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Seeing the 'Other' as American: Moving Past Islamophobia

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Writers, philosophers, professors, and politicians have referred to the United States of America as "a nation founded by immigrants." This fact can hardly be refuted -- especially considering the existence of the term "Native American." America has dealt with the question and issues resulting from immigration since its birth in the 18th century. The most cancerous aspects of America's response to immigration are bigotry and racism, and they are flaring up again, this time in reference to Muslims.

America's unofficial "open-door" attitude during the colonies' infancy worked to bring the new nation out of economic obscurity. Yet the American legacy, built on the backs of immigrants, has not been historically favorable to its creators. Quakers in colonial Massachusetts were subjected to auto-de-fé ("act of faith"), a ritual associated with the Spanish Inquisition that involved public penance of condemned heretics and apostates. The Blaine Amendments, whose adoption in many states was made an explicit condition for entering the Union, were motivated by anti-Catholic animus and remain on the books in several states today. Anti-Irish sentiment permeated the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution; the Catholic Irish who immigrated to America in the late 1850s faced "No Irish Need Apply" (NINA) notices in New York City shop windows, factory gates, and workshop doors for years.

Mormons, too, faced discrimination. The Missouri Executive Order 44, or "extermination order," was issued by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs to ensure that "the Mormons ... be treated as enemies, and ... be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace. The Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century faced anti-Chinese riots, lynching, murders, and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 -- even after helping the nation complete the Transcontinental Railroad. Jewish Americans also faced bigotry and discrimination. And perhaps the most devastating case of racism: the Japanese internment camps starting in 1941, which targeted all Japanese, regardless of citizenship. In each case, the anti-immigrant backlash was fueled by paranoia -- a deep-seated fear of those who are different.

The latest outbreak of this paranoia is the anti-Muslim sentiment that is becoming increasingly common and increasingly pernicious. While by no means at the level of interment camps or extermination orders, the anti-Muslim rhetoric nonetheless raises serious concerns. A Houston radio host feels comfortable advocating that a mosque be bombed if built near the site of Ground Zero. A few weeks ago, a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida actually was bombed -- the most recent of several mosque bombings that have occurred over the past few year.

Richard Bernstein's recent New York Times piece, "The Danger of Demonizing Adherents of Islam," focuses on another egregious incident of anti-Muslim paranoia. He describes a bus ad campaign created by Pamela Geller, the executive director of Stop the Islamization of America and the editor and publisher of AtlasShrugs.com. The Geller bus ads ask questions like "Leaving Islam?" "Fatwa on your head?" and "Is your family or community threatening you?" Geller started her campaign in response to a bus ad campaign in San Francisco intended to inform and educate the general public about the Islamic faith. According to Geller, these informational ads put out by Muslim groups were mere bait to first convert people to Islam and then to violently punish anyone who decided to thereafter leave the religion.

How Geller came up with this bizarre interpretation of the ads is a mystery. As Bernstein rightly notes in his article, there is scant evidence that Muslim Americans hold such a belief, much less actively go out and ensnare innocent Americans into a deathtrap. While in some Muslim countries apostasy is a crime punishable by death, such absurdities do not make the faith.

Geller and others are welcome to pose sincere theological or ideological questions to Muslims, as theological debate about any religion, including Islam, helps keep it vibrant and relevant to changing times. But generalized stereotypes rooted in hate and suspicion simply perpetuate what Bernstein calls a "vicious cycle." Well-meaning initiatives like the San Francisco bus campaign, a vehicle of a counter-narrative to radicalism, are denounced by Geller-ites as symbols of precisely that radicalism. In turn, "if there are more terrorist attempts by Muslims on American soil, there will be more Americans paying for bus ads and other things to express their rage at Islam itself as well as at Muslims in America, and to encourage the idea that America is, or ought to be, its and their enemy." Creating that dichotomy then just serves to create more enemy Muslims. Endlessly spiraling downward, such a cycle may lead to the death of "the live-and-let-live civility of American life."

Undoubtedly correct in his analysis, Bernstein overlooks one point: Americans, generally living in peace with one another, nonetheless created that peaceful coexistence after years of strife suffered by minority groups at the hands of the majority. Geller and her supporters are, in that sense, traditional Americans. What complicates their position, though, is the fact that while roughly half of the Muslim American community consists of first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants, the other half are African-American Muslims who have been here since this country's inception. The Islam of the Black American had, however, constituted "Black Religion" -- what Dr. Sherman Jackson describes in Islam and the Blackamerican as a "holy protest against anti-black racism." Only with the influx of immigrant Muslims has Islam become a religion to be contended with by the broader culture.

Geller's relegation of Islam to enemy status creates an Islam to be feared and abhorred. It is a conception that is not grounded in reality, but it is nonetheless propelling American society down the same road it has traveled many times before, to its own detriment. Reflecting upon this historical trajectory should help us see past the present environment, fraught with fear, and move to the next stage of coexistence, where we learn to look past two-dimensional stereotypes and generalizations and see the newcomer not as "other" but as "American."

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