Our guest speaker last night, Daniel Tutt, is the Outreach Director for Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), an NGO which utilizes the powerful influence of the media to engage Americans in dialogue aimed at replacing negative perceptions of Muslims with positive ones.
He is also a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which conducts non-partisan analysis of issues relating to Islam and Muslims.
Tutt’s presentation outlined the role UPF plays in promoting positive images of Muslims, the theoretical underpinnings of their work, and the tools they use to carry out their vision. He cited research which suggests that stereotypes are moral judgments formed not via rational thought but through unconscious mental processes, and that they mirror the ideas we are exposed to in our socialization. The implications of this research are that in order to change stereotypes, we must appeal to emotions and not to rational thinking. What UPF seeks to capitalize on is the research finding that humans have an innate capacity for empathy. For this reason, UPF’s projects utilize relationship building and grassroots organizing, both of which engage people at an emotional level by humanizing Muslims through structured interactions. Tutt embodied this ideal of the potential in dialogue, continuously mentioning personal interactions and relationships which enriched his outreach work. Two current UPF projects which creatively engage people in broad-based dialogue are 20,000 Dialogues and My Fellow American.
Tutt provided context and support for UPF’s vision of changing perceptions through media by referencing The Cosby Show, and the way it changed public perceptions of African Americans by representing positive images of the community (whereas negative images had traditionally dominated the mainstream media). He cited an anecdote from Karl Rove, who described how a relative of his stopped using the “n” word after watching the show. I struggled with this section of the presentation because I felt that it sanitized or even ignored the structural relations and historical context of racism. What has The Cosby Show done to alter the underrepresentation of African Americans in higher education, the achievement gap in primary and secondary education, or even the frat party held at UCSD a year ago which blatantly exploited stereotypes of African Americans for entertainment?
(DC's National Museum of American History hosts an exhibit on the role of visual culture in the civil rights movement till Nov 2011, For All the World to See)
Negative perceptions of Muslims, Islamophobia we now call it, also has a history and certain structural manifestations. Edward Said’s concept of “orientalism” asserts that the image of an uncivilized and backward “Muslim world” has been embedded in Western scholarship and media for centuries, and that this image was instrumental in legitimizing the colonization of Muslim peoples from Morocco to India. Does Islamophobia, the current manifestation of anti-Muslim sentiment, play a role in the support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. stance on Palestine?
UPF is undoubtedly doing great work, and I definitely think humanizing Muslims through media and dialogue is an important aspect of combating Islamophobia. But focusing on that strategy alone assumes that Islamophobia stems exclusively from lack of exposure to Muslims, and ignores the historical exploitation of difference which has been used to perpetuate Western colonial domination of Muslim subjects. I don’t think we can effectively combat Islamophobia without addressing these historical and structural elements as well.
One point I find useful for addressing attitudes based on both elements, exposure and structural relations, was Tutt’s emphasis on meeting people where they’re at, acknowledging and trying to understand the perspectives of people who have negative perceptions of Muslims. This reminded me of a comment made by Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders, at MPAC’s recent forum on the effects of anti-Shari’a bills in the U.S. He stressed the need to acknowledge and address the fears that drive Islamophobia and anti-Muslim actions such as anti-Shari’a bills, but didn’t get a chance to elaborate how. I think it’s difficult to address someone’s fear without inadvertently validating Islamophobic assumptions. I agree that the only constructive way to bring about a change in perceptions is to engage your partner in dialogue with a full understanding of his/her perspective. But I worry that could easily turn into an apologetic stance, which validates negative assumptions by implying any Muslim is responsible and culpable for terrorism, the oppression of women, or whatever the stereotype may be.