Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Islamophobia reared its evil, ugly head in my backyard this week, in the form of an email from some church acquaintances calling people to stop a Muslim event scheduled at a hotel in a north Dallas suburb called Richardson.
Discrimination against Muslims had been an intellectual exercise for me previously. I knew it was happening and denounced it from a distance. I might have dismissed the Richardson email as another right-wing bluster had it not happened in the same week that a "Christian" terrorist in Norway killed some 80 people out of his own fear of Muslims. I might have ignored the email had it not arrived while freshman congressman Allen West of Florida introduced his own fearmongering effort and Rep. Peter King of New York mounted a THIRD round of hearings on "Islamic" terrorism in America.
The horror that started my quest landed in my email box just four days after "Christian" terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, fearing a Muslim takeover of Europe, bombed Oslo and murdered some 80 people, mostly youths, at an island camp. Expecting one of my friends' usual pass-along inspirations, I opened the email forward to find the following:
"Below is info on a fundraiser for Islamic extremists in Richardson this Wednesday, July 27. It is put on by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), regarding a push for Sharia law in Texas. … Please do all you can to stop this fundraising event from taking place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Richardson."
The message staggered me. I've received lots of anti-Muslim emails, but this was the first time something was happening this close to home.
The email went on to denigrate the keynote speaker, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, whose biography is here, and whose latest book, What I Believe, is profiled by the University of Wisconsin's "Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates" website. The forwarded email also described the sponsoring association, the Islamic Circle of North America, as an organization that promotes speakers "that either advocate violence and hatred, or associate with those that do, in an effort to establish Shariah [sic] and a North American caliphate" based on an article at a website called Big Peace.com.
The unsigned email demanded that the Richardson meeting be stopped. It advocated complaining to various Hyatt management levels threatening to "expose the Hyatt Regency as a facilitator for organizations promoting the destruction of U.S. Constitutional Law and Islamic supremacy in Texas." The unknown writer noted that callers might not get welcome responses, adding: "when you see the owners, you will understand." Obviously the implication was that the hotel owners' ethnicity shows that they are Muslim.
The email also urged sending complaints to the Texas Attorney General, and to the U.S. Department of State (presumably to have Dr. Ramadan's visa revoked). It called on recipients to contact their federal representatives and ask them to issue statements condemning the Richardson meeting and "the creep of Sharia law in Texas."
Finally, the email asked recipients to contact Kelly Shackleford at Liberty Institute, "every constitutional lawyer you know, … Hannity, O’Reilly, Greta, Levin … spread the word on Facebook and Twitter and other social media" and through local media.
Once I'd read to the bottom of that ghastly message, I clicked "reply all." I advised the recipients to attend the event as I intended to do and see for themselves whether the message was accurate. Moreover, I said I would not be a party to any effort to deny Muslims the same rights of free assembly, free speech and freedom of religion guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment.
Then I went to the ICNA website, where I found an ad announcing the Richardson gathering. I clicked on it hoping to buy a ticket, but discovered that online purchase had been disabled. So I called the local telephone number from the event flyer. The local contact turned out to be a tiny Islamic bookstore in a rundown shopping strip a few blocks from the Richardson mosque. I drove to the shop in the searing summer heat and bought a ticket for $25 from a laconic older man of small stature with a salt-and-pepper beard. The shop had tall bookshelves devoted to topics such as Muslim living and the Holy Qu'ran, along with a display of truly beautiful prayer beads, like rosaries in rainbow colors
The next day, the temperature had reached 105 degrees by the time I set out for the hotel wearing my most modest church suit. When I arrived, I wasn't surprised to pass a Richardson police cruiser parked in the hotel driveway. Signs on the conference center doors adjacent to the parking lot directed people to enter by the lobby.
Asked to wait until the organizers were ready, I sat in the blessedly cool lobby while clumps of people gathered nearby. The tension became as oppressive as the heat outside.
Some wore T-shirts airbrushed with crosses and scripture, while others ostentatiously carried Bibles as if they were crusaders' swords. Moments later, as I walked toward the meeting room, a polite security guard stopped me. I explained I was there to attend the ICNA event and he directed me to an escort who took me to the ticket table. That's when I ran into genuine resistance.
One of the registrars scrutinized my ticket and then scrutinized me, since I was not dressed in the fashion typical of most Muslim women, nor was I obviously of south Asian heritage like many in attendance. I handed him my TPC business card and explained that I had come to hear Dr. Ramadan speak because he is a noted scholar of Islam in the West. Clearly the word "Christian" printed on my card upset him even more.
As the registrar and I continued our soft-spoken but intense debate, a Euro-American Muslim whom I'd met during a previous mosque visit appeared. We greeted one another, and he explained that the event was meant to be a private fund-raising and training session, even though the misconception had gotten out that it was open to the public. In response to false rumors, my Muslim friend said, the mosque planned to hold an interfaith gathering after the holy month of Ramadan (which begins Aug. 1 this year) to talk about the ICNA campaign to counter lies being spread about the Muslim concept of sharia.
I told my friend that I was disappointed not to hear Dr. Ramadan, but that I understood the situation. After all, I've been to countless meetings of civic and religious organizations that weren't open to the public yet had no sinister motives.
Then I said to my friend that the behavior of the "Christians" who had tried to crash the meeting embarrassed me. He smiled ruefully and replied, "We Muslims have our problems, too." And then I said, "The only thing that will get us past this is ..." and he finished: "Dialogue." "Yes," I said, "and mutual understanding and respect."
After we parted, , a perky blond catering manager in a neat navy blue suit kindly let me out one of the back doors so I wouldn't have to walk far in the heat back to my vehicle.
The next day I did some deeper research into the background of that hateful email. Here is what I found:
Finally, the email that came bearing hatred seemed to have forgotten that Muslim Americans are guaranteed the same rights under the U.S. Constitution as all other Americans, among them free assembly, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to worship without government sanction, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.
In other words, those who tried to stop the Richardson event intended to deprive its participants of their constitutional rights to gather together, to hear speakers from their own religious culture, and even to pray together before their meal.
After this experience, as a journalist, a progressive Christian and an American citizen, I have concluded that Islamophobia in America isn't merely blind, ignorant religious discrimination. Fear of Islam and its practitioners has become the kind of evil that has reared its monstrous head so many times before:
My encounter in Richardson brought me face to face with Islamophobia against people I know personally, people with whom I've sat at table as Jesus sat with fishermen, Pharisees and tax collectors. I am now convinced Islamophobia isn't merely wordy bluster by fringe elements or an intellectual debate over differing philosophies. Islamophobia in America is as real as the concentration camps of Auschwitz, as despicable as the U.S. detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, as deadly as the July 22 killings in Norway.
The hateful email that I received urged me to take action, and so I shall, but not the action its senders demanded. Now I shall stand against Islamophobia at every opportunity. I will confront and refute those of my own Christian faith who promote fear of Muslims. I will urge my Muslim neighbors likewise to counter those of their religion who preach hate. We need more than dialogue against this threat. We need more than mere tolerance. We need to believe in and practice factual truth and understanding love.