As someone who works in the field of promoting interfaith dialogue on Islam in America, I can tell you it has been a hectic couple of weeks. When Lowe's Home Improvement decided to pull its ads from TLC's new reality show "All American Muslim," they sparked a national crisis over Islamophobia in America. But crisis is the wrong word. I prefer opportunity. I say opportunity for two reasons.
One, the Lowe's debacle has already proven that the Muslim community is well organized, ready to respond, and even able to lead a movement that garners support from acclaimed entertainers and public figures such as Sen. Ted Lieu and Russell Simmons. In fact, more than 32 congressional representatives have publicly called on Lowe's to re-instate advertising on the TLC show.
Secondly, the controversy has shown that interfaith dialogue, relationship building between faith groups, and coalition building when there is no crisis, really does pay off. As Eboo Patel, author of "Acts of Faith," has rightly pointed out, the future of religious pluralism will be decided by the success or failure of two groups: religious pluralists or religious totalitarians.
The Lowe's controversy was initiated by a fringe group of religious totalitarians, the Florida Family Association. Yet, as Brie Loskota has convincingly shown, their strategy has backfired. As I write this blog, there are four petitions online that call on Lowe's to stand up to bigotry and reinstate the ads on TLC, and a national network has formed to challenge Lowe's and their decision called the National Lowe's Boycott Network. Their organizing of peaceful protests has resulted in more than a dozen events nationwide, with thousands attending, and petitions have resulted in more than 80,000 signatures, whereas the religious totalitarians that started the controversy have one petition with only 25,000 signatures as of Dec. 18.
What's most striking about their organizing is that individual citizens without the support of established interfaith or Muslim organizations initiated it. In fact, it was only late into the crisis that national interfaith groups began to write op-eds and really show their support. This grassroots network has managed to push back against the religious totalitarians, and at least thus far into the crisis, they appear to be winning.
In the background of this grassroots work, two tragic events have taken place, which reveal the real world "human impact" of Islamophobia. In Kansas City, a young Muslim college student, Aisha Khan has gone missing after complaining to her family of a drunken man harassing her. In Houston, Texas a Muslim man named Yaqub Bham was severely beaten in what family members are calling a hate crime. These events show the urgency of the problem at hand.
Religious pluralists and everyday citizens that are concerned with Islamophobia have a long road ahead and should use the Lowe's crisis as an opportunity to think strategically. With the 2012 elections ahead, Islamophobia will not quietly disappear into the night. Newt Gingrich and other leading Republican candidates have already decided that anti-Muslim hysteria is a card they can benefit from using, and we should expect them to use it.
ADDENDUM: On Dec. 21, 2011, Aisha Khan was found by the authorities in Kansas City, Mo. Her disappearance, and the potential hate crime of a Houston, Texas man were both events that had many Americans concerned about the rising level of Islamophobia in America. Thankfully, the Khan case was not in any way linked to the rising levels of prejudice toward Muslims, and the attack of the Houston, Texas Muslim man is still under investigation as a potential hate crime.