"There was a king who lived long ago, and today my teacher will tell us all about him," my granddaughter, a kindergartner, recently informed me.
The king she referred to was Dr. Martin Luther King, and though fifty years may seem a long time for a small child, we must remember that it was just fifty odd years ago that racial prejudice and hatred was codified in laws all across this country and ingrained in every institution of society. Through the struggle of Dr. King and so many others, America has made progress in reducing the injustice of racism.
During Dr.King's life, racism against African-Americans was America's greatest sin, and since then we have come a long way in making amends. But as Muslims, we are aware that the struggle against injustice must be taken up in every generation, and as Dr. King put it, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
At the time of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Americans accepted segregation, and found it acceptable that a whole class of people would be permanently regarded with hatred and live in poverty. Dr. King and the activists in the Civil Rights Movement did not remain silent about this injustice. The ugly face of racism at that time was on display in every public place in America. Through the struggles of Dr. King and his contemporaries, it is now expected by law and cultural standards that people of every color must be treated with a modicum of dignity in American society. Because of their struggles, a sister wearing hijab, or a brother wearing a beard may not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith or skin color.
But the challenge of racism has not been eliminated. Laws codify the values which society agrees upon, but they do not change the behavior of people. Dr. King said, "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem." Dr. King's dream has been realized to the extent that an African-American and a woman are respected candidates for president. On the other hand, presidential candidates speak with open hatred and derision regarding Muslims, Hispanics, and advocate policies which promote economic inequity and place restrictions on basic civil rights and human rights.
Today, Islamophobia is the acceptable form of racism in America, to such a degree that Rudy Giuliani, a Presidential hopeful, could call one-fifth of humankind, "a people perverted" with impunity. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said they favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID. In addition, 500,000 have been interviewed by the FBI and tens of thousands have been deported summarily and a similarly high number left voluntarily because of hostility towards Muslims. Muslims are routinely subjected to racial profiling which has become an acceptable norm in today's America. As a result of this Islamophobic public policy and public opinion, Muslim wages in America have gone down by 10%, according to the University of Illinois and Columbia University. Seventy-six percent of all young Arab-Americans surveyed in July 2007 by Zogby International say they have been personally discriminated against. Fifty percent of Arab-Americans surveyed in a Yale University study were found to have clinical symptoms of depression. (Please see Islamophobia Statistics USA for references.)
Similarly we are closing our minds and hearts towards Latinos. While all political leaders agree that 12 million undocumented workers cannot be deported, we are treating them very inhumanely, forgetting that they are the creation of God as well. As Europe removes its borders, we fortify ours.
America needs another movement to restore America to its moral height of civil rights and human dignity to remove secret evidence, secret prisons, torture, and other forms of injustice which lower our country in our own eyes. Just as Dr. King and oppressed Americans demanded freedom in the Civil Rights movement, American Muslims and Latinos must join African-Americans in demanding their constitutional freedoms and human rights. And just as Dr. King's struggle allowed America to rise out of racial blindness and move towards an open society, a country livable for all people, the struggle of American Muslims against Islamophobia and Latinos against xenophobia will redirect America to redirect its energies towards living in harmony with all people of the world, rather than engaging in never-ending war.
In the meantime, I plan to tell my granddaughter the story of Dr. King, who was indeed a king, but one different from those found in fairy tales. He lived just forty years ago. He was a king with vision, dreams and courage. He was a king because he led his people, and America, in shedding the oppressive weight of racism and looking forward to a future of harmony and peaceful coexistence. I will also share with her how he was stoned on the streets of Chicago for his struggle and why today, all of Chicago celebrates his birthday.
Now, I just need to figure out how to explain racism to a kindergartner!
"Lyndon Johnson meeting with civil rights leaders" by Yoichi R. Okamoto - Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Image Serial Number: W425-21. http://photolab.lbjlib.utexas.edu/detail.asp?id=9853. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lyndon_Johnson_meeting_with_civil_rights_leaders.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lyndon_Johnson_meeting_with_civil_rights_leaders.jpg