The matter of bigotry against Muslims in America has been with us for quite some time now. In the past week, there were multiple incidents that served to catapult this problem to the forefront of national attention.
On Sunday, CNN broadcast "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" a remarkable documentary, produced by Soledad O'Brien, that tells the story of the conflict in Murfreesboro, TN over whether or not that town's Muslim community would be allowed to build a new mosque.
Murfreesboro, we are told by some of its residents, prides itself on being a "welcoming community" and a "family". But in this documentary we see them speaking for themselves, angry, spewing hate, and striking out at their own Muslim neighbors. The program highlights a failed, but still hurtful, effort by mosque opponents to have a Tennessee court rule that Islam is not a religion and is, therefore, not protected by the Bill of Rights. The portrait that is painted by the mosque's antagonists' own words and behavior is both disturbing and frightening.
Two days later, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Judiciary Committee's Sub-Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, convened a hearing to examine "The Civil Rights of American Muslims". During the session, the bipartisan panel of witnesses (which included Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, and the current and former Assistant Attorneys General for Civil Rights) made a compelling case, pointing to a dramatic increase in hate crimes, and incidents like last summer's uproar over Park 51 (the Islamic Community Center that had been proposed in southern Manhattan) and the protests against the Murfreesboro mosque as clear evidence that discrimination is real and is endangering the Constitutionally protected rights of America's Muslim community.
Republican Senators, who were members of the Sub-Committee, used their statements to echo the line espoused by right wing commentators. They decried the entire hearing as a distraction from the more urgent effort to expose and defeat Muslim radicalization. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), for example, said, "I'm a bit perplexed about the motives for today's hearing. The only way to stop terrorists is to recognize where they're coming from" -- as if that observation would justify the behavior of those who would deny Muslims the right to build mosques or have their freedom to practice their faith protected by the Bill of Rights.
While all this was going on, GOP 2012 presidential aspirants, courting their party's religious fundamentalist base, were making truly outrageous comments about Islam and Muslims. Speaking before thousands of followers of John Hagee (founder of Christians United for Israel), former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich expressed the bizarre and illogical conviction that "if we do not win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American". [No, I didn't make that up. That was Gingrich's direct quote.]
Herman Cain, at best a long shot for the Republican nomination, joined the fray. When asked if he would consider appointing a Muslim American to his cabinet or to a Federal judgeship should he be elected President, Cain responded "No, I will not, and here's why. There is this creeping attempt; there is this attempt, to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government."
Staying on this theme, another presidential contender, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, boasted how he disbanded a program in his state that had provided home buyers the opportunity to secure Islam-compliant mortgages. Pawlenty asserted that he did so because "the United States should be governed by the U.S. Constitution, not religious laws".
These were but two manifestations of the anti-Sharia fervor that began last year when Oklahoma voters passed a referendum banning the application of Sharia law in their state (without actually knowing what Sharia is). This movement has continued to grow. In the past week, two more states announced that they are following Oklahoma's lead in proposing legislation to outlaw Sharia, bringing to 15 the number of states who have caught the anti-Sharia bug.
While other Republicans may not have not spoken out in the past week, within the last month former Senator Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, former Governor Mike Huckabee and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made known their views about Islam or Muslims - and they aren't pretty, or informed.
Whether coming from anti-mosque mobs in Murfreesboro, proposed anti-Sharia legislation, or hurtful comments by candidates for higher office, this growing tide of intolerance is dangerous. Republicans, who, without adult supervision, are busy courting extremism, are stirring up a potentially lethal brew. Senator Durbin was right to ring the alarm bell. But what is at stake here is much more than a test of our nation's commitment to our Bill of Rights. How all this is resolved could end up defining the very soul and future of America. It will also shape how we will relate not only to our Muslim citizenry but to a significant part of the world.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.