Radical Divisions

Stigmatizing American Muslims does little more than sow discord

I supported Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) long before his stirring testimony at Rep. Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) McCarthy-style anti-Muslim hearings last week. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, is vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Caucus and an inveterate coalition builder. His emotional presentation on March 10 dominated news coverage and displayed qualities rare among politicians – conviction and leadership.

Criticizing King for singling out Muslims, Ellison cited examples to show that “individuals from all communities and faiths have used religion and political ideology to justify violence.” He ended with the story of a young first responder who died heroically at the World Trade Center on 9/11, yet was subsequently smeared by some based solely on his Islamic faith:

“Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.”

The hearing’s only law-enforcement witness, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, testified, “American Muslims helped foil seven of the last 10 plots propagated by al-Qaida within the United States.” Amazingly, although King chairs the Homeland Security Committee, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the FBI was invited to testify.

King’s hearing was not about fighting terrorism, but exploiting fear for partisan gain. Indeed, alleging a special threat from Islamist terror inflates the importance of groups like al-Qaida. Holding all Muslims responsible for the acts of a few establishes a presumption that individual Muslims are terrorist sympathizers unless they prove their loyalty. This sows discord, betrays guarantees of equal protection and due process, and squanders allies in the fight against radicalism.

Ellison made the essential point: “The best defense against extremist ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement.” The alternative offered by King and his allies is to hurl Sarah Palin-style labels like “terrorist” or “socialist” or “elitist” that manipulate and divide Americans in order to preserve power for the privileged few. How ironic that fear-mongering about Muslim radicalization is used as a diversionary tactic to advance a radical right-wing agenda that could never survive calm, critical scrutiny.

To be sure, the right has no monopoly on religious bigotry. Comedian Bill Maher told Ellison on Friday that the Quran is a “hate-filled holy book” in a category all its own. Perhaps Maher forgot the Old Testament. Ellison responded by faulting the selective quotation of scripture and noting that terrorists cite political grievances, while many Muslims cite religious grounds in opposing terrorism. Ellison told Maher and King that they paint with too broad a brush.

Stigmatizing a minority does what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did by attacking public employee unions: It disempowers them and their natural allies. If we let provocateurs divide us by race, religion, class and sexual orientation, we hand them power over us.

Keith Ellison last week faced down an opportunist and humanized an unpopular minority. His message was not that all Muslims are heroes and model citizens, but that our security is enhanced when we engage people respectfully as individuals rather than turn them into a faceless “other.” To advance our rights we must follow his example and reach across our differences, bringing neither attack nor surrender but an alert mind and a willingness to learn.

We defeat the likes of Rep. King with simple daily acts, such as by recognizing Muslims as our neighbors and as those with whom we do business. The Arabic phrase I hear most often in the streets of Washington is not a threat but a greeting: “As-Salāmu `Alaykum.”

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.