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Anti-Muslim hysteria takes local toll

December 23, 2010

As the secular message of Christmas continues its descent into unbridled consumerism, the hate-mongers of the religious right seem more occupied with keeping the prophet Muhammad out of America than keeping Christ in Christmas. Corporate media is rife with accounts of outrage over banned nativity scenes. And, the finger of blame is increasingly pointed at Muslims.

“The Christmas story is about a person born into a religious minority in a land occupied by oppressors who persecute,” says Mary Vaccaro, associate director for program design with Grand Rapids’ Catholic Information Center. The Center actively promotes dialogue with local Muslims. “The holy family is homeless, refugees. For us to perpetuate the true Christmas spirit is to treat all people, whatever their faith, the way we would like the holy family to be treated.”

This message is sadly lacking according to a December 20 story on Alternet .”Right-Wing Money-Fed Campaign Escalates Latent 9-11 Paranoia into Anti-Muslim Hysteria” explains how the religious right, ultra-Zionists, Tea Party propagandists and half-baked conspiracy theorists have successfully financed and promoted Islamaphobia as a means to their own ends. Tom Englehart writes in the article’s introduction, “In an atmosphere of swirling fears and hysteria amid declining living conditions, ‘explanations’ that at other times might have remained confined to tiny crews of conspiracy-mongers can suddenly gain a patina of plausibility and so traction.  No wonder then that, as hard times hit, as the financial system seemed on the verge of collapse, as unemployment soared and a massive wave of home foreclosures swept into view, increasing numbers of Americans became prey to any wacky explanation for our troubles, none more so than the idea that Islam was somehow responsible, that mosques and Islamic centers meant for a sliver of a minority here were capable of imposing anything, no less a way of life on this country, or that Sharia law (of all things) might somehow worm its way into state legal systems, or that YouTube was a hotbed of terrorism worthy of suppression, or… well, you name it.”

Elsewhere in Indy News, Professor Juan Cole’s Dec. 21 post, “Hating Muslims in America,” states, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the incoming chair of the House committee on Homeland Security has announced that he will hold hearings into the ‘radicalization’ of American Muslims. This, despite the fact that the Muslim Americans are pillars of the US community–disproportionately well-educated and well integrated into the country, and even though a third of tips forestalling radical Muslim operations come from the community itself. And, despite the fact that most terrorism in the US is committed by white supremacists. King’s obscene gesture of Kristallnacht-by-hearing does not come out of the representative’s own eccentricities, but is part of an organized conspiracy to demonize and marginalize Muslim Americans and Arab Americans.”

Cole takes the government’s role in fueling anti-Islamic sentiment one very logical step further, “Since the wars are for resources in the resource-rich Muslim world, it is convenient to demonize Muslims across the board, including domestic ones.”

An August 2010 Pew Research Center poll of Americans found that the favorability rating of Muslims has dropped by 11 points since 2005. In the midst of this whipped up frenzy, arsonists are torching mosques. Christians are blocking construction of mosques in their towns and cities. And, in Oklahoma, voters overwhelmingly approved a ban on Sharia law, even though the prospect of Sharia replacing that state’s laws is laughable at best.

Has this Islamaphobia impacted our Muslim neighbors in the greater Grand Rapids area? Yes. “I know there is anti-Muslim sentiment,” Vaccaro says. “I see it in the media. And, my Muslim friends have anecdotes they have shared with me. I can’t speak for all Christians and church history sadly includes that there has been (persecution) there. We have reformed our teaching since ….and teach that it is wrong to discriminate against anyone because of their faith. To criticize another faith is not who we are.”

While preparing to write this post, the writer asked a Muslim friend, Wafa H.,  if she has noticed a worsening attitude towards Muslims locally. She is well educated, fluent, friendly and has a great sense of humor. She lived in the Grand Rapids area for many years before relocating to California for a year or so. She recently returned here to live and re-establish her small business.

Wafa returned my call from the urgent care waiting room. Stress has caused her physical collapse. Last summer, she moved to an apartment in Byron Center. There, every time she and her son came or left, they were called names, told to get out of the country and threatened with a rifle on several occasions. Wafa’s tires were slashed.  While police responded on numerous occasions, they claimed not enough evidence existed to prosecute a hate crime.

Life in her new rental home is not much better. After living without electricity or locks on the doors for two months, Wafa withheld the rent. She shares , “My current landlord evicted me because he does not want to deal with me  because I speak with a Middle Eastern accent . . . he threatened me, called me ‘bitch’ and ‘ whore’ and pushed the door on me. Now he is evicting me. Wherever you’re from (in the Middle East) if you don’t speak English (without an accent), people yell, scream and show me disrespect.  Especially this year. I never had this before.”

Her son, who finally were allowed to join her in the U.S. after years of separation, is enrolled at GRCC. “He is shocked and depressed and does not know what to do. He needs a job but no one will hire him,” Wafa says. “We need to educate, educate, educate the public about Arabic culture. I was living here in peace years ago and now these people are against me. I am so tired.”

Educate, educate, educate. Though ignored by local media, people from different faiths here are working together to raise awareness of what Islam really teaches and how local Muslims really live. Despite early notification, local media failed to cover an event attended by more than 160 people last fall. Neither did they cover peaceful Muslim scholar Omid Safi when he spoke at Calvin College a few days later.  Sane and peaceful Muslim voices are being raised across the country. But corporate media, goaded by right-wing fear mongers, ignores them, prefering to exploit the false idea that Islam is a faith of violence that is intent on destroying the “West.”

“It is American Muslims’ responsibility to reach out and explain their religion. The 99% need to explain how peaceful our  faith is and how that 1% is misrepresenting the faith.  The violent 1%, those are the ones the media grabs for the first story in the evening news,” says Dr. Mohammad Saleh, a local physician involved in organizing upcoming interfaith events about Islam. “The best thing for non-Muslim to show support is to reach out to their Muslim neighbors and co-workers . Meet with them, understand the faith, share in their traditions. We are really trying to speak up. My hope is to have more media coverage of our events so that people are aware. We would hope that people who don’t know the faith not to stereotype Muslims, to not apply what they see and hear in the news to every Muslim.”

Upcoming interfaith events about Islam

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