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Islamophobia -- Weapon of Choice for the Midterms

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It's that time of year again. Congress is on its lengthy August recess, and candidates have only a few months until the November elections. Just shy of the coveted midterms, both Republican and Democratic politicians will undoubtedly up the ante during these few weeks of downtime. But as we all clearly witnessed last year, it's the GOP and Tea Party that readily pull out the age-old guaranteed weapon of choice: fear mongering. In the past, it's been everything from homophobia to health care to socialism to abortion rights and all in between. The one subject however that consistently delivers without fail is the right's wedge issue of this 2010 election: Islamophobia.

"Islam bashing is a lucrative business," says Aliya Latif, Civil Rights Director at CAIR-NY. "It's as if any success or contribution by American Muslims is a new opportunity for a vocal minority of extremists to capitalize and advance on their bigotry and xenophobia."

Case in point: Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio, Peter King and others on the proposed community center downtown at 51 Park Place. Consistently juxtaposing the Muslim diaspora with the events of 9/11, these politicians not only push forth notions of 'collective guilt' that Muslims must somehow carry, but they inaccurately dismiss the fact that hundreds of Muslims died in the towers and that the terrorists in no way, shape, or form represented the religion of Islam.

Seizing on bullet points and catch phrases like 'mosque at ground zero' they fail to state that the proposed project is several blocks away from the WTC site, and is in fact a center much like the YMCA equipped with recreation facilities. Playing on the anxiety of a population that for the large part is unfamiliar with Islam or Muslims except in the context of 'otherness', Gingrich has taken it a step further by putting out measures to stop what he terms 'Shari'ah law taking over the Constitution'.

"Shari'ah is a path towards protecting religious rights, life, intellectual freedom, wealth and posterity based upon faithfulness to God," explains Dawud Walid, assistant Imam of Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit, Michigan. "It is not a closed codex of laws that must be rigidly applied in all circumstances and locations."

And last time I checked, no one ever suggested Shari'ah was superseding the Constitution of the United States. If any religion or belief system were allowed to bypass our own rule of law, then there would have been no need for the Feds to infiltrate a polygamist group in Texas two years ago.

But since we're on the subject of the Constitution and our inalienable rights, let's remember that religious freedom is one of the tenets of our nation. And despite what Gingrich and others may espouse in talking points, there are churches and other houses of worship in Muslim countries around the world. So why should we, as Americans, deny New Yorkers a house of worship and recreation in the city they reside in?

The debate over the Park Place center is not at all surprising during such a polarized election year. But when you have protests against proposed mosques in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Temecula, California, Sheboygan, Wisconsin and all across the country, we collectively face a grave problem. It may just be politics and a key method for rallying people to the polls, but Islamophobia has far greater consequences beyond election results.

A 2010 Gallup world religion survey shows that 4 out of every 10 Americans feel some sort of prejudice towards Muslims - more than twice the number who say the same about Christians, Jews or Buddhists.

And as we all know, sentiments can easily translate into disturbing consequences. In May of this year, a gang touting religious epithets viciously beat a Brooklyn Muslim man of Bangladeshi background -- his face, left barely recognizable.

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan upon us, and campaign mode in full swing, we can bet that the vitriol and fear mongering will only escalate. There are some politicians willing to forgo truth and reality in order to advance their own personal agendas, but the question is: at what cost?