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American Islamophobia

<nday, November 1, 2010, the Political Science Department invited Walter Hudson, board member and media relations director for Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, to our campus to provide a unique opportunity for Carls to engage in discourse with a representative of this growing movement. My Identity Politics in America class initiated the idea to invite Hudson, and we worked together to prepare questions that might challenge Hudson to clarify the Tea Party’s stance on different issues, particularly those pertaining to identity due to our class’ subject matter and focus. What the class did not prepare me for, however, was the anger, frustration and embarrassment caused by some of Hudson’s Islamophobic rhetoric. His most inflammatory comment, that Christianity and Islam differ because the Catholic Church will not tell you, “You will be Catholic, or we will cut off your head,” revealed not only how prejudiced comments like these can completely derail civil discourse (following this statement, many students, including myself, left the auditorium), but also how the largest roadblock to effective communication is still a fear of forced conversion to Islam.

The events of September 11, 2001 fueled much of the Islamophobia we as a nation encounter today. This fateful day brought Islam to the forefront of the American consciousness for the first time: however, Islam and Muslims have a long history in our country. Islam traveled to the New World via slave ships and trade, and established communities and institutional roots in the Americas through immigration the twentieth century. Over the past nine years, the trauma of 9/11 effectively erased the long and multifaceted history of Muslims’ lived experience America, and replaced it with gross caricatures of extremists and terrorists with political agendas for the conversion of all non-believers.

It seems that for people like Hudson, it’s not only the violence of said conversion that creates fear, but also the challenge such conversion might present to the “American” (in his mind, Christian) way of life. For example, consider the outrage over the Park 51 Muslim community center in New York City. Mistakenly characterizing Park 51 as a mosque, because of the proposed plans for a prayer room that will serve the city’s growing Muslim community, Americans nationwide protested its proximity to Ground Zero. It would be a “victory” for terrorism in America, one picket sign reads. “The reason the Muslim community,” political consultant Dick Morris chimes in on the August 25, 2010 episode of The O’Reilly Factor, “the radical Muslim community is so anxious for this thing to be built is because they want to counter the assimilationist tendencies of Muslims in the United States, and make them the same. [It’s] a center for terrorism.” In a post-9/11 America, Islam is transformed into a political threat to “American” identity. Yet excluding Islam from that identity is complicated by the fact that Muslim Americans are also victims of the terrorist attacks, as the powerful “9/11 Happened to All of Us” ad campaign produced by the Council on American-Islamic Relations this September demonstrates.

What Hudson, Morris and others also fail to recognize or accept is that global religions, which include Islam, as well as Judaism and Christianity, all value conversion on some level. Further, even the most fundamentalist Muslim interpretations of Islamic law cite its provisions on the protection of non-Muslims. Influential twentieth-century theologian Sayyid Abu al-‘ala Mawdudi argues in his work “The Rights of Non-Muslims in an Islamic State,” that under the ideal Islamic political system, non-Muslims should have the fullest freedom to practice their religious rites, that their places of worship are sacred and not to be interfered with, and that they should be “fully entitled to propagate the good points of their religion” and “never be compelled to adopt a belief contrary to their conscience.” All of these rights and privileges are what he understands as the proper fulfillment of Islamic law. While it’s true historical practice does not always reflect the ideals of theologians, what should seems obvious from Mawdudi’s piece is that protections are present in even the more right-of-center approaches to Islamic politics. Generalizing the essence of Islam from historical examples of its application, even the most traumatic examples, deprives us of the diversity of thought and discourse that exists in Islam.

I am frustrated when American political leaders, media figures, fellow citizens even my own peers, feel justified in making disrespectful comments when we have the potential to access richer and more meaningful discourses through something as simple as educating ourselves. If we really mean to protect the values of America, we must recognize the diverse, lived experiences and opinions of Muslims in America and globally.

Comments like Hudson’s and Morris’ only work to propagate an uneducated culture of fear, and as columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed apology for Muslim Americans, “radicals tend to empower radicals, creating a gulf of mutual misunderstanding and anger.” By holding our individual selves to a higher standard of educated, civil discourse on divisive issues surrounding American identities, we can empower the reverse. We might take a note from the apolitical, quietist approach of the Islamic group Tabligi Jama’a to “Reform the world, beginning with me.”

-Morgan Holmes is a fourth-year student.

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