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Stars, Stripes, and Islamophobia

posted on: Sep 1, 2010

Stars, Stripes, and Islamophobia

BY: Khaled A. Beydoun/Contributing Writer

The proposed development of the Park 51 Community Center, which has been branded the “Ground Zero Mosque,” on the ground and in the media, has spurred far more than mere debate about Islam and Muslim America. More importantly, the debate surrounding the Center exposes the rising tide of Islamaphobia in the United States today.

Egyptian American law scholar Mohammed Fadel states, “If the salient question of the twentieth century was race, the corresponding question of the twenty-first century may very well be religion, particularly Islam.”

Global animus toward Islam is not unique to the United States, and in fact, has more entrenched roots in Europe. In 2004, the French government banned the wearing of the headscarf. This measure was mimicked by a number of European nations, and Switzerland issued legislation that banned mosque minarets in 2009. Indeed, the harmonization of Europe through the EU facilitated a cohesive platform against Europe’s diverse Muslim communities, and their practice of Islam.

Hamada Zahawi, an American attorney who spent much of his childhood living in the Swiss capital Geneva, states, “I recall the country being far more tolerant as a child, particularly because it was home to the UN – where my father worked. However, its clear to see that anti-Islamic sentiment is sweeping in strongly, with this ban.”

America, like Europe, is home to both established and relatively new Muslim communities. The majority of Muslims in the United States are African Americans. The remainder of the Muslim American community encompasses South Asian, Arab, Caucasian, East Asian and Latino demographics, which is a testament to its rich diversity and multiculturalism.

The character of American Islamophobia, as displayed by many of the reactionary opponents of the Center, is based upon negative and one-dimensional caricatures of Islam and Muslim America. Most commonly, Islam is made synonymous with terrorism not only by conservative outlets like Fox News, but also by liberal commentators such as HBO comedian Bill Maher.

Second, Islam is inextricably connected to Arabs and Arab Americans, while statistics represent that Arab Americans comprise only a quarter of the population. Nathan Hua, a Chinese American Muslim who studies law in New York City’s Fordham Law School, shares that, “People are shocked when I tell them I am Muslim, like it is impossible for somebody who looks like me be a member of that faith. My family comes from a region of China where Islam has been practiced for centuries.”

American Islamophobia, therefore, is in great part based upon America’s ignorance of its Muslim citizens, and the faith they observe. Unlike European Islamophobia, which has an older and more nuanced relationship with Islam, the American form is largely composed of –perhaps optimistically–ignorance. Furthermore, Islamophobia in America faces a formidable foe in the First Amendment, which guarantees every American the right to “freely exercise their faith” without government infringement.

Rather poetically, this very provision of the Constitution was the first one championed by this country’s Founding Fathers, and centuries later, the strongest platform to combat America’s rising tide of Islamophobia.

Stars, Stripes, and IslamophobiaSeveral weeks, ago Arab Detroit traveled to Ground Zero to observe the rally against the building of the planned Center. Just this weekend we observed the “Restore Honor” rally convened by noted Islamophobe Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, which was saturated with signage, shirts, and sound-bytes that not only vilified Islam, but proclaimed that Muslims could not coexist with, what one attendee called, “our traditional American way of life.”

These two events signal two stark realities: first, that American Islamophobia has in fact not reached its most fervent point; and second, that the debate around the Park 51 Center marks a new, yet early, chapter of our nation’s fight against Islamophobia.