by Frank Fredericks
In American history, there have been flash points of controversy, contrasted to continued struggles for equality. Americans from the Muslim community has moved from the former to the latter. Since the summer’s media obsession over Park51, wrongly dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” we have seen many flash points flare up, from the Murfreesboro Islamic Center protests, to the Oklahoma referendum to ban Sharia being used in court. Most recently, we have seen a Muslim community center in Bridgewater, New Jersey come under attack, without a shred of evidence to suggest it is anything other than a benevolent community center. Tennessee lawmakers are now considering a bill that would outlaw adherence to “Sharia” altogether, essentially making the practice of Islam a criminal offense. It’s crept up to the U.S. Congress as well, with Peter King’s McCarthy-esque hearings on the “radicalization of Muslim Americans.” Rather than seeing these issues merely as a string of events, we must take a step back and look at the big picture.
While few could forget the polarizing issue around Park51, attacks on the Muslim American community have become significantly more concerning. First of all, the summer’s protests were around a sensitive issue. Even if we don’t agree with the opinions of some the families of 9/11 victims, we must be cognizant and compassionate to their pain. However, protests at mosques in Tennessee, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere, where Ground Zero is nowhere nearby, shows a clear delineation between sensitivity at Ground Zero and bigotry across the nation.
The second issue that is a cause for alarm is timing. Not only was September an anniversary of September 11th, but it also was during an election. When asked on a panel in December why the protests seemed to have subsided, I quipped half-jokingly that the election was over. However, now watching these latest rounds of protests, hearings, and anti-Muslim legislation, there is no anniversary or election to blame. There is just unadulterated rage from one American community to another.
One of the most jarring videos I have seen this year was from a recent protest in Orange County, where a throng of Islamophobic protesters demonstrated outside of a benefit for a women’s shelter hosted by the local Muslim community. As families entered the venue for the benefit, protesters shouted “Go home!” and “Why don’t you go home and beat your wives? She looks like she needs a good beating!” I have never seen anything in my lifetime from the U.S. that looked so much like the resistance to desegregation during the Civil Rights era.
While the parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle of Muslim Americans may have similarities, I think the Japanese American experience during World War II is a more accurate historical metaphor. In both situations, a very real threat abroad was projected onto seemingly related American citizens.
After being attacked at Pearl Harbor, America could be justified in defending itself militarily. Japan proved itself at the time to be a real threat to our national security. Also, the US needed to be prudent and prepare for the possibility for espionage attempts as a means of warfare. However, at no point did this justify the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. It did not make America any safer or freer, as it was a transgression against the Constitution and an affront to our ideals.
I think few people will deny the threat of Al Qaeda and similar groups after 9/11. We also must recognize that an attack can be domestic in nature. However, at no point does the issue of national security justify indiscriminate protests against the building of mosques or the protesting of Muslims engaging in their constitutional rights of prayer and worship. Similarly, America is no more secure or free when communal punishment dictates policy, whether state or national, in word or in law.
Those of us who have chosen to take up the struggle for religious freedom must realize we are in it for the long haul. Not only during the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the upcoming election cycles, but we must be willing to stand up and speak out throughout the year, and likely for several years to come. However while the wait may be long, if history is any indicator, success is promised. As Eboo Patel, a fellow interfaith activist and a Muslim American, said, “The forces of inclusion have always defeated the forces of injustice, and they always will.”