Islamsplaining: Why non-Muslims insist on explaining Islam to me, an actual Muslim

Do your homework.
Do your homework.
Image: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar
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You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know you have a problem. But how do you know you have a problem if you don’t have a word for it?

“Mansplaining,” for example, describes the peculiar tendency of some men to patronizingly lecture women, assuming that by virtue of their gender alone, they need to be talked down to. Probably the worst kind of mansplaining happens when a man’s talking to a woman about something she’d obviously know more about. Such as, for example, being a woman.

I have been a victim of a related phenomenon, one that irritated me to no end. Then, when I came up with a name for it, I was even more frustrated—because I realized how pervasive it is. I call it “Islamsplaining.” From cable news “specials” and social media exchanges all the way down to in-person interactions, Islamsplaining is everywhere.

Don’t believe me?

On April 25, ESPN commentator Curt Schilling compared Muslims to Nazis. In his newest book, It is all about Islam: Exposing the truth about ISIS, Iran, Al-Qaeda and the Caliphate, Glenn Beck insists all Muslims are either moderates or Nazis. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made a similar, equally baseless claim: Only precious few Muslims are moderates. You know what these Islamsplainers all have in common? They know nothing about Islam, but they speak as if they were experts.

And I have a hunch that if they ever do meet Muslims, it’s not to hear our points of view, but to put us in our place.

In my experience, Islamsplaining usually happens like this: Someone I’ve just met perceives that I’m brown, bearded and have a funny name (and therefore likely Muslim), and begins to lecture me on what’s so good about the West, or so bad about Islam, suggesting these are two unequal planets on opposite ends of the galaxy.

Not that there’s room for debate.

The Islamsplainer speaks. And based on the way the Islamplainer pontificates, you’d expect that Islamsplainees across the world usually smile, nod politely, agree with everything, challenge nothing, and maybe ask for a business card: “I’d love to have coffee and hear you tell me what else is wrong with me and one-fifth of humanity!”

One recent experience of Islamsplanation was more jarring than usual, because that particular Islamsplainer had years of law enforcement experience under his belt. While he Islamsplained at me, I wondered how common his opinions were among his colleagues, how badly these errors of perception impacted on our domestic policy and whether any Republicans who did not think this way might speak out.

The Islamsplainer and I met after a television panel on Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, the 24 year-old Tennessean responsible for killing five US servicemen in Chattanooga. We speculated on possible motivations, because at the time there was no clear evidence Abdulazeez was a terrorist (and there still isn’t).

But, of course, he was a Muslim, so all of him had to be reduced to that, and my barrel-chested, goateed co-panelist did not disappoint. Since we were heading out of the building together, we began talking. Or rather he did.

In retrospect, I wish I’d feigned some excuse to stick behind in an empty studio. I could’ve claimed it was prayer time and I needed a vacant room, all to myself, because I’d been a bad Muslim and it was gonna take a while. It was that bad.

Before we’d even reached the elevators, I’d been told there were only two types of Muslim, “progressive” and “fundamental.” (Imagine if I’d exclaimed, in response, “Ooh! Just like there’s two types of white people: liberals and confederates?”)

The “fundamentals” can’t exist in the modern world, my co-panelist Islamsplained, because something something Prophet Muhammad. “Fundamentals” turn to violence because Muhammad did; but the only solution to this violence, he said, was “the Muslim community.” Always nice when someone from law enforcement tells you he can’t help you. Imagine if 911 calls worked that way.

I did not point out that cutting back the wide availability of deadly weaponry in the United States might be at least a part of the solution. Nor did I mention that jihadist recruiters and their supporters religiously avoid mosques, because mainstream Islam wants nothing to do with them: they not only don’t want to talk to Muslims; they want to kill us. (That very day, an ISIS bombing killed 115 Muslims attending services for the biggest holiday of the year.)

But rather like climate change, the Islamsplainer is hard to stop once he starts.

From lone wolves, he told me, ISIS was graduating to sleeper cells across America; these undercover operatives were 21st century versions of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, the KGB superspies who lived double lives in metropolitan DC on FX’s The Americans.  They look like us, sound like us, but also want to kill us. Of course, I didn’t ask how American Muslims could possibly be the solution to covert underground cells established by a foreign entity with which we have no relationship.

But we haven’t even reached peak Islamsplanation. I was then informed that Chattanooga shooter Muhammad Abdelazeez was clearly in possession of his faculties, and indubitably a terrorist (an assumption flatly contradicted by later evidence). On the other hand, Dylann Storm Roof, he said (bringing him up out of nowhere), wasn’t a terrorist, or a white supremacist. Just a troubled soul who’d skipped his medication.

Why didn’t I intervene?

Men don’t necessarily mansplain because they believe they’re superior to women. They might just do it to convince themselves they still are a vital part of every single conversation—that their point of view is always the priority. Islamsplaining is no different. By definition, an Islamsplainer is a person so embedded inside his own privilege that he cannot welcome challenges to his authority.

When he was done Islamsplaining at me, he asked me if I traveled often to Muslim communities—so he could come along next time, he said, and “lecture” (Islamsplain) to them. I stifled a laugh, took his business card, and recycled it at the next corner.