By Brogan Gerhart
“Everyone has multifaceted, complex identities,” said Dr. Shibley Telhami, a professor and distinguished scholar-teacher lecturer at this university. “Every day we decide which identity we put first.”
With these words, Telhami delved into modern America’s conception of the “Muslim” world, and how direction from political leaders can influence how the public responds to events and perceives the people around them.
Defining the post 9/11 “Muslim” world
Telhami established 9/11 as an anchoring point for the discussion of America’s perception and opinion of Muslims. According to Telhami, this was the beginning of the clash of civilization between the Western world and Muslim world because the blame for the tragedy was shifted to the Muslim people.
However, the assumption that the entire Muslim world was to blame, Telhami went on to say, was “flawed, distorted and analytically unhelpful.”
Just the fact that there is a ‘Muslim’ world is distorting, he said, comparing the Muslim world to the Christian majority that would encompass the very different cultures and peoples in countries like Venezuela, Liberia, Russia and the U.S.
Telhami made this comparison to demonstrate that one aspect of a person’s identity should not be used as a determinant of understanding. “Saying that the Muslim world is flawed is a problematic and self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.
Arsalan Babar, a sophomore economics major, said that he remembers his parents telling him as a child that he shouldn’t tell other people he was Muslim.
“For the longest time I would just tell people that I was Indian and that I grew up in America my whole life,” Babar said. “Obviously, none of these things are true. I was a Canadian Pakistani Muslim who didn’t know very much English. I had to pass myself off as someone who lived here their whole life.”
Leadership is the reason for partisan divide, not values
Telhami said that the majority of people oppose this clash of culture, and that political affiliation does not determine values – leadership does. “Republicans side with Trump for the sake he is Trump, not for his policy,” Telhami said.
Comparing the responses from a poll taken by Telhami in November 2015 and October 2018, it was found that favorable attitudes toward Muslims in America increased from 53 percent to 73 percent and unfavorable attitudes towards Muslims in America decreased from 46 percent to 25 percent.
In a poll taken by Telhami in November 2017, the majority of Republicans believed that the Trump travel ban was for national security. The majority of Democrats believed it was a ban targeting Muslims that was framed as a ban for national security.
“It’s not obvious that partisanship is about values. It’s more than partisanship,” Telhami said. To prove this, Telhami surveyed Americans asking them how important the golden rule—treat others the way you want to be treated—is to them on a scale of one to 10.
The golden rule was very important to those surveyed. It ranked at the top of their scale with little variation among political affiliation, according to a poll Telhami took in October 2018.
“Leaders can shape the prism through which people see the world they live in,” Telhami said. “Values are a dependent variable from this. Regardless of political affiliation, most people share similar values – they just go the way their leaders tell them to.”
“Competition for different aspects of ourselves”
Telhami described the conflict of identities inside everyone using what he calls the traditional household metaphor. “It’s not a modern concept and it’s not an equal one,” he said. “Someone always gets a little more.”
“It’s your metaself mediating multiple selves,” he said. Telhami explained that once we’ve gone through all of the aspects of our identity in our heads, we are inclined to either rally behind the identity needing defending or invest time into our most promising self. Conflict helps us choose the identity we select to invest in.
How people define themselves sometimes depends on the shift of position of political issues, and is largely a function of how other people perceive certain identities. Telhami said that this public opinion is guided by our leaders by using societal fear to cause separation.
“Demonization only hurts subjects and view of themselves,” he said. “We are inclined to fight others first, to fight and survive. This instinct is exploited by politicians because these instincts are inside all of us.”
After coming to terms with his Muslim identity, Babar said, “I now wear my Muslim badge openly and I’m not ashamed of it.”
“I understand the anger that people may have [after 9/11] and I believe they are justified to feel that way,” he said. “But, the fact is that those people don’t represent the rest of us. It really sucks that some people just block themselves from another person’s perspective and don’t even try to learn.”
What this means for the Jewish community
Although Telhami’s lecture was not about Jews specifically, the reluctance of students like Babar to share their religious identity for fear of being treated differently and Telhami’s findings begs the question: Can Jews experience similar feelings of isolation and fear?
Sarah Elazar, a sophomore hearing and speech sciences major, said that they can and she has.
“I think there is some fear and anger towards Jews,” Elazar said. “But not for the same reasons there are those same feelings towards Muslims after 9/11. The bombing of synagogues and people vandalizing properties with swastikas is all proof that there is hatred there.”
“Where it comes from, I’m not too sure; all I know is that hatred is definitely there,” she said.
As far as her Jewish identity, Elazar said that all throughout high school she felt like she had to hide her Jewish heritage. “The high school I went to had a very small Jewish population,” she said. “My cousins also didn’t feel comfortable revealing that they were Jewish to just anybody.”
Elazar said that although revealing her identity in the past had been a challenge, now that she is attending this university, the fear of being judged for her religious beliefs is gone.
“I think it’s because the Jewish community is so large here,” she said. “I really think the amount of comfort you feel when revealing a piece of your identity is based on the people around you.”