August 30, 2010

The intolerant and Islamophobic West

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I picked up the latest issue of TIME on my flight back from Tokyo yesterday, with "Is America Islamophobic?" as the cover article.  It's an issue that's been on my mind over the last couple of weeks, thanks to the brouhaha that's been generated regarding Park51, the proposed mosque to be built near the 9/11 WTC bombing site.

The French had already created a stir when they first contemplated banning the wearing of burqas for Muslim women, made worse with the passage of the law by the National Assembly in July.  There are a couple of more rounds of approvals needed before it becomes law, but the domestic popularity of the proposed law means that it is likely to pass.

For a country that gave us Lafayette's Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen this is pretty outright shitty.  Of course, at the time they only contemplated right for men and not women, but I thought we'd come a long way since then.  For a country with an estimate Muslim population of 6 percent (actually lower than I expected), it's also pretty surprising that they're willing to alienate that segment of the population...never mind the international uproar it's causing.

Cross the Atlantic to the United States.  I've long been amazed at the ignorance and stupidity of Middle America, and when it comes to Islam it's downright outrageous.  18 percent of Americans surveyed by TIME believe their president is Muslim, thanks to a smear campaign from the Republicans.  A significant percentage of Americans feel that Islam encourages violence against non-believers.

Many Americans feel that Muslims aren't really fully Americans, that they can't be assimilated into America.  This ignorance and intolerance is perpetuated by right-wing leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Christian leaders like Franklin Graham.  Their poisonous words serve to deepen the chasm between Muslims in America and the rest of the population, and the perceived inability to assimilate soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The hypocrisy of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish organization which has fought prejudice against the Jewish community, is especially appalling.

Whatever happened to religious freedom granted under the First Amendment?!  Of course people should be allowed to build a place of worship two blocks away from the WTC site! Yes, a lot of people lost their lives in the attack on WTC, and the nation was deeply wounded by the act.  But that doesn't justify trampling on fellow citizens' rights to practice their religion.  Families of the victims - or the nation at large - are not justified in their prejudice against people of Islamic faith, just because the attacks were conducted in the name of Islam.  The good ol' crusaders of generations past also committed countless atrocities in the name of Christianity...or did the Christian majority in America simply choose to forget (or worse, were ignorant of) that little detail?

When Barack Obama was elected President, I was elated and thought that America had taken a giant step towards becoming a more tolerant, less prejudiced society.  I expected greater racial harmony.  Evidently I was dreaming, and the 61 percent of Americans surveyed by TIME who oppose the Park51 project show us that the reality is otherwise.

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