Friday, February 11, 2011

Islamophobia Has No Place in Our Democratic Society

Life for American Muslims has gotten more difficult in the wake of the Islamophobia that has swept across the land since last August’s “Ground Zero mosque” demonstrations.  Case in point: the Orange County, CA District Attorney recently filed criminal misdemeanor charges against Muslim students for disturbing a public meeting and conspiring to do so.

A year ago at the U. of California, Irvine, several Muslim students – members of the Muslim Student Union – disrupted the Israeli ambassador repeatedly during his speech at the university, shouting protests against Israel.   The students were removed from the hall and the MSU was suspended for a quarter.  The students were not disciplined.

The university’s action was appropriate.  Central to the concept of free speech in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas is the position that various points of view must be allowed to be voiced and heard.  As with most rights, however, there is a concomitant responsibility not to use that right to interfere with its exercise by another. 

By choosing to heckle the ambassador and interrupting his speech, as opposed to, for example, setting up a booth outside the entrance to the hall with banners voicing their feelings, they were attempting to shout him down, to force him to stop speaking, to silence him.  While there is a long tradition of heckling speakers in this country and elsewhere, such action is not the hallmark of a civil society and it is not uncommon for such protesters to be removed from the space by security guards or police.

The MSU was not disciplined for expressing its opinion as it had done frequently in the past without any university action.  It was disciplined for interfering with someone else’s right to be heard.  In the context, I think the suspension was reasonable.

However, the DA’s action is another matter.  It is highly unlikely that when someone disrupts a speech in Orange County and is removed, that person is typically prosecuted.  If my supposition is correct, then there is only one reason why these Muslim students were charged … Islamophobia.

A government official acting against individuals because of their race or creed is a violation of the 14th Amendment of our Constitution as well as Federal law.  There is no place in our society for toleration of such bias.

Indeed, there is no place in our society for the wave of Islamophobia that we have recently witnessed.  Yes, the United States and its citizens have been subjected to terrorist acts by Islamist militants.  But to take the actions of a violent few and transfer guilt or suspicion to all Muslims and treating them as the enemy is not reasoned action; it is not just action. 

Actually, Islamophobia has in an important sense little to do with 9/11.  During the nine years following that tragedy, while Muslims were clearly viewed more suspiciously by many, there was no public uprising like Islamophobia.   No, that occurred only when right-wing demagogues found a cause they could conflate into a roaring blaze … the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.”

The rage in various parts of the country surrounding Muslim communities wanting to build a mosque is embarrassing.  We have freedom of religion in the United States.  What does that mean, if not the right to build a house of worship for your religious observance. 

Muslim Americans are good Americans.  They as a group are no more a threat than German American citizens were during WWI and Japanese American citizens were during WWII.  That there are undoubtedly isolated radicals among them who wish to harm the United States does not alter that fact any more than the Timothy McVeigh’s and anti-government militias in this country could fairly implicate all white conservative Americans in supporting violent acts against the Federal government.

The demagogues of the right paint a world where an enemy is lurking around every corner, whether it’s an Islamist radical or a socialist liberal.  In former years it was a radical African American or a Communist Jew. 

Unfortunately, the followers who listen to these demagogues have swallowed their emotional diatribes hook, line, and sinker.  That is where the threat to our democracy lies, as well as from any person or group, regardless whether on the right or left, who preaches hate towards fellow Americans.  Hate makes rational discourse impossible, and rational discourse is the lifeblood of our democracy.