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Islamophobia from Jefferson to Ellison

By Abdul Malik Mujahid

"The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran." -Representative Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (Republican from Virginia), in a letter to his constituents.

"Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, [...] America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress." -Talk show host Dennis Prager, Townhall.com, November 28, 2006.

Despite the Islamophobia represented by these two statements and those who supported them, Keith Ellison was still able to take his ceremonial oath of office in early January 2007 as a Democratic representative from Minnesota. The first woman speaker Nancy Pelosi re-enacted taking the oath of office while Congressman Ellison's wife, Kim, held the Quran. And this copy of the Quran was once owned by the quintessential American patriot: Thomas Jefferson.

Many would be surprised that Jefferson even owned a Quran in the first place. I wonder if this holy book of 1.2 billion individuals on the planet sits on Prager's or Goode's bookshelves. Highly unlikely. Unlike Jefferson, they don't seem interested in trying to learn, think and analyze beyond their perceived understanding of Islam and Muslims. This is an attitude characteristic of today's Islamophobic talk show hosts, self-proclaimed "patriots" and defenders of "American values."

Jefferson's copy of the Quran was purchased at a time when hatred for the Ottoman Empire and all things Islamic was high, a recurring fear fed by misinformation and the events of the day. Even the translations available at that time, were made with a declared Islamophobic intent.

Jefferson's response to this Islamophobia was not rejection but to read the Quran and understand Islam, a Book he considered not just Muslim holy scripture, but also a legal text, which held special relevance for him as a lawyer.

The attacks on Ellison and his use of the Quran for his swearing-in ceremony are not about "American values" and "American civilization." Rather, they are about their antithesis:  Islamophobia.

Goode's remarks represent Islamophobia par exellence. He implied that all Muslims are immigrants when in fact, over half of Muslims in the United States were born and raised here (including around 30 per cent of whom are African-American). His letter also reflected fear of Islam.

The subdued response to Goode's outrageous Islamophobic comments also points out how acceptable it is in today's America to be a racist when it comes to Muslims. President Bush failed to distance himself from them, as did his fellow Republicans. None of the Congressional leaders of the Republican party or the Chair of the Republican Party denounced him. While hardly anyone welcomed his statements, the overwhelming silence amounted to tacit approval. Even a statement by religious leaders failed to gather much momentum. They had signed a petition inviting Goode to visit a mosque.

Islamophobia is okay in America today

Islamophobia, or the fear and hatred of all things relating to Islam and Muslims, has become an acceptable form of racism. A sympathetic Jewish lawyer who was representing a Palestinian client in Chicago pre-9/11 said something telling to me in this regard: "Muslims are the new NÉers of America. If you will not fight for yourself, no one will."

He's right. But Muslim complaints about Islamophobia continue to be dismissed.

Over one-fourth of all American Muslims surveyed by more than one public opinion organization stated that they have personally experienced Islamophobia or know someone who has. More than 500,000 American Muslims have been subjected to some kind of law enforcement activity since 9/11. Wages of Muslim men have gone down by 10 percent since, according to a recent study.

At least 31,000 Muslims have been detained, arrested, deported since that tragedy. Harrowing tales of anti-Muslim discrimination on the job, at schools, stores, restaurants and on the streets fill CAIR's annual reports on the state of Muslim civil liberties in the US.

The case of Capt. James Yee is a disturbing example of how American Muslims even in positions of authority and respect must endure Islamophobia publicly at the hands of our own government. A horrible tale of how Islamophobia broke up a family was recently broadcast by the NPR program This American Life. Listen to the 12/15/2006 Episode 322.

The prestigious Social Science Research Council examined "the more than 300 prosecutions of individuals on terrorism related charges, and found virtually none that were involved in a plot against America, a finding verified by a Washington Post investigation last year."

It is due to Islamophobia fanned by government policies and a media frenzy that a majority of Americans continue to hold negative opinions of Islam and Muslims. And bin Ladenites around the world contribute to authenticate this negative image. Forty-four percent of Americans queried in a Cornell national poll favor curtailing some liberties for Muslim Americans.

And it doesn't start and end just here. Over half of schoolchildren in the Australian city of Victoria view Muslims as terrorists, and two out of five agree that Muslims "are unclean", a survey has revealed.

Islamophobia is older than 9/11 and is based on ongoing ignorance

As Jefferson's example illustrates, the fear and hatred of all things Islamic can be traced much farther back than 9/11. Edward Said's landmark book "Orientalism" outlined how European colonial masters viewed their Muslim subjects with disdain and disgust. This attitude continues to characterize the discipline today. That view of Muslims as bloodthirsty, misogynist and violent savages persists. It is furthered by Bernard Lewis, America's top Orientalist, and his neoconservative students, a number of whom are the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In the 1980s, funding was cut throughout the United States for programs that attempted to understand other peoples and nations. With the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of America as the world's sole superpower, a fair amount of arrogance towards the rest of the world pervaded America's dealings with other countries and continues to do so.

The barring of Yusuf Islam in 2004 and Tariq Ramadan in 2005 from the United States are examples of how we are not only closing our borders to Islam but opening them to Islamophobia. Even worse, we are closing our minds. As Diana Eck, President of the American Academy of Religion wrote in the Boston Globe on February 2, 2006 about the Ramadan case, "Denying us face-to-face access to scholars and theologians who contribute to critical reflection on the religious currents of our world is an intolerable impoverishment of the academic enterprise." The Academy is currently suing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for barring Ramadan entry into the US.

Thomas Jefferson would certainly not have approved of this attitude. Not only did he try to learn basic Arabic, he also recognized that other Americans should have the opportunity to learn the language. Revising the laws of Virginia in the late1770s, Jefferson drafted a bill that proposed expanding the curriculum of his alma mater, the College Of William and Mary, to include Oriental Languages. I wonder how Virgil Goode, a representative of this state, would have reacted to this?

This respect for others is the reason that the Supreme Court of the United States honored the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, as a great lawgiver in the 1930s by putting up his frieze to adorn the courtroom walls. It depicted eighteen great lawgivers through ages, including Moses, Solomon, Confucius ... and Muhammad. I also remember this respect when I opened my eyes after resting my head on a wooden chair of the Library of Congress as I read the name of the Prophet on its sealing. None of these people were Muslims, but they were above Islamophobia of the day which makes one deny the sunshine. 

Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism harms all of us

In my many interfaith interactions in the last year, I have met several nice people. But I was surprised to find at almost each event I attended, one or two Islamophobic people who seemed to have a high dose of Fox News in their system. I listened to them and prayed for them instead of responding to them. In similar ways I had difficulty communicating with those abroad whose anti-American hate does not distinguish between the US government policies and the dehumanization of all Americans. Terrorism, occupations and wars continue to pull America and the world apart. And America's most important asset, it's Muslim Americans, are unable to build bridges of understanding. They have become suspect in this Islamophobic environment.

Like racism and anti-Semitism, Islamophobia hurts all of us. In America, it is eroding our civil liberties. In Europe, it is further isolating minority communities and inflaming latent xenophobia. It is perpetuating the neocon wish for a "clash of civilizations" at a time when no country in the world, Muslim or not, can afford it politically, economically or otherwise. Just ask the Danish dairy industry how Islamophobia has hurt its business.

Islamophobia is responsible for torture. Islamophobia is responsible for the grave misunderstandings that only serve to perpetuate hatred and demonization.

Perhaps we need to learn from Canada, where hate speech is banned despite the guarantee of free speech in the country's constitution.

With no significant representation in any level of government, American Muslims have a long way to go in fighting Islamophobia. Perhaps one day, our voice can also be heard and given weight as those of another important religious minority is, Jewish Americans. A tall,  Jewish leader stood up during an interfaith meeting I recently attended in Washington, DC and proudly announced that there are 30 Jewish representatives and 13 Jewish Senators in the United States' 110th Congress. I admire how Jewish community has fought anti-Semitism and became one of the most accepted and admired communities in the US.

Islamophobia is today's accepted form of racism. It will require Muslims to fight hard against it. Muslims are neither solely responsible for its creation, nor will they be able to fight it on their own. It is a collective responsibility for all bridge-builders of the world.

Let us today take a stand to end all kinds of fear and hatred of "the other."

*** Islamophobia Watch
Statistics regarding Islamophobia in the USA.
14 Ways You Can Fight Islamophobia
Islamophobia From Jefferson To Ellison
How Muslims of the past Dealt with racism and prejudice

*** Racism
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Siddeeque, Kothamangalam - wrote on 3/10/2012 10:12:06 PM
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Comment: well-written article.thanks.


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