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Islamophobia: A Threat to American Values?

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We are passing through difficult and dangerous times. The impact of staggering economic crisis and fears of a continued terrorist threat have spawned a culture of hate that threatens the future of our American way of life and values.

The legacy of the 9/11 and post 9/11 terrorist attacks has been exploited by media commentators, hard-line Christian Zionists and political candidates whose fear-mongering targets Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia is fast becoming for Muslims what anti-Semitism is for Jews. Rooted in hostility and intolerance towards religious and cultural beliefs and a religious or racial group, it threatens the democratic fabric of American and European societies. Like anti-Semites and racists, Islamophobes are the first to protest that their stereotyping and scapegoating of these "others" as a threat to all of us, incapable of integration or loyalty, are not Islamophobic. Yet, examples that illustrate the social cancer of Islamophobia that is spreading across the United States, infringing upon the constitutional rights of American citizens, abound:

• Across the US a major debate has erupted over building an Islamic community center a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Amidst the voices opposing this venture, even the ADL (the organization devoted to fighting defamation and prejudice) decided to oppose the building, not because Muslims do not have a right to build the center but rather to protect the feelings of those opposed! Is this a criterion the ADL has used or would subscribe to in its own struggles against anti-Semitism? The ADL's position contrasted sharply with that of J Street, rabbis and Jewish activists.

• Today, opposition to mosque construction with claims that all mosques are "monuments to terrorism" and "house embedded cells" in locations from NYC and Staten Island, to Tennessee and California, has become not just a local but a national political issue.
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• In California, a Tea Party Rally to protest an Islamic Center in Temecula, encouraged protesters to bring their dogs because Muslims allegedly hate Jews, Christians, women, and dogs.

• Christians from a right wing church in Dallas, Texas traveled to Bridgeport, Conn. Mosque to confront worshippers. These Christians, shouted "Murderers!" at the young children leaving the mosque. Carrying placards, they angrily declared "Islam is a lie," ..."Jesus hates Muslims" ... "This is a war in America and we are taking it to the mosques around the country."

• Politicians use fear of Islam as a political football. Newt Gingrich warned of the danger of Shariah taking over American courts. Republican Rex Duncan of Oklahoma, declared there is a "war for the survival of America," to keep the Shariah from creeping into the American court system. Even the new Justice Kagan is being accused of being "Justice Shariah"

• Congresswoman Sue Myrick from NC and Congressman Paul Broun from Georgia recklessly charged that Muslim student interns were part of a secret infiltration of Muslim spies into key national security committees on Capitol Hill.

• Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise across the country.

"What constitutes an Islamophobe? Islamophobes believes that:
• Islam, not just a small minority of extremists and terrorists, is the problem and a threat to the West
• The religion of Islam has no common values with the West.
• Islam and Muslims are inferior to Judaism and Christianity
• Islam is an inherently violent religion and political ideology rather than a source of faith and spirituality
• Muslims cannot integrate and become loyal citizens
• Most mosques should be monitored for embedded cells
• Islam encourages its followers to launch a global jihad against all non-Muslims but in particular against the West

What fuels the fires of discrimination against Muslims?

There is no lack of hate speech in the media and in print to empower Islamophobia. The media, whose primary driver is sales and circulations, caters to explosive, headline events: "What bleeds, leads." The primary focus is often not balanced reporting, or even coverage of positive news about Muslims but on highlighting acts and statements of political and religious extremists. Political and religious commentators write and speak out publicly about Islam and Muslims, asserting with impunity what would never appear in mainstream broadcast or print media about Jews, Christians and other established ethnic groups. If one takes out the word "Muslim" and substitutes "Jew" or "Catholic" in many of the articles targeting Muslims, the negative public reaction would be monumental

The net result? All Muslims have been reduced to stereotypes of Islam against the West, Islam's war with modernity, and Muslim rage, extremism, fanaticism, and terrorism. The rhetoric and hatred of a violent minority has been equated with the "Anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism of a peaceful, mainstream majority, all lumped together in the question (more a belief) "Why do they hate us?" Islam and Muslims, not just the small minority of Muslim extremists and terrorists, are cast as the peculiar and demonized "other" with serious international and domestic consequences.

What do many Americans think about Islam?

In the Gallup World Poll, when U.S. respondents were asked what they admire about the Muslim world, the most common response was "nothing" (33 percent); the second most common was "I don't know" (22 percent). Despite major polling by Gallup and PEW that show that American Muslims are well integrated economically and politically, a January 2010 Gallup Center for Muslim Studies report found that more than 4 in 10 Americans (43%) admit to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims -- more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18%), Jews (15%) and Buddhists (14%). Nine percent of Americans admitted feeling "a great deal" of prejudice towards Muslims, while 20% admitted feeling "some" prejudice. Surprisingly, Gallup data revealed a link between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, that contempt for Jews makes a person "about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims."

Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, will not be eradicated easily or soon. We all (governments, policymakers, the media, educational institutions, religious and corporate leaders) have a critical role to play in countering the voices of hate, the exclusivist theologies and ideologies. Islamophobic campaigns force even the most moderate and open-minded Muslims to question the value of integrating into the larger society when the leaders of that society look at all Muslims with suspicion and prejudice. This is not reconcilable either with Judeo-Christian ethics or the civic moral values of America and Europe.

Attempts to limit public discourse and debate, to silence alternative voices speaking out against ignorance, stereotyping and demonization of Islam, discrimination, hate crimes or threats to the civil liberties of Muslims must be turned back if America is to be preserved as the country of unity in diversity and free speech and opportunity for all. Education in our schools and universities and seminaries (as well as our churches and synagogues) that train the next generation of policymakers, religious leaders, educators, and citizens will be critical. What is at stake is the very core of who and what we are as a nation and a society, the foundation of our identity. Islamophobia and its culture of hate is not only a threat to the civil liberties of Muslims but also the very fabric of who we are and what we stand for, the principles and values embodied in our constitution and which have historically made our democracy strong.