Islamophobia: lethal for our nation’s moral health
by Javeed Akhter
Recently our family bought burial plots in a cemetery close to where we live in a Chicago suburb; the ultimate act of putting down our roots and making a statement that this is our country, this is where we will live and die. But now I and other Muslim Americans wonder when will the nation of our choice accept us as full citizens? What does the future hold for my children and grand children? The frenzied Islamophobia, nine years after September the 11th, was after all triggered by something as innocuous as the location of a cultural center/mosque and not another terror attack.
Only in France, I thought, would the principle of laïcité be perverted to mean discrimination against its Muslim minority. The ban on Minarets in Switzerland appeared to be so inane that only a self righteously ignorant society would allow it. My country, US, with its long tradition of religious pluralism and multiculturalism would be immune to these kinds of excesses. I was confident that my fellow countrymen are down to earth and would not be swayed by the rhetoric of extremist nuts and self serving politicians. Sadly the recent dog days of summer have proven me wrong.
Even the reasonable argument of none other than the Mayor of the city of New York Michael Bloomberg that the location of the proposed Cultural Center with a Mosque in it, is in a typical New York neighborhood with delis, retail businesses and even a porn shop, have fallen on deaf ears. The incendiary phrase “Ground Zero Mosque” caught on beyond the wildest imagination of the Muslim haters who coined it setting off a fire storm of hostile an uncivil speech that has made the Muslim American feel like a slum dog and threatens to up end the long tradition of tolerance in our country.
The acceptance of “the other” that is at the core of being American is the legacy of how this nation was formed. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer written in the late 18th century describes this phenomenon of nascent pluralism, which he calls “hybridization”. Crevecoeur observes, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men,—.” He also describes the American individual as being a product of diverse religious ideals. “The foolish vanity, or rather the fury of making Proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention, and thus in a few years, this mixed neighborhood will exhibit a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism,” he writes with extraordinary prescience.
This ethnic, cultural and religious medley that is an essential part of living in this gloriously hybrid country the US is at risk. The red/blue divide that was so dramatically evident during recent elections has seen the propulsion of religion front and center into the polity of our nation. Many see US as a Christian nation. The recent tidal wave of Islamophobia is part of this tendency to exclude the other, which the politicians with an eye on upcoming midterm elections are recklessly exploiting. Similar, though less vicious, intolerance is seen against the Hispanic immigrant and if history is a guide may affect other minorities in the future. France is now deporting the Roma gypsies.
How do we deal with this ongoing hysteria about Mosque construction? My uber smart eight year old grandson Suleyman provided one answer. He has starting reading newspapers and is learning the rudiments of US constitution at school. He inquired the other day what the Ground Zero Mosque controversy was about. After listening to his Mom’s explanation he asked “what does the constitution say?” That is a question we should all be asking ourselves especially politicians like Palin and Gingrich.
The current wave of Islamophobia will surely wane but will raise its ugly head again. There is an urgent need for a commission to deal with Islamophobia in a comprehensive fashion and for our nation to make it a priority issue. Islamophobia is potentially lethal for Muslim Americans and our nation’s moral health.