Islamophobia: The New Menace
All Arab and South Asian Muslim visitors to the US have to have their fingerprints taken and their particulars stored in criminal databases.
At the recent Southern Baptists Convention (SBC), its former president, Reverend Jerry Vines, disparaged Prophet Muhammad. Despite an uproar and repeated demands for condemnation and apology, none have been forthcoming. Only The Jewish Anti-Defamation League was swift in its condemnation. It also reminded the public that in 1999, at another convention of the same group, Christians were urged to pray for the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Don't you just hate the phrase "paradigm shift"? One does not just have this auditory antipathy to it but dislikes even more that the latest concept in the United States is that all things bad and blighted come from Islam, and a Muslim is America's new bogeyman.
In 2000, then Vice President Al Gore, as head of the anti-terrorism committee, had gotten the Law of Secret Evidence passed and the stage was set for ethnic profiling and stereotyping. Many were harassed and several held for looking the part. On the heels of that came the Carnivore software that the FBI was to use to snoop on e-mail.
As the uproar gained steam, September 11 happened, and suddenly it was an "I told you so" attitude all over. The tedious airport checks, the mall harassment of women in Hijab [Muslim dress], and hate crimes climbed, even including the killing of Sikhs, mistaken as Muslims.
On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed the USAPA (USA Patriot Act) into law, and suddenly the Law of Secret Evidence appeared trivial. With the Patriot Act, sweeping new powers have been given to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies, and the checks and balances that previously gave courts the opportunity to ensure that these powers were not abused have been done away with. Critics decrying the infringement of civil liberties by this law argue that the Patriot Act was passed in a great rush. It was not debated in Congress, nor was expert testimony outside law enforcement heard.
The Patriot Act was seen in action in a comedy of errors in small-town America. According to the Wall Street Journal, the city commissioner of Chester, Pa, an American citizen of Pakistani descent, had the door of his house broken down by the FBI, even though the lady of the house was home. The FBI held her at gunpoint while it scoured the house for clues, for the neighbors had gotten suspicious and complained when a pan that had been used to cook biryani was washed, and the water thrown in the backyard. The article was appropriately titled "Law encourages neighbors to spy on neighbor."
There is no evidence that civil liberties enjoyed by people prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act hindered or limited the normal process of tracking, catching and punishing terrorists. This bill, while it also invades on-line privacy, does nothing, except possibly to monitor individual non-violent computer crime. To the drumbeat of George Bush's nauseating repetition of the "war on terror," we in the US now have quite a choir. The sad fact is that many of the choirboys are not just obscure folk but nationally known figures who have a voice and in some cases quite a following.
During a graduation ceremony at The Johns Hopkins University, Tom Brokaw, the anchor for NBCs Nightline, gave an entire speech playing up Islamophobia as his central theme. He said that modernity was an affront to Allah and because "young Muslims who are suicide-motivated could not be killed or ignored, their rage had to be dealt with." Adding provocation to alarm, he went on to add that the demographics of the world were rapidly changing and in about 20 years Islam would supersede Christianity as claiming the largest number of followers.
Whether the Johns Hopkins administration identified itself with this message is unclear, but despite a storm of protest, Harvard University allowed a graduating student, Zayed Yasin, to go ahead with his scheduled speech titled, "Of faith and citizenship: My American Jihad." The speech was eloquently simple that afterwards the detractors realized that indeed they had been protesting too much in an atmosphere of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam phobia.
The baton—nay the bayonet—was handed from Brokaw to Lou Dobbs of CNN's Moneyline, who, instead of acquiring fame a la stock market, decided to use the term "Islamist" as a synonym for all things terrorist. The news raged across message boards and discussion groups and many Muslims called CNN and e-mailed Dobbs. The only "concession" that he made was to call them radical Islamists, but terrorists all the same.
But these are only the backgrounders while the Bush administration gears up to pursue its open-ended and no-holds-barred "war on terror." All Arab and South Asian Muslim visitors to the US have to have their fingerprints taken and their particulars stored in criminal databases.
The administration's giant-size catch-all Homeland Defense plan now concentrates power in a few select departments. The Washington Post says the agencies gathered under one umbrella "reach deep into American life, doing everything from coordinating disaster relief to tracking down foreigners working illegally in restaurants," and that the measure "blurs the boundaries between gathering intelligence on foreigners and doing the same with American citizens."
From Dobbs the cacophony reached to the recent Southern Baptists Convention (SBC), during which its former president, Reverend Jerry Vines, disparaged Prophet Muhammad. Despite an uproar and repeated demands for condemnation and apology, none have been forthcoming. Only the Jewish Anti-Defamation League was swift in its condemnation, and it also reminded the public that in 1999 at another convention of the same group, Christians were urged to pray for the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Well before the female suicide bomber blew herself up in Israel, Muslim women in America were not spared intense scrutiny. An American-born woman of Pakistani parents was not just horrifically profiled at an airport; she was forced to remove her Hijab in public, despite her protestations that she had been checked by a female security officer in private.
There is a quiet rage within America over September 11, and President Bush's Xenophobic utterances and policies and Attorney-General Ashcroft's ultra-right bent and then the media chorus makes the quiet rage rather raucous at times. And this is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
According to the Annual Report of Complaints regarding discrimination compiled by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), there was a 15 percent increase in complaints in 2001 compared to the previous year; starting from 1997, there has been a steady rise in these complaints. It is safe to assume that 2002 will reveal an exponential rise in these cases. Virginia leads the pack, followed by Illinois, Maryland and New York. The Muslim features attracting discrimination were Hijab and beard, followed by ethnic origins.
Simple and unknowing Americans all over the country have been infected by this sickening trend; the vilification of Islam is felt all of a sudden to be not just fashionable but a necessity. Paul Craig Roberts, a columnist for the Washington Times, questioned the wisdom of issuing visas to young Muslims. Shannon Burke, a radio talk show host in Florida, has called for the closure of all US borders to Muslims, because "Muslims are cruel and Islam hates education and democracy and any new invention is a threat to Allah."
The phobia is fast turning into paranoia, and appears obviously to have been stoked by the way the September 11 events were and continue to be painted. Here in the United States, the government is formulating discriminatory policy and the media is cheerleading it through.
Security and protective measures are necessary as they concern each and every citizen, but to lose balance and use them to terrorize only one particular section of the community is more than frightening. If one is not WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant), he or she is subject to being profiled per se and ejected out of a plane before takeoff, as has happened innumerable times. Only the other day five brown-skinned men were offloaded from a flight, just because another passenger had felt they were acting "suspicious." Only two of the five were Arabs.
Of late there is a breath of fresh air, though. The University of North Carolina has urged all incoming students to read Approaching the Quran by Michael Sells, and if they do not wish to, they must write a paper on why they refuse. The book does not promote Islam, but even so a group of ultra-right Christians and Jews filed for a restraining order, asking that the book not be discussed—and surprise of surprises, lost when in a ruling by a federal judge.
The North Carolina state assembly, however, passed a resolution threatening to cut the university's funds if it did not give "equal time to all religions." The UNC action was the centerpiece on TV news-shows and the screaming-hoarse Bill O'Reilly called Islam the "religion of our enemies" and likened the action of UNC as akin to having students read Hitler's Mein Kampf in 1941.
America is a nation of immigrants, and several strides in accommodating diversity and protecting civil rights have been made, leading to the democratic pluralism of which we are rightfully proud. Unfortunately, however, the panic generated by September 11 seems to have so occupied the mind of the administration as well as the media that they seem to have lost perspective. We pride ourselves in our diversity and our tolerance but there is the real risk of transforming this great nation into a police state, a la Soviet style, a state of fear and suspicion in which, in order ostensibly to fight criminal terrorism, the state itself becomes a terrorist. Such an approach did not hold for the once-superpower, and it cannot hold for the sole remaining superpower. Fear and paranoia are their own enemies; they can't do better when compounded with Islamophobia.
The writer is a physician practicing in Toledo, Ohio.
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This story was published on November 9, 2002.