December 6, 2011, 4:24 PMBy DEEPA IYER
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it has been difficult for me to listen to the political scapegoating of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims. A decade ago, as an attorney at the Department of Justice, I worked with colleagues in the civil rights division to address the unprecedented backlash in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. We investigated complaints of brutal hate crimes in neighborhoods, vandalism at places of worship, bullying at schools, and discrimination in the workplace aimed primarily at those who traced their origins to South Asia and the Middle East, or those who practiced Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism.
After leaving government service, I joined a community of advocates who have been working to reaffirm our country’s ideals of inclusion and respect for people of all backgrounds. As an immigrant from India who grew up in a Hindu household in Kentucky, my choice to participate in this work after 9/11 was clear. I believed then as I do now that our country would overcome the bigotry and xenophobia that followed the 9/11 attacks. At my current position at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which includes individuals of various South Asian backgrounds and religious faiths, we have seen progress on many levels. But when it comes to the level of political discourse, it is discouraging that even though a decade has passed, our communities are still seen as disloyal, foreign, automatically suspect and un-American.
Some seem to think that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the “war on terror” give them free rein to indulge in biased and discriminatory speech directed at American Muslims and Americans of South Asian and Arab heritage. This openly bigoted speech reached a fever pitch with the Park51 controversy last year, with elected leaders from both parties playing a role in exacerbating Islamophobic sentiment. The ongoing congressional hearings on Muslims in America organized by Representative Peter King and the misguided attempts to ban Shariah law in several states have also contributed to this national climate.
It is uniquely disappointing to hear this type of prejudiced language coming out of the mouths of those seeking the presidency. Many of the Republican presidential candidates have either exploited the prejudice against Muslims or ducked the issue, apparently afraid of antagonizing a vocal minority of their party. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested thatMuslims are akin to Nazis. In the most recent CNN debate, former Senator Rick Santorum expressed his opinion that it would be acceptable to useethnic and racial profiling against Muslims. Not to be outdone, Herman Cain (before his recent campaign suspension announcement) declared that the majority of Muslims hold extremist views, while Michele Bachmann has warned (before she became a presidential candidate) of the “tribalism” of Muslims.
Among the major presidential candidates, few have pushed back against the anti-Muslim statements emerging on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney has offered a mild response to the anti-Muslim proponents, saying, “We’re not going to have Shariah law applied in U.S. courts. That’s never going to happen. We have a Constitution and we follow the law. No, I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country.” Ron Paulcountered Santorum’s comments regarding profiling, stating, “That’s digging a hole for ourselves. What if they look like Timothy McVeigh?” Others, thus far, have been silent.
Biased political rhetoric is not limited to the presidential election. Gary Boisclair, a primary candidate challenging Democratic Representative Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims in Congress, recently tried to question Ellison’s loyalty by pointing out that he had been sworn into office with a Koran.
SAALT’s 2010 report, From Macacas to Turban Toppers: The Rise in Xenophobic and Racist Rhetoric in American Political Discourse, documents the steady rise in this type of language regardless of political persuasion. For those who feel targeted, everyday acts become fraught with anxiety. Just this summer, as the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approached, people around the country spoke at community hearings about the ongoing isolation, fear andconcern they have about practicing their faith, sending their children to school, turning to law enforcement or government agencies for assistance, or becoming the victims of hate crimes.
In fact, according to recent FBI reports, anti-Muslim hate crimes shot up a staggering 50% between 2009 and 2010. This ongoing trend of violence against community members affects non-Muslims as well, including recent potential hate crimes involving a turbaned Sikh man who was stabbed at the airport in Fresno and a Hindu man who was assaulted by a group of men at a grocery store in San Jose while being called a “terrorist.”
Elected officials can play a role in reversing the tide. Presidential candidates ought to demonstrate their capacity for leadership by standing up against the voices of prejudice.
To his great credit, while the nation was reeling from the attacks of 9/11,President Bush spoke up strongly: “Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction.” Later, in 2002, when the voices of prejudice arose again, President Bush reaffirmed his position: “Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”
President Obama, just months into his presidency, made similar comments. “America and Islam are not exclusive,” he said, “and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
As with all debates that involve political scapegoating and targeting of particular communities, there are essentially three camps — those who fan the flames of division, those who stand up against it, and those who adopt the path of staying on the sidelines. Every day, teachers, students, advocates and people from every walk of life make the right choice: to stand up against hatred, discrimination and negative rhetoric in our country’s classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods. Shouldn’t we expect the same from our politicians?
Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
This article has been updated to clarify the paragraph about Gary Boisclair’s primary challenge to Keith Ellison.