A bigoted bombshell was lobbed from Inside the Beltway last Thursday when the Senate Committee on Homeland Security under the "leadership" of Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking Republican Susan Collins. The report, "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat," (PDF) combines Muslim bashing with suggestions that would further undermine Consitutional rights in the United States.
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, summarized the ACLU response to the awful Lieberman/Collins Senate Committee report:
Though the need to prevent criminal acts of violence is unquestionable, targeting communities based on religious beliefs is unacceptable and unproductive. We will only end up stigmatizing the Islamic community and creating a nation of Islamophobes. We should not be legislating against thought and we should certainly not be regulating religious or unpopular thought. A dynamic debate can only make this country stronger and safer. (More here)
Is Islamophobia something to worry about? I think so. Islamophobia has been simmering of the back burner of Campaign 2008 for some time.
Take the case of Debbie Almontaser in New York. There are lots of statistics and studies, but sometimes a personal story is the best illustration of a problem.
Almontaser was removed as the principal of a new Arab language public school in New York City in 2007. She was thrown to the circling wolves by her own union and the NYC department of education.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Almontaser explains that she began to "help safeguard my Arab, Muslim, and South Asian neighbors in Brooklyn." Aha! Typical! After all, Almontaser is an Arab Muslim immigrant from Yemen. What do you expect? Well, expect more, because Almontaser had already spent years working with a "group of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and others who meet on a monthly basis to talk about world issues and give each other a sense of hope and support. Immediately after September 11, some members of the dialogue called to check up on how my family and I were doing. Based on the concerns and issues I raised, I was invited by these members to go to their churches and synagogues and to speak on behalf of the Arab-American and Muslim communities in Brooklyn."
What got Almontaser fired? She became the target of right-wing media fanatics who used her to whip up fears of terrorist Muslims teaching children to become suicide bombers.
The New York Post and New York Sun led the attacks. Sun columnist Alicia Colon was especially nasty: "So whose insane idea was it to have an Arabic public school in Brooklyn open this September? Are they out of their minds? Have they learned nothing from the Netherlands about the danger of pandering to multiculturalism?"
When I first heard of this proposed school, I thought it was a joke. But then I read Daniel Pipes's column about this disguised 'madrassa' and discovered who the major principals were. Now I can't dispel this feeling of disbelief and outrage. This proposal is utter madness, considering that five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the ground and we're bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again. Smart, really smart.
In one online essay, Daniel Pipes, a scholar and anti-Islamic pundit, claimed that Almontaser said, "Arabs or Muslims...are innocent of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001."
The actual quote? Almontaser said "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims.... Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion."
The bigoted media feeding frenzy was a disgrace. Months later the New York Times did the right thing and published a thoughtful article titled "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School" (online here).
The Bush administration policies in the Middle East have been a disaster, and part of the blowback has been a tragic escalation of both Islamophobic and antisemitic rhetoric in volitile political debates. Muslims are portrayed as a barbarous, tribal force prompting a "Clash of Civiliaztions" in the analysis by Samuel Huntington. Jews loyal to Israel are said to be controlling U.S. foreign policy through the U.S. neoconservative movement and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. The lurid and bigoted claims wash across the Internet. Such xenophobia and stereotyping has no place in a country that aspires to be a real democracy.
Debbie Almontaser was engaged in working in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities to challenge stereotypes and build bridges across communites. There are several initiatives across the country twinning the issues of Islamophobia and antisemitism. Almontaser, an early leader in such efforts has been slapped down by fanatics. Almontaser is still fighting to clear her name and regain her position in the courts. (Read more about Almontaser and an earlier Witch Hunt here)
It is into this target rich political environment of fear and xenophobia that Lieberman and Collins toss their bombshell report. And they promise more to come. More than fifty years ago, a lawyer representing another target of a political witch hunt confronted the head of an earlier Senate committee: "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
History may be repeating itself. Time will tell, and history will judge our response.