In Gainesville, Florida, a Christian pastor sent his ten-year old daughter to school with the slogan “Islam is of the Devil” printed in large red block type on the back of her t-shirt. The same slogan had been posted on a homemade sign outside a nearby church. In South Carolina, the words “death to Muslims” were marked near an entrance to an Islamic Center.
In September, the mayor of a small town in Tennessee sent an email to city employees and others urging them to protest at a US postage stamp that commemorated Islamic religious holidays. “To use this stamp would be a slap in the face to all those Americans who died at the hands of those who this stamp honors,” the message concluded. The mayor mistakenly claimed that the stamp, first issued in 2001, was ordered by President Barack Obama, another in a long line of incidents in which the president has been described as a “Muslim terrorist” or such like.
At schools, workplaces and in courtrooms, there have been conflicts over women wearing the hijab. Transportation Security Information authorities and the Jet Blue airline paid $240,000 after a civil lawsuit by a legal resident of the United States who was kept off a flight from New York because he was wearing a t-shirt with a slogan in Arabic and English. Similar incidents have occurred in other cities. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2005, which includes a list of bias incidents from jurisdictions with appropriate local laws, noted 128 anti-Muslim incidents.
Everything about Muslims in the United States is a topic of debate, including the actual number of believers. In 2001 the City University of New York’s American Religious Identification Survey counted 1.1 million, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations published a study the same year which claimed six to seven million Muslims in the United States. In 2007 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life calculated a total of 2.7 million Muslims. Of those, 30% were native-born African Americans, 33% were of South Asian origin and 25% were of Arab descent. The rest were divided between recent African arrivals, white converts and others. What was undisputed was that the greatest concentration of Arab-Americans is in the Detroit area.
The campaign to demonise all Muslims because of their faith includes an intellectual side. A conference last February entitled Preserving Western Civilisation drew a number of anti-immigrant propagandists and so-called scientific racists. As reported by Devin Burghart in the April issue of Searchlight, attendees were encouraged to compare “Islam with Nazism and the Koran with Mein Kampf.”
In the recent past a number of books and articles have been published that put forward similar arguments. In fact a debate has arisen in these ranks. One side contends that the Islamic faith is not a religion at all, but more akin to an anti-modern political ideology, inherently prone to aggression and genocide. In this view, the Islamic civilizations of the past were “parasitic” in nature and disappeared after killing off their host peoples. The other side of this debate says that it is only the current incarnation of Islam that has produced terrorism and extremism, and that it can be reformed, presumably by modern-thinking westerners.
A number of different threads are tied up here. The horrors of September 11, 2001 have produced a non-Muslim public that equates the Islamic faith with terrorism. Nativist and white nationalist organisations, eager to find new constituencies and keep the anti-foreigner fires burning, have stoked these sentiments and brought them to bear in the current policy debate over immigration reform.
From a different direction, the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia have induced a second set of concerns, fears and biases. Even before the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Gulf War in 1991 resulted in multiple instances where racist slurs were directed against Arabs and bias crimes were committed against people who were perceived to be Muslim, although in a number of cases they were Sikhs or some other dark-skinned non-Christian faith.
This prejudice against Muslims is not a secret. One respected nationwide survey found that 58% of Americans believe Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the United States. This knowledge can lead to a democratic and multicultural strength that will untie these multiple knots. Already there is hope. In 2006, a black American convert to Islam, Keith Ellison, won election to the United States Congress from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. He did so with public support from a number of Jewish community leaders. When asked about “Islamic terrorists,” Ellison replied, “Osama bin Laden no more represents Islam than Timothy McVeigh [convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing] represented Christianity.”
Leonard Zeskind is the president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and author of the new book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.