I am a Christian of Arab descent who resides in a quiet American town in South Carolina, surrounded by Republicans, many of whom are Tea Party supporters. Many of these same people think I am a Muslim. Why else would I write and speak about Islamophobia, they ask.
Recently, a lawyer from my town attended a meeting in Duncan, South Carolina. The attorney and others tarred Syrian refugees as a monolithic threat. He said refugees “don’t plan to assimilate, [or] to take on our culture. They plan to change the way of American life”.
He added: “The US is a Judeo-Christian nation ... we are not a Muslim nation, and those two things cannot coexist.”
A member of the audience said the Syrians should be sent home on “troop ships”. Another asked: “Do we shoot them?”
It was at this point the audience laughed and applauded.
Their behaviour helps foster a culture of fear and hate. Anti-Muslim sentiment is frighteningly high. When pollsters asked a group of conservatives: “Should a Muslim be allowed to be president?”, 72 per cent said a Muslim should not be allowed to take up residence in the White House.
This epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry begins at the top – with the Republican candidates for president. My state’s congressman, Lindsey Graham, said the Arabic call to prayer is a “war chant”. He also said the horrific shooting in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, reminded him of violence in the Middle East: “I don’t know how you can sit with somebody for an hour in a church and pray with them and get up and shoot them. That’s Mideast hate.”
Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum also stir up bigotry and hatred against this vulnerable minority. Some advocate profiling, others appoint policy advisers who consider bombing Muslim cities. Then there’s Mike Huckabee, who has said that Muslims will “go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals”.
But when it comes to advancing prejudices, I think Ben Carson and Donald Trump are leading the way.
Mr Trump believes closing mosques is acceptable “if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear” (meaning “prepared for a fight”).
Mr Carson says: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree to that.” As a humanist, I find their behaviour appalling.
As an African-American who knows the impact of prejudices, Mr Carson should understand that, continuously repeated, damaging stereotypes of a people or religion injure innocent people.
I believe their biased rhetoric helps incite violence against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, including Sikhs and Arab-Americans.
I offer, here, a few examples:
In California, 55 per cent of Muslim students, ages 11 to 18, have been subjected to at least one form of religious-based bullying.
You have probably heard of the incident in Texas, where a 14-year-old student named Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade working clock to school. Instead of the teacher applauding his initiative, Ahmed’s school called the police and suspended him for three days for making a “bomb”.
In New York, Miru Kim, an artist, was harassed by two police officers for wearing a shirt with Arabic writing on it. They took all her information, including address and phone number, right in front of her home. Ms Kim said: “Are they going to call me a potential terrorist because I am wearing a shirt with Arabic on it? When did NYC become so xenophobic? “
A few weeks ago, my Muslim friend’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. They wanted to call him Mohammed, but thought it was safer to name him Ibrahim. Inspired by a verse in the Quran, the name is a hopeful prayer, both for his son and the future of America.
A few months ago, the sports network, ESPN, suspended former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling after he tweeted a picture that compared Muslims to Nazis. The analyst posted a photo of Hitler on Twitter to accompany the following tweet: “It’s said only 5-10 per cent of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7 per cent of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” But the suspension was brief and Mr Schilling is back with the network.
How can we help put an end to this anti-Muslim virus?
Barack Obama could hold a press conference to discuss the dangers of this rising wave of Islamophobia.
Mainstream journalists should also play a role. They need to break their silence about this issue. For example, during the third televised debate, not one panellist challenged the candidates’ Islamophobic remarks.
Back when I was still in high school in the early 1950s, I remember how journalist Edward R Murrow exposed Joseph McCarthy on CBS-TV’s See It Now. At the time, McCarthy was using the “communist threat” for political gain. The senator’s disregard for human decency and the constitution damaged scores of innocent Americans. It came to an end, mainly because of one journalist’s courage.
Another fearless journalist, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, criticised the Republican candidates’ anti-Muslim rhetoric writing that: “... what kind of country do we want to be ... land of the free except for Muslims ... any child might grow up to be president, provided he/she is not a Muslim?”
I think the major American TV news networks should follow the wisdom of Murrow and Pitts and produce telling news segments that expose the rising tide of Islamophobia. Their reports should focus on the damaging impact of prejudices, past and present, as witnessed by civil rights leaders, priests, imams and rabbis.
Not all presidential candidates are bashing Muslims for political gain. Recently, Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, pledged that he would fight Islamophobia. He talked about his religious background and compared anti-Semitism to Islamophobia.
“Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together as one people. And ... there is a lot of anger and hatred being generated against Muslims in this country,” he said.
“And if you stand for anything we have got to stand together and end all forms of racism, and I will lead that effort as president of the US.”
Are you listening Mr Trump and Mr Carson? If not, you should be.
Jack G Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After September 11