By Zeenat Khan
February 28, 2016
AT A time when Muslims who are living in America are facing ongoing verbal attacks from Donald Trump, a Republican frontrunner for the 2016 presidential nomination, American president Barack Obama’s first visit to a US mosque in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 3 has sparked new debates. The recent terrorist attacks have put the Muslims in a tough spot and they have to defend their identity as Muslims and explain away that there is a monumental difference between the terrorists and the good Muslims.
In his speech, Obama talked about the positive role Islam has played in the nation’s history. He denounced the violence and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is on the rise since the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California in 2015. He also emphasised that for the horrific acts of a few terrorists, an entire religious group should not be targeted. To the gathering Muslims at the Islamic Society mosque, Obama’s words reaffirmed the role of American Muslims. He reminded them of America’s tradition of religious freedom. He asked the religious leaders to speak out against extremism and to strengthen interfaith alliance. He again reiterated that America needs a fresher course on religious tolerance.
Since then Donald Trump has made endless condescending and repugnant remarks aimed at the Muslims. On February 20, before ending his final campaign in South Carolina, to rile up the crowd, Trump related an anecdote about a US four-star general. He told the crowd that roughly about a hundred years ago when the general was battling the Muslim insurgents in the Philippines, he made his troop dip bullets in pig’s blood before shooting them. Trump believes that similar practices can be an American strategy to teach the Muslims a lesson. The story, however, turned out to be a hoax. Because of such outrageous and made up tales of Donald, the Muslims in America are left with more questions about politics of fear than some much-needed resolutions as Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to climb. There is no doubt left in people’s mind that Trump is a product of racism and Islamophobia.
Trump also called for a boycott of all Apple products since CEO Tim Cook is resisting a court order to give access to the FBI by providing them the security code of Farook and wife Tashfeen’s iPhones (a Pakistani couple responsible for the December San Bernardino, California attacks).
It is rather disheartening to see and read that some are comparing Trump’s anti-Muslim proposals with the civil rights movement because of his bold conservative statements. It is shameful to watch that Muslim activists who attend any of Donald Trump rally and dare to talk back to him with answers like ‘Islam is not the problem’ are bullied, given bad looks and sometimes escorted out in handcuffs by the police. Such police aggression is becoming a daily occurrence. Some fearless ones do continue with their fights as did Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and many other rights activists who fought against racism.
To quote American essayist Marilynne Robinson: ‘Since religion is central to most identities within the larger national culture, religious tolerance has been the great guarantor of the survival of the variety of cultures.’ This theory today does not apply to Donald Trump’s America. Today, sentiment of intolerance towards the Muslims or Islam is a glaring reality. With each passing day, such negative feelings are manifesting on a massive scale, erupting and engulfing a lot of people’s way of thinking. People are behaving emotionally as such anti-Muslim sentiments are sweeping through America.
In some work places, the Muslim workers are even being denied of their civil rights and religious freedom. This past January, there was an enormous dispute over prayer breaks in a meatpacking industry in Fort Morgan, Colorado. A huge number of workers there are refugees of East African descent. Eleven Somalian women workers were fired from their jobs over taking short breaks for prayer. The company’s supervisors were hostile to prayer requests and in protest, those women did not show up for work for a few days. Then they were let go.
Such workplace disputes are complex and workers who hold very strong religious and cultural beliefs face undue hardship. The company owners argued that in a slaughterhouse, making leeway for the workers’ religious accommodation imposes a significant cost on the employer, and, therefore, the company had a right to deny that request. It sounds rather a lame argument that a worker missing 10 minutes of work can slow down an entire shift.
Since the beginning of time, religious aggression has led to horrific mass killings of the Muslims. The Serbian aggression in Kosovo in the 1990s led by Slobodan Milosevic resulted in the genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing’ by torturing, killing and executing thousands of Albanian Muslims.
Donald Trump’s image may not immediately spring in mind as Milosevic’s evil twin, but he is not far behind. Since he launched his campaign, he has said things about punishing the Muslims in every conceivable way. Donald has very superficial knowledge about the Muslim world, who never took the time to understand the Islamic definitions of extremism and faith-based solutions. In such trying times in America, the Islamic scholars are holding seminars which focus on the reasons for the extremism, and what the Muslims should be doing to build healthy communities by dispelling the negative stereotypes about the Muslims. Trump has maligned and ridiculed the peaceful and law abiding Muslim communities in the United States, Europe and worldwide.
He even went after the few thousand Syrian refugees who were granted asylum in the United States. When the Obama administration is trying to reinforce the US refugee programme, he kept up his anti-Muslim slurs. With his billions of dollars and worldly comforts, Trump is simply unable to understand that these refugee families have escaped violence, civil war in countries like Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We cannot pretend that the Muslims have not done anything to attract criticism. For the last decade, acts of violence in the name of Islam have raised fear and confusion about this religion that has over 1.6 billion followers in the world. The ones who are responsible for so much mayhem and devastation are not peace-loving everyday Muslims. They are selected groups of terrorists who follow extreme idealism in the name of Islam. In recent history, it started with 9/11. Some of the victims’ families still continue to say explosive things like ‘Islam=Terror.’
Following the terrorist attack, the plan to build an Islamic Community Centre near Ground Zero in New York City had sparked huge controversy. The aim of that centre was to promote multi-religious and cross-cultural exchanges. Many Americans did not embrace the construction of the building as a symbolic attempt to reject bigotry and hatred.
The two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made the military families in the United States very impatient. Front-page stories showing US flag draped caskets carrying the remains of the dead soldiers reaching the American soil devastated many. American people know that it is the American president who had sent troops to those places and yet mainstream America vented its anger on the Muslims and Islam.
There were thousands of casualties on both sides, but the numbers of Muslims killed far exceed the coalition forces. The dead Muslims were termed as collateral damage.
During the Iraq war, a heartbreaking image of a Marine Corporal named Todd Nicely, a quadruple amputee in a wheel chair leaving his daily physical therapy session dismayed the Americans. In the photo, he had his wife Crystal by his side holding his prosthetic leg in one hand and a bouquet of flowers with another. Readers empathised with the couple’s anxiety ridden faces laced with uncertainty, and whatever challenges that lie ahead. Such an image of unbroken spirit only evoked sympathy for the couple, and many people once again blamed Islam.
The January 7, 2015 brutal terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for publishing controversial Muhammad cartoons left 12 people dead. Al Qaeda’s offshoot in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that attack. The November 13, 2015 attacks in the heart of Paris left 129 people dead and 352 wounded. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack. The December 2 San Bernardino mass shooting attacks left 14 dead and 22 injured. It is alleged that the perpetrators, the married couple was supported by ISIS.
All of the above attacks were condemned from the Vatican to the White House. However, post-9/11 sentiment and the recent San Bernardino killings have left deep scar in the American psyche. Intolerance continues to grow because a person like Donald Trump with his anti-Islamic comments is adding fuel to the fire when public emotion is very raw against the Muslims.
In the multicultural and multi-faith America, immigrant Muslims must find a way to grow a new national sentiment against religious intolerance by emphasising that our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The goal should be to reconcile differences by igniting positive debates about acceptance of other religions and their teachings.
America is a home to one of the most diverse groups of Muslims in the world. American leaders have always preached their love for liberty, equality and freedom of religion. In the face of current tragedies, attitude and sympathy towards the Muslims are plummeting. It is essential for both party leaders to put themselves in the shoes of the American Muslims and focus on the current reality. Every day Americans by no means should give Donald Trump a free ride in bashing a minority group because of their religion. The pastoral leaders and religious scholars have a great role to play here. They can stand up and preach that the War on Terror only involves a small subset of Muslims.
If we are inept to be tolerant of different religious beliefs, we only give power to the likes of Donald Trump to tarnish the name of the good Muslims. This tolerance is much needed in America now. Otherwise, like a boogieman Donald will continue to keep us up at night!
Zeenat Khan is a US-based freelance writer.