Islamophobia: America Becoming Europe

02/08/2012 11:32 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2012

This column was originally published in the Duke Chronicle. It has been reprinted with permission.

Nope, I am not talking about the debt crisis, public transportation or the number of smokers, etc. There is a troubling trend that American society is increasingly becoming like Europe vis-à-vis her attitude toward Islam and Muslims.

Islamophobia, defined as unfounded and irrational fear of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people, has been on the rise both in Europe and the U.S. for various reasons. The types of Islamophobia seen on either side of the Atlantic were significantly different from each other in terms of their manifestations and impacts, up until two or three years ago. If I have to summarize this in simple terms, the European Islamophobia has always been somewhat systemic and more mainstream. There are laws passed to protect "enlightened" European civilization against "primitive" Muslim cultures or to prevent the general "Islamization of Europe." The faces and voices of Islamophobia in Europe that call for action against this "imminent threat" often had no difficulty finding tremendous support from their fellow Europeans. Several radical political parties that use this anti-Muslim message as their central mission have gained significant representation in various European parliaments. Many academics who beat the "Muslims out!" drum have been promoted in various European universities. Whenever we American Muslims used to complain about instances of Islamophobia to our European Muslim brothers and sisters, they would immediately ask us to count our blessings because what they go through is a lot harder to deal with and much more difficult to overcome.

The American Islamphobia on the other hand, thankfully so, has been mostly episodic until recent years. It was almost always isolated individuals, fringe radical organizations or a few professional Islamphobes who chose fear-mongering as their life's calling and made millions of dollars out of it. For example: A crazy pastor of no significance in Florida deciding to burn copies of the Koran, creating a scandal. Some individual protests here and there and so on. It was not systemic and mainstream for the most part. However, there is a scary trend that our Islamophobia is increasingly becoming a European type; a type that is potentially very destructive to our civic culture, social harmony and foundational values. And the turning point in this scary trend was the 2010 midterm election.

There has been an important paradigm shift in the way we Americans discuss and debate issues related to Islam and Muslims in this country since 2010. Here are some of the main examples of this claim: Hundreds of old and newly aspiring members of Congress in 2010 made anti-Muslim sentiments a central part of their election campaigns and they got elected into the highest decision making mechanism in our country. There are 25 states, including our own beloved North Carolina, that have been trying to introduce laws to "ban Sharia." Some of these suggested bills were so contradictory to our constitutional standards and common sense that they were immediately undone by federal courts. The most infamous one was in Oklahoma and suggested criminalizing all practices of Sharia. So according to this bill, selling or ordering a halal chicken wrap could mean several years in jail. Americans also witnessed a disturbing resurrection of McCarthyian congressional hearings about American Muslims that shamefully tried to cast clouds of suspicion and doubt on millions of upstanding American citizens.

As we are now in the season of our next presidential election, anti-Muslim sentiments uttered by our political, religious and civic leaders are becoming more and more mainstream and systemic. I can imagine presidential hopefuls saying things like: "I will never appoint a Muslim person to my cabinet, we have right to ban mosques in the U.S., Palestinians are invented people, there is a war against Islam" or comparing Muslims with Nazis and getting away with it. Imagine anyone saying: "I will never appoint a black person or Jewish person to my cabinet." This thankfully won't fly and will not go unpunished. Why is it OK when it comes to Muslims?

My fellow Americans, the reasons of my sounding the alarm of Islamophobia in our society, as an imminent danger, is not a cheap self-defense tactic. I hope you don't hear me saying: "Oh please don't hurt us we are not bad people!" Far from it. My cry comes from my love and admiration for our diverse and pluralistic civic society and our foundational ideals and commitments. This cancer of Islamphobia, if it is not treated early on, will spread and destroy many other parts of our society. History has shown over and over how dehumanization of one part of a society ultimately harms society at large. I remind myself and all Americans of the famous quote of German pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller after WWII:

"First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

If we are not shocked, and not motivated for action, that means we are not paying enough attention. Attention and action please! Before it is too late.