An Interview with Ingrid Mattson
Todd Green conducted the following interview with Ingrid Mattson on May 28, 2014.
1. Why do many non-Muslims in the West have such strong feelings about Islam even though they know very little about Islam?
To have very strong feelings about people with little or no knowledge base is the nature of prejudice. It means that you are reacting to a caricature of people and not to the people themselves. One of the solutions to such prejudice is to look at how difficult it is to dislodge stereotypes and then develop responses based on a realistic assessment of this difficulty.
There are a number of responses. There is the ethical response. This involves the decision to be a good person and to try and do the right thing. This means that you honestly acknowledge that you do have stereotypes and that these may be difficult to get rid of, but you exercise self-control. When you feel a negative response, you don’t just impulsively act on it. You bring to bear your values of fairness and justice. That’s one way to deal with this. But not everyone has someone instructing her or him in a moral response. Not everyone wants to.
It’s important to distinguish between the people who are passive recipients of stereotypes and who become bigoted and prejudiced as a result, and those who are ideologically opposed to Muslims, either for religious or political reasons. I’m not saying there isn’t among the latter some sort of moral impulse that can be touched, but even if they are not transformed internally, they need to be restrained. That’s where law comes in – to prevent them from causing harm. That’s where the commitment to upholding constitutional values comes in. I think it’s important first to analyze the multiple sources of the response and then to develop multiple approaches to dealing with it.
The biggest and most naïve idea is that simple information will change the situation. After 9/11, what I discovered when giving talks to audiences is that people again and again would listen to my talks, but it would become very clear during the question and answer period that they weren’t listening. They were convinced that knew better than me what Muslims really believe.
There’s this concept in Islamic law that distinguishes between simple and complex ignorance. Simple ignorance is simply not knowing about something, and this is remedied by acquiring accurate information. Complex ignorance is when you believe you know, but you are mistaken, so there is this whole deconstruction process that has to occur before you can even possibly be open to receiving knowledge. Otherwise, you have these cognitive frames, and any information that you encounter that does not fit these frames simply washes away, like the gospel parable of the good word falling on stone.
2. What is the best way to address the media’s negative portrayal of Islam?
I used to think that the antidote to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media was more positive images, that if the media could simply balance negative images of Muslims with positive images, there would be a fair, more balanced portrayal. But then again in my interactions with people, specifically in the years after 9/11, the question that would arise inevitably and chronically was why Muslims don’t denounce terrorism. I had felt there had been a significant amount of media coverage and Muslim-generated media about ordinary Muslims denouncing terrorism. The question of whether or not Muslims should have to do this is a different issue. But there was plenty of information, and it had been covered. I had gone and spoken on many radio shows, been interviewed, and so forth, but journalists kept asking this question of me.
This experience led me to read more deeply into the psychology of knowledge. In doing so, I realized that the problem is that negative, threatening images will stick with you in a way that news stories that simply report something nice that’s going on will not stick with you. Our brains are set up to prioritize information. There are a lot of things in our environment to pay attention to, and we necessarily need to focus on the most important. There’s nothing more important than a threat to your life and to your security and safety. Even if there are one hundred stories about Muslims doing good things (denouncing terrorism, engaging in humanitarian work, etc.), this information will not stick with people.
The average American knows the name Osama bin Laden. But ask many Americans if they know who Tawakel Karman is. The Nobel Peace Prize is a big thing, yet I bet most Americans do not know her name. That’s because hers is not a threatening story. Islam is not about peace, or about Muslim women serving as political and moral leaders. None of these fit into the cognitive frames about Islam that have developed in the West. Moreover, there is this sense of why should I care. It’s not information that compels me to put duct tape around my door or stock my shelter.
So I believe it’s really complex, and I’ve come to believe that the media treats many nonwhite groups similarly. I believe there really needs to be a public health approach to the media. We need to understand how the media can impact your brain, like a drug, and how it can do harm. You have to be really, really careful about what kind of media you consume. Overconsumption of news stories that are designed to tell you what’s a threat can be harmful to your health and generate anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and demoralization. It’s not just about correcting the media, though that will make a difference. We need to step back and say that the media is not just a source of information. The media shapes our brain, it shapes our responses to the world in a way that needs to be taken with some caution.
3. What is the one thing you wish more people in the West knew about Islam?
Islam is a great source of moral restraint for hundreds of millions of people. It’s precisely Islam that keeps Muslims in very difficult circumstances from acting selfishly or criminally. If there’s one positive thing I hear, it’s Western people who go to ordinary Muslim countries and then return and tell how hospitable, gracious, and kind the people they met were, people living in very, very difficult political, social, and economic circumstances. What I want people to understand is that this hospitality, this generosity, all of this comes from the teachings of Islam.
4. What can Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
First of all, Muslims need to understand the complexity of the situation, that it’s not only about putting out correct information on Islam. Second of all, it sounds like such a cliché, but honestly, given the huge weight of how pervasive and ingrained these stereotypes and prejudices are, there really can’t be any significant improvement without personal connections and interactions. It is the humanization and personalization of Muslims that tips the situation for people. So the question is, if you are a minority, how do you reach out to and interact with the the majority.
I would say that there needs to be places where non-Muslims can meet Muslims. Muslims really need to think about the role of the mosques in facilitating these interactions. Mosques are certainly supposed to be places where Muslims gather to pray, but they in today’s age, they have to be something more. Muslim communities should give at least 50 percent of their time and attention to developing outreach programs and to sponsoring activities where people in the community can come out and engage with Muslims. Muslims need to create attractive, open, transparent mosques to give others the sense that the mosque is this transparent organization. There needs to be a prominent place within the mosque where it says “Welcome” to all visitors and where you have someone in the office who is there to greet and take people on tours.
That’s my advice. It’s manageable without using huge financial resources. We have some people who have raised millions of dollars to make documentaries or movies, but honestly, I don’t think that the impact is the same as it would be if that money were invested in local Muslim communities to help mosques become welcoming, transparent places where people in the community know they can drop in and experience a sense of neighborliness.
5. What can non-Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
The advice is first to be honest with yourself in examining your own preexistent opinions and presuppositions about what Islam is. It’s not that easy to overcome your own prejudices. You must educate yourself through reliable sources of information. You also need to find a way to interact with Muslims – through your church group, synagogue, a community organization, etc.
I understand that there are many needs in society, that people are stressed and anxious, and this makes it difficult to devote the amount of time needed to overcome Islamophobia. But honestly, Islamophobia itself is a huge source of stress, and not just on Muslims. Islamophobia is a source of stress on many non-Muslims. They feel afraid, tense, anxious. Ridding themselves of Islamohobia can go a long way in helping them reduce some of this fear and anxiety that is so pervasive in Western societies.
6. Are you hopeful that Muslims will face less discrimination and hostility in a generation from now?
History has shown that there is a very strong relationship between Islamophobia and geopolitical interests. Since energy is the focus of so much conflict in the world, I believe there will continue to be a significant amount of Islamophobia in the foreseeable future.
In global terms, there are two things that can potentially reduce Islamophobia in light of these larger global conflicts. The first is developing and refining more renewable energy. The second is some sort of peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Those are the two big picture issues that will continue to fuel Islamophobia as long as they persist and as long as there are people who have political and economic interests in generating Islamophobia.
Ingrid Mattson is the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She is the author of The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life (Blackwell Publishing 2013). She served as the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America from 2006–2010. She was also a member of both the Faith-Based Advisory Council for the US Department of Homeland Security and the Interfaith Task Force for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2007, TIME magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.