I am part of an extended family of Jews, Christians, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, Sikhs and a beautiful Seventh Day Adventist saint. Part adoptive, part family by marriage, and part by blood, we thrive in venues from Bangladesh to the Left Coast of California. Some of the most interesting people in this family are Muslims, including one of my own children. For this reason, I am angry and frightened—mainly angry—at the spectacularly ignorant hate rhetoric against Muslims used recently by some politicians
The current frenzy of Muslim-bashing ostensibly has to do with the “Ground Zero Mosque,” although it is neither at Ground Zero nor a Mosque. (It’s a community center.) Like the Sherrod case, this was first ginned up in the rightwing blogosphere by professional hate-mongers, then promoted by Fox News and the Murdoch newspapers. Then it was embraced by politicians such as Newt Gingrich, most of them Republicans.
This is a departure for modern American politics, and a dangerous one. As any study of anti-Semitism in Europe will demonstrate, once religious bigotry gets into a political culture—or a political party—it is almost impossible to get it out. A hundred years ago rightwing and nationalist groups in Europe declared Jews to be the cause of everything bad, and that kind of political anti-Semitism made Hitler’s ascent possible. Like the anti-Semites of the early 20th century, today’s Islamophobes also seek war, although today it is religious war the extremist elements want.
This is a direct and very dangerous threat to the First Amendment of our Constitution. Religious liberty is not just one Amendment in the Bill of Rights; it’s the most important. (That’s why it’s the first.) If we lose the First Amendment, America as we know it is finished. Religious liberty is, with the single exception of my children, the only thing I would die for. Secondly, it is precisely the strategy of Al Qaeda to stampede us into hate campaigns against Islam, to help the terrorists recruit Muslims abroad. How ironic that these Islamophobic, rightwing politicians are so willing to do the work of Al Qaeda. But they want the same thing Al Qaeda does—all-out religious war.
The Islamophobes fall into four groups. First are the evangelicals that believe that religious war against Muslims will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Then there are people who are passionate about Israel, and think they’re helping Israel by spreading religious bigotry, when actually they are harming the cause of Israel. Third, there are sadists and mentally unstable types that get off on terrorizing vulnerable minorities. Fourth, there are the ambitious politicians—and for them, the fires of hell are not hot enough, because they are out for themselves and care nothing about America.
Do they ever stop to think that every time they say something needlessly inflammatory about Islam, it endangers our precious young men and women in uniform, who are already in harm’s way? No, they do not—despite wrapping themselves in the flag, they care only about getting elected.
People wonder why there is such hate now, so many years after 9/11. But it isn’t about 9/11—it’s about the dangerous potential of frustrated people. The American Dream is receding, spurred by the rapacious greed of the corporate upper class. Within the swirling currents of discontent that affect the American people, the influence of the Religious Right, the neo-cons, the Tea Party and other rightwing extremists is exponentially multiplied. Their answer is simple: Americans must find meaning in a state of permanent, apocalyptic religious war. In the Middle East, Halliburton and other war profiteers will set up a new empire; domestically, Muslims are to be expelled or interned.
Ultimately, Americans really don’t like to see a burly guy shoving a placard in the face of an eight-year-old Muslim boy and yelling “murderer!” as the child goes to Friday prayers. But for the American people to see how dangerous religious bigotry can be there must be strong, unequivocal voices making the case for religious liberty. And those voices must start now.
For me, it’s not theoretical. It’s a family thing.
Lawrence Swain is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. The Foundation is funded solely by donations.