in word or deed, whatever the source. To let it pass silently is to let it win. That vast majority in the middle does not belong to one nation or religion, and it has a force that defies the hatred.