Law in Contemporary Society

Using Law and Social Control to Improve Islam's Image in America

-- By KhurramDara - 15 Feb 2012

When the Park51 project, commonly referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque" was being protested just a couple of years ago, there was a sign that I saw a protestor holding. Initially, it had caught my eye because of how many words had been scrunched onto this little piece of cardboard. The sign said "All I Need to Know About Islam I Learned on 9/11."

For that man holding the sign, and for the many others, 9/11 was a natural consequence of Muslims carrying out Islam. For them, Islam is inherently promotes violence. While the rhetoric may appear extreme to some, the combination of organization and money, in conjunction with the fact that there are terrorists carrying out heinous acts supposedly in the name of Islam, can have an actual impact on our politics. It could explain why Congress held hearings on Muslims in America, why 22 state legislatures considered passing anti-Sharia legislation, or why the NYPD has been surveilling college students across the country.

American Muslims have employed two primary ways of combating this anti-Muslim sentiment. First, we want to educate other Americans about Islam; a cooperative approach. The second is organized protest and litigation; an adversarial approach.

Education is one form of coalition building. The use of inter-faith panels, for example, can bring your allies together so that an organized support structure is in place. But what about the gentleman holding the sign in the streets? Education will not touch him. It's effectiveness hinges, in part, on one's willingness to learn. The protestor with the sign is not going to the local community center for the next inter-faith meeting. In fact, he told us where he learned--it was what he saw on 9/11. And what about the average American? If they have no real interest in Islam or religion generally, it will probably be a tough sell to get them to join in the educational process.

What about the second approach? A protest or a counter-protest can be a sign of strength. But again, there is a targeting issue. Typically, you aren't protesting with the expectation of persuading the opposition; your target is the independent and uncommitted. So here you lose the man with sign again. Similarly, it's unclear how we would convince an average American to be interested in the subject.

And the law? We are entitled to practice our faith freely in the United States. A lawsuit to enjoin a local government from preventing the building of a place of worship could work at achieving the short-term objective: building a mosque. But a court order, for example, is unlikely to persuade naysayers that the result is the right one.

For those who have negative perceptions of Muslims, Islam is an abstract ideology, to be discussed in generality. It is not specific, never a person. For social control to succeed, it must be able to appeal to the non-rational, unconscious motives of humans.

This is not to say that our existing approaches are not important (litigation can be necessary, especially in the scope of hate crimes or discrimination). The approach needs to be one that combines, not replaces existing approaches with other forms of social control. In fact, our need for the legal system may actually be indicative of the sparse use of other forms of social control by American Muslims. Professor Donald Black proposes that there is an inverse relationship between law (government social control) and other forms of social control. With this model, if we increase our use of other forms of social control, it follows that we should have less of a need for litigation, as an example).

This is plausible. Consider human relationships, whether they are personal or professional. They build a level of comfort and connection between people. Having a Muslim coworker or a Muslim neighbor, can make Islam more than some "ideology," or some abstract thing. It can make it a person. A Jewish or Christian American's perception of Islam, can be shaped by his relationship with an individual Muslim. A person who is friends with a Muslim won't come to understand Islam by reading a book or taking a class about it. And if someone is attacking or discriminating their friend because of his faith, their defense won't be rooted in a technical understanding of Islam and won't include a rhetorical assault on the discriminating parties misguided or poorly constructed argument for why Islam is evil. The defense won't be rational, it will be emotional--"he's my friend," or "he's my coworker," or "he's my neighbor." The more known and engaged American Muslims are in a particular community, the less likely it is that there will be issues of discrimination or protest regarding Muslims. Subsequently, the need for litigation in this context would go down.

Of course, there is the point to be made that Muslims make up only a small portion of the United States population, and therefore, this approach is limited in its scope. While this is true, we aren't limited to merely using personal connections as a form of social control. We can also use popular culture. The likes of Muhammed Ali, Fareed Zakaria, and Lupe Fiasco have certainly humanized Islam for many. An attitude that embraces, rather than blindly rejects, American culture will increase the likelihood that more American Muslims grow up to become highly successful in a number of fields.

This is a successful rewrite. It required substantial effort, but you now have a clear, coherent, balanced, useful statement of your position in 992 words. You could make it tighter, bringing it down to 750 words by careful editing, which would be something useful as a newspaper Op-Ed. But you have made your point, and it's a valuable exercise whatever you do with it.

Substantively, I think you've crafted your pitch much more effectively than at the outset. I think you've explained why this isn't hostile to existing approaches, I think you've explained why it isn't some sort of objectionable "assimilationism," and I think therefore you have made your approach both a real instrument in coalition building, and a shield against certain forms of extremist rhetoric. You show a few too many figure lines, with your comments on how social control works. Those are meant to prove you know what you're doing, but in this form of lawyering, showing you know what you're doing can interfere with getting it done.


I tried cutting what I thought I could. Could maybe chuck the last paragraph, but it seems important to have as a preemptive defense to an obvious criticism.


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r17 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:37 - IanSullivan
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