Why Can't Politicians Just Lay Off Muslims Like Me Already?

The most unpatriotic Americans are those who will stop at no bounds to scream about their patriotism at the tops of their lungs. Why? First, they trip over themselves trying to protect certain “freedoms”: [Hate] speech, possession of firearms, maintaining an ethno-exclusive country, limiting the rights of women, homosexuals, immigrants (documented and undocumented), non-Christians, non-whites. Everyone theoretically agrees with the concept of “freedom,” but we differ on its basic definition. Secondly, they sow the seeds of inter-American strife. We already live in a country that is rife with racial and class tension and to prove their “patriotism” some people want to entrench divisions and maintain a status quo of haves and have-nots.

Religious tension is the newest formula in this equation. “Unity” after the September 11 attacks on the United States was frequently defined as banding together against Muslims and anyone who appears to be a Muslim inside and outside of the United States. The unfortunate truth is that Islamophobia has gone nowhere over the past eleven years: it has remained all along. But with every election season, Islamophobia is reignited by our own political leaders.

Every election season, I brace myself in preparation for the anti-Muslim rhetoric that surfaces as candidates compete to prove their patriotism in an attempt to appeal to conservative voters. The tactic is classic: Erect a binary us vs. them construct whereby various groups are depicted again and again as “other,” as threats to our existence. Campaign rhetoric of the recent past indicates that the “other” are typically people of color including but not limited to Middle Easterners (and anyone who “looks” it), blacks (lower-income and higher-income), and Central Americans (documented and undocumented). Over the past few weeks violence against Muslims has flared up once again.

During the 2008 presidential elections the country witnessed what I call the Great Muslim Debate. Over the course of several months everyone speculated about Barack Obama: Is he a Muslim or isn’t he? Obama is not, but this became such a great topic of controversy and contention that it made American Muslims cringe at the presidential race. It did not only feel like we had no stake and no right to our government, it was worse. It felt like any association with our community was a liability, and we watched as politicians scrambled to detach themselves from the Muslim community. Who could forget when Senator John McCain (R - Ariz.) responded to a woman that Obama is not an Arab, but instead a decent family man, and a citizen? Apparently the two categories are mutually exclusive.

As for the 2010 election season, it was mired in the Park51 Islamic Center issue (I refuse to call it a controversy). Republican congressional candidates seized the opportunity to attack President Obama as out of touch with average Americans who did not want the Park51 Center. But it was not Obama and the Democratic Party that was hurt most by the comments, it was Muslim Americans, who could not understand how building an Islamic Center several blocks from Ground Zero could create such a frenzy. After all, the mutual enemy here is not a faith: It is intolerance. Failing to embrace American Muslims as Americans is not the path to resolving our problems,  it aggravates the problem.

This year we arrive at an election season once more. So far the pattern looks disastrous. We began with Michele Bachmann’s (R - Minn.) accusations that Muslim members of the Department of State are infiltrating the U.S. government on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. The alarm of fear that she raised trickled down to the American people; our authorities give Islamophobia the stamp of approval. Another example of Islamaphobia came when the mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned on July 4 and on August 6 of this year. In 2008 the sign at the entrance of the mosque was also torched. 

Of course there was also the tragic massacre at Oak Creek that targeted the Sikh community. It too is a side effect of the climate of hate that is created by Republican candidates during every election season. Six people were killed in this American Sikh temple. Where can this community ever feel safe? How can all communities of color, especially Middle Easterners and South Asians, feel safe when they have been flagged as dangerous by political leaders?

Most of us do not expect Tea Party panderers, like Michele Bachmann, to go on the offensive against xenophobia and racism. But while this environment of rampant hate exists in the United States the onus falls on our political leaders to, at the very least, refrain from fanning the flames that already exist. While they play the “othering” game in the hopes of gaining a few votes across the country, those of us who are easily identifiable due to our varied appearances worry about what may happen next, and to whom. It would take a lot of self-awareness and understanding to be able to see this situation from someone else’s perspective: Politicians do not understand that while they dehumanize people of color from their podiums, there are physical and emotional consequences felt in the real world. Politicians are reproducing the idea that certain Americans (we are all Americans after all) are not fit to lead the country or to be in positions of power This recent violence against Sikhs and Muslims indicates that rhetoric from the top endangers people’s lives; it validates the thinking of hate groups and inspires them to action.

The root problem seems to be that these politicians have yet to internalize the fact that the United States is not a wholly white Christian country. In fact, the reality is that minorities are on the path to being the American majority. Non-white births are already the majority, and by 2050 minorities will, in fact, make up the majority in the U.S. With this major demographic shift on our horizon, conservative politicians must internalize that what we have in common is not whiteness and Christianity, but our status as Americans. Despite demographic shifts, America will still remain America. Of course the country will change, but the country will endure in spire of much greater changes in the past.

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Nehad Khader

Nehad is an educator, an artist, and an art curator. She has a masters in Arab Studies from Georgetown University with a focus on Palestinian media and literature. Her bachelor's degree focused on Black American literature and media as well as the sociology of race.

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