Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is "Muslim" a Derogatory Epithet in America?

“Are you now or have you ever been a Muslim?” Has this question ever been asked in America? The answer, so far, is NO. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that such a question would ever be asked by high-level US investigators? It seems far fetched but let's examine such a possibility in the US historical context.

There have been periods in the US history when we have used a broad brush approach to demonize entire groups of people based on their ethnicity, skin color, religion or national origin. During the second world war, the US citizens of Japanese origin were called "Japs" and imprisoned in camps with the approval of the US Supreme Court. During the cold war in 1950s, the US was in the midst of the "Red Scare" where people saw "Commies" hiding in all corners of America. Sen Joseph McCarthy held congressional hearings and subpoenaed many people and asked the question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Aided by the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy conducted his search for Communists. People were hauled before Congress to testify about their loyalty to the US government. They were asked to name names and report their friends, neighbors and family. Many Americans were convicted of being communists and some were executed for being Russian spies.

Lately, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, has been under "suspicion" of being a "closet Muslim". He and his campaign have denied it and rejected the "Muslim" label as though it were an unflattering epithet. In fact, some of the Obama staffers have become so sensitive to this "charge" that they refused to seat hijab-wearing Muslim women supporters behind Obama on stage in front of the cameras at a recent rally in Michigan. Instead of ridiculing the lies about Obama, the latest New Yorker magazine cover has in fact served to reinforce the rumors and innuendos about Muslims and his Muslim connections.

In spite of vociferous rejections of the "Muslim" label and repeated denials by Barack Obama, a significant number of Americans continue to believe Obama is Muslim. Based on recent polls, about 10-12% of the Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Another 12% believe he took oath of office for the Senate on the Quran. A whopping 39% believe he attended an Islamic madrassa in Indonesia as a child.

Given our history, the rise in bigotry against Muslims should be a cause for alarm for all American. The best way for all of us to ensure a peaceful world is not by demonizing all Muslims or by using "Muslim" as a negative epithet or a synonym for "terrorist". Instead we should work toward marginalizing the tiny minority of Muslims who are engaged in terrorizing the world to advance their own hateful ideologies. Only by marginalizing such "terrorists" can we isolate them and rid the world of their terror and bigotry to live in peace.

1 comment:

Riaz Haq said...

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a life-long Republican who served under George W. Bush in his first term and argued for Iraq war at the UN, endorsed Senator Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States on NBC's "Meet the Press". While the endorsement was not unexpected, what caught my attention was the statement that Secretary Powell made about Barack Obama's faith. By asking "So what if he is Muslim?", General Powell has gone where no US politician , including Obama, has ever dared to go before him. Here's the relevant part of the transcript of Powell's statement:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America. I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.