Bigotry against Muslims and Preserving the American Experiment

In the past couple of months, some American women whose names I don’t remember have called on all American women to wear headscarves in public to show support for and solidarity with Muslim women in America. That call has led to an active public discussion on Twitter and elsewhere, and several interesting articles published on various news sites and blogs. I’m a non-Muslim American women who has had an unusual degree of contact and interaction with Muslims in the past 25 years. I responded to one of the articles earlier today. On further thought, I decided to expand what I said and post it on my blog as well.

Some background…. Among other roles I fill is one I don’t talk about much: I help moderate soc.religion.islam, a Usenet newsgroup (forum) about Islam mostly for Muslims. I have done this since early 1995, for over twenty years. I’ve read this forum since 1992 or 1993. I started participating in Islamic forums and learning about Islam in the late 1980s, after a fellow member of an Amnesty International local group who was Iranian by birth challenged the group to learn about Islam so that they would be able to distinguish between most Muslims and extremists.

As a human rights advocate and American who believes (despite everything) in the American system and experiment, I saw the need for Americans not to remain in ignorance about 15-20% of the human race. So I did as he suggested, and learned enough about Islam, the various branches of Islam, and the people who follow Islam that Islam ceased to be a black box to me. I’d like to think that I wasn’t bigoted about Muslims in the first place, but after I started learning about Islam and interacting with Muslims in all their diversity and individuality, it became impossible to stereotype Muslims just as I can’t stereotype Christians or Jews.

A couple of months ago somebody (I don’t remember who) called on American women to wear headscarves in public to show solidarity with Muslim women. I approved of the call and supported it, but didn’t think about it much beyond that. Despite the ignorance of many Americans, a woman wearing a headscarf as a sign of modesty is part of our history and culture too. I wear one to church often because conservative Russian Orthodox Christians believe that this is strongly preferable. While I don’t feel obligated to do so, I also don’t like to offend people who feel strongly about the issue.

Yesterday a couple of Muslim women with non-standard views about hijab wrote an article in the Washington Post objecting to this call because it implicitly recognizes that women wearing hijab is generally associated with Islam. A Muslim woman who wears hijab (Saba Syed, who is usually called Umm Reem) then responded to that article on a popular Islamic blog, Muslim Matters.

I commented on the second article for a couple of reasons. First, while I’m not Muslim, I’m tolerably familiar with Islam and Muslims. I believe that Umm Reem’s blog is a *very* well written mainstream response to an article expressing a view of wearing the hijab that is held by only a minority of Muslim women. Everything that I have learned about Islam here and elsewhere in the past 25 years points to her blog as solidly grounded in mainstream Islamic beliefs and thinking, on the hijab and on other subjects. Her response is also unusually well written — clear, reasonably concise, and easy to read and understand. I’d urge my fellow Christians and other American women to pay attention, especially if you have considered wearing a headscarf in solidarity with American Muslim women.

Second and even more important to me, the growing anti-Islamic bigotry in America is damaging people that I care about and perverting the “American experiment” — the combination of secular law, separation of religion and government, and respect for the choices of other people that constitutes the foundation of society and government in the United States.

Bluntly, too many Americans in 2015 confuse Islam with the extremist beliefs of terrorists. This leads them to conflate ordinary Muslims and extremist terrorism supporters into a single undifferentiated group. To be blunt, ignorant and frightened Americans are acting as Americans often have in the past when something terrifies them — they’re scapegoating their own neighbors, fellow Americans, and other residents of our country.

That bigotry and consequent scapegoating has shown itself in public discourse, but it is incidents involving Muslim friends and my now-teenage nephew that strike at my heart. My nephew isn’t even Muslim, although his father is a Somali Muslim. He was born in America and raised almost entirely by my non-Muslim sister. Nevertheless, in elementary school he faced parents who believed that anybody whose ancestry was in a primarily-Islamic part of the world hosted a “Jihadi gene” and would inevitably try to kill their children. (This term was actually used by one parent, who was apparently quoting the pastor at her church.) Most people remember the accusations against a 14-year-old Muslim kid in suburban Dallas, Texas whose hand-built clock was mistaken for a fake bomb. Unfortunately these are not isolated examples.

Many Americans either do not have the tendency to scapegoat others when they are afraid, or recognize that doing so is wrong and have successfully resisted the temptation. Among those who have fought this bigoted and wrongheaded thinking are a group of American women (I believe Christians) who have called on non-Muslim American women to wear headscarves in public. Their idea is to desensitize Americans to people wearing scarves, showing solidarity with Muslim women who believe that wearing hijab is an obligation.

I agree with their stated action and purpose. However, I think American women who wear hijab are doing something more important than simply defending fellow human beings from discrimination and abuse. These women are defending the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees religious liberty and provides the foundation for the separation of the roles of religion and government in American society. It rejects treatment of Islam and Muslims as if they were “different”, and not like other Americans or others living in America. This principal desperately needs to be upheld explicitly and publicly right now. The fear and ignorance of many Americans is putting America itself in danger because too many have lost sight of who we are and what America is supposed to stand for.

Non-Muslim women who wear hijab to support the efforts of Muslim women to live their faith also signal that we do not confuse Islam with terrorism, or approve of blaming all members of a religion because a few members of that religion are murderous bigots.

For Christians this is an important sign of humility. It bears witness to the non-Christian world that we realize that we also have murderous bigots among us. While I am vehemently pro-life, I recognize that people such as Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolf and Robert Lewis Dear justified mass murder largely of innocents as required or permitted by their Christian faith. Most pro-life Christians find the idea that some extremists use Christianity to justify mass murder to be in contradiction to everything our religion teaches and believes, warped, and utterly wrong.

In the same way, most devout Muslims find the idea that some extremists use Islam to justify mass murder equally incomprehensible and offensive. I remind my fellow Christians that we must not judge all Muslims by the acts of a few murderous bigots if don’t want to be judged in the same way. I remind my fellow Americans of all religions or none that, if we expect Muslims to treat us as individuals and judge us on what we ourselves believe and do, not on what some loudmouthed extremists say or do, we need to treat Muslims as we would want to be treated.

In the past, frightened and ignorant Americans have segregated and abused indigenous Americans (“American Indians”) in reservations, the descendants of African slaves on plantations and later in ghettos, immigrants ranging from the Irish during the potato famine to Italians to eastern European Jews in ghettos, and Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This behavior has alienated and driven from this country people who have made significant, valuable contributions to our society and culture, and who would have continued to do so if we had not driven them out. One of the victims of this behavior was W. E. B. DuBois, the first African American graduate of Harvard University and one of America’s great authors and philosophers. DuBois ended his life as an exile in Liberia (Africa) after despairing of America because so many Americans decades after the end of slavery could not find it in their minds or hearts to accept him as an equal.

You’d think we would learn from our mistakes. You’d think people would learn to recognize this pattern. You’d think people who claim not to be racist would see past race and religion and see fellow human beings when looking at people from south Asia and the Middle East. Some of us do, but too many lack the ability or the desire to move beyond fear and ignorance. :/

While I support the call for non-Muslim women to wear hijab, I don’t urge all of my fellow non-Muslim American women to wear headscarves in public. That might not be your role. But I do urge you to realize that, if you value a free society and want America to continue to be one, now is the time to stand up, speak, and be counted.

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