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Fighting Islamophobia With 'Political Correctness'

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SABA AHMED
Craig Mitchelldyer via Getty Images
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There is an organized cottage industry in the U.S. that makes a living out of demonizing Muslims and stirring up fears of a formidable "Islamic threat." Nathan Lean refers to this industry as the "Islamophobia Industry." It is a multi-million dollar network with deep pockets and extensive political connections. It consists of right-wing bloggers, politicians, academics and terrorism "experts," all of whom are committed to telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Islam.

Part of the modus operandi of those who fund and fuel this industry is to accuse anyone who dares to call attention to anti-Muslim hate speech or discrimination of engaging in "political correctness." They argue that sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims has run amok and that it is time to stand up to the threats posed by the global Muslim population to Western values.

A prime example of this tactic was at work on Monday. The Heritage Foundation hosted a panel on the Benghazi attacks from 2012. A Muslim law student at American University, Saba Ahmed, dared to raise concerns about the panel's rhetoric and the possibility that it portrayed Islam and all Muslims as dangerous. She noted that no Muslims were represented on the panel. Her tone was calm and respectful.

The response was not. Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT! for America and self-proclaimed terrorism expert, lit into Ahmed. Gabriel argued that 180 to 300 million Muslims are "dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization" (she did not bother to cite her source for this statistic). She repeatedly mocked the notion of "peaceful Muslims," labeling them as irrelevant and comparing them at one point to the "peaceful Germans" in Nazi Germany. She accused Ahmed of seeking "the limelight" and asked her if she was an American -- a question I doubt she would have asked of anyone else in the audience. She ended her tirade by proclaiming: "It is time we take political correctness and throw it in the garbage where it belongs." A round of applause erupted.

Gabriel and many others in the Islamophobia Industry frequently belittle those who stand up for the dignity of Muslims in the West and beyond. The accusation of political correctness is a common weapon, employed to contrast the courage of those standing up to the threat posed by Muslims to Western civilization with those presumably bending over backwards to spare Muslims' feelings.

Extremists like Gabriel do not have a monopoly on this weapon. You can find it in mainstream politics. Rudy Giuliani accused Democrats at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 of avoiding the term "Islamic terrorism" out of political correctness. Representative Peter King defended his hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans in 2011 by proclaiming that to "back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness." He reiterated his condemnation of political correctness when he defended the profiling of Muslim Americans after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. And just a couple of months ago, some conservatives chastised Brandeis University's decision to withdraw an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famous anti-Islam activist, as a cowardly act of political correctness. Hirsi Ali herself has a long track record, dating back to her days in the Dutch parliament, of denouncing the political correctness of those who embrace religious diversity and multiculturalism.

Gabriel, Giuliani, King, Hirsi Ali -- these are voices that cloak themselves in the mantle of courage and honesty. They present themselves as rising above politics to tell hard truths about Muslims and to counter the threat Muslims collectively pose to the U.S. and the West. But we need to call this what it really is -- Islamophobia. And we need to take their greatest weapon, the accusation of political correctness, and embrace it as a badge of honor.

The campaign to denounce political correctness reflects little more than a longing for the good 'ol days in which "we" (white Protestant men) didn't have to concern ourselves with "you'"(everyone else). Sure, the "we" has expanded in recent decades. It is now possible to include non-whites, women, Catholics and Jews in the in-group, as long as the members of these historically marginalized communities know their place and don't succumb to political correctness or complain too much about the inequalities that still persist in American society.

It is time to reject this urge to resurrect a golden age of prejudice toward religious and racial "others." We must move forward in the fight against anti-Muslim bigotry, but we must do so not by avoiding political correctness but by embracing it.

We should pride ourselves on making room for diverse Muslim voices in public discourse. We should demonstrate a fierce commitment to getting our facts right about what Muslims do and do not believe concerning such hot-button issues as gender relations, violence and democracy. We should strive for a just society in which Muslims are not singled out for surveillance, profiling or other forms of discrimination simply because fringe organizations such as al Qaeda invoke Islam when carrying out terrorist acts. And if doing all of this makes us "guilty" of political correctness, then so be it. Guilty as charged!

Political correctness is often presented as a sign of cowardice. It is not. It takes courage to stand up to the powerful Islamophobia Industry and to call it out for its bigotry and hatemongering. It takes courage to tell truths about our Muslim neighbors and to stand in solidarity with them when they are unjustly singled out for hostility and discrimination. It takes courage to be "politically correct." And thanks to Saba Ahmed, we have a clear example of what this courage looks like in action.