"So what do you do for a living?" the activist asked me. He was an American Christian, an ordained minister and leader of an interfaith peace organization. I was attending a conference organized by his group."
"I produce Islamic videos and programs, particularly for children," I replied.
"Oh. Doesn't Hamas produce programs for children, too?" he asked.
I was stunned. This exchange occurred shortly before the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections. What floored me though was that this man associated what I do for a living with a group considered terrorist by the American government. It is clear that the ugly tentacles of Islamophobia have penetrated places where Muslims have normally felt safe from it. An interfaith gathering is the last venue I'd expect these comments.
I was representing the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago as it's chair, and he knew that pretty well. It's a federation of more than 55 mosques and Islamic organizations serving 400,000 Muslims from the region.
The Danish cartoon affair - Europe's latent Islamophobia comes to life
The latest example of Islamophobia comes from Denmark and Europe, not the United States. By now, we've all seen and read about the protests against 12 deeply offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
What is critical to know is that it was not some random cartoonist drawing one cartoon and an editor who decided to publish it. Rather, a neo-con newspaper chose to commission artists to draw these images that depict the Prophet as a terrorist. These cartoons were not an ignorant mistake. The intent was to insult and inflame. The concept of respect and honor among Muslims is well-known. So is the potential risk of incitement, especially after knowing what happened when the Muslim world came to know about some American soldiers disrespecting the Quran last year.
The Danish embassy in Lebanon has been torched, the country's flags burned, death threats have been issued and some protesters have been killed as a result of police firings.
But well before these dramatic images that must have made editors salivate for their sensational qualities made the news, Muslims in the Muslim world and abroad launched peaceful, lawful protests for four months against the cartoons that would have made Martin Luther King Jr. proud.
Danish Muslims wrote letters of protest. They were ignored. Eleven Muslim ambassadors in Denmark asked to meet with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He refused to do so. A grassroots boycott of Danish products was launched in the Middle East. That got some attention, but not much until Danish businesses realized how much of their $1 billion business in the region was at stake.
The cartoons were printed in September 2005. In September, October, November, December and almost all of January, the Muslim opposition to the cartoons was characterized by peaceful demonstrations of love for the Prophet and restrained protests of how he was being denigrated.
Arrogant Response to Peaceful Protests
When newspapers in Norway, Germany and France, in their Islamophobic frenzy, decided to republish the cartoons in the name of "freedom of expression," the scale of anger and protest widened. What started off as peaceful opposition spiraled out of control.
Now, the situation was out of the hands of Muslims who had made serious attempts to resolve the issue peacefully. They had tried their utmost, but to no avail. From this point onwards, all kinds of people, including those with little knowledge of Islamic rules that forbid harm to foreign emissaries in Muslim lands, had upped the ante. The torching of embassies is wrong. So is stepping on and burning the symbols of Danish pride, their flag. It is Haram and a sin in Islam.
Unfortunately, some Iranian newspapers have commissioned the drawing of anti-Semitic cartoons in protest. This is a disgusting form of retaliation that deserves absolute condemnation. It will neither help fight Islamophobia, nor elicit any understanding about why Muslims are upset about the Danish cartoons. The conflic has hit a new low with this move.
But the world media, always in search of dramatic images of death and destruction, lapped up the anger and violence with glee. There was little coverage of the peaceful response of the Muslim community to these cartoons in the initial days after their publication. There were no calls for death, there was no fire involved or images of screaming bearded and Hijabed Muslims. Just peaceful bearded and Hijabed Muslims. Yawn. The media was bored.
When it comes to Muslims, everything goes
Would the media outlet which commissioned and printed these cartoons, as well as those which reprinted them, call for artists to develop grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures to prove that they have the freedom to do so? Of course not. The French even have laws to punish anti-Semitic "speech" and "writings."
The current cartoon affair is not about freedom of expression, it's about Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is real
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 N?ers of America. If you will not fight for yourself, no one will."
He's right. But Muslim complaints about Islamophobia continue to be dismissed.
More than 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. Over 200,000 American Muslims have been subjected to some kind of law enforcement activity since 9/11. At least 15,000 Muslims have been detained or arrested since that tragedy. Over 16,000 were either deported or are in the process of deportation. The Council on American-Islamic Relations annually issues reports about the state of Muslim civil rights in the United States. Harrowing tales of anti-Muslim discrimination on the job, at schools, stores, restaurants and on the streets fill these publications. 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.
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 a few thousand bin Laden terrorists contribute to authenticate this negative image. Forty-four percent of Americans queried in a Cornell national poll favor curtailing some liberties for Muslim Americans.
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
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.
Islamophobia harms all of us
In my four interfaith interactions in the last two months, I have met a whole lot of very 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.
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.
Perhaps we need to learn from Canada, where hate speech is banned despite the guarantee of free speech in the country's constitution.
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."