Friday, September 08, 2006

Interpreting uncertain terms - Fearful words for young Muslim

Interpreting uncertain terms - Fearful words for young Muslim
By Azam Nizamuddin, an attorney and adjunct professor of religion and theology at Elmhurst College
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 8, 2006

As news of another terror plot swirled on television news, I was watching a cable news channel with my 10-year-old son when President Bush stepped out of Air Force One to make a statement. To my dread, however, what came out of his mouth will live in infamy.

The president stated that "this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." My son then turned to me and asked, "Dad, does this mean that we will be targeted?" I could tell by the uncertain tone in his question and by his innocent facial expression that for the first time in his life, he actually felt scared of being Muslim. This Oklahoma-born child, who recently completed his first Little League season, a season in which he helped his baseball team compete in the championship game, was actually scared by the words of his own president.

As an American Muslim, I never thought I would actually have to explain to my children that their president does not really hate them. However, as I reflected on my son's question, I could not justify Bush's remark under any circumstances. What worried me was that if many young American Muslims felt threatened and fearful of their own government, could they be lost to extremist views and ideologies, just as so many young British Muslims appear to be lost to the likes of the Taliban or Al Qaeda?

Clearly, Bush had a choice. He could have used many terms to describe those who were arrested in the terror plot in the United Kingdom. He could have called them "terrorists." He could have called them "British terrorists." He could have called them "extremists" or even "alleged criminals." So why did Bush use this terminology of racial profiling? What evidence did the president have that religious principles or Islamic theology was the cause or motivating factor in this terror plot?

It appears that in an election year, Bush is appealing to the right wing of his political base. Recently, a pro-Israel lobby group called Christians United for Israel, led by the apocalyptic evangelical preacher John Hagee of Texas, held its first summit meeting in Washington. One of its keynote speakers was Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who essentially sounded out the crusading banter by using the term "Islamic fascists" during his presentation. According to Santorum, "Terror is not the enemy. The enemy are Islamic fascists." During this event, the term "Islamic fascists" was used regularly by many right-wing speakers, including Gary Bauer, a former Republican candidate for president, and Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Political pandering is not new in an election year. But politics alone cannot justify one of the few remaining forms of abject bigotry in America, namely Islamophobia. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Southern Democrats refused to support the civil rights movement for fear of antagonizing white Southerners. Similarly, many German public officials in the early 1930s refused to condemn the alarmingly anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nazi Party, fearing that it would upset the supporters of the growing fascist movement. However, just as bigotry was unacceptable during the Jim Crow era of the South and German society in the 1930s, it should be equally unacceptable in America in 2006.

Minority communities have had to face many challenges in America. Despite the bigoted and often hostile attitude toward Muslim Americans and others, I am optimistic about America because our Constitution guarantees and protects all citizens from violations of our religious beliefs and practices by the government. Moreover, we still have an independent judiciary, notwithstanding the recent assaults on our federal justices under the guise of so-called "activist judges."

The message I will give to my son and others is that despite the growing tide of Islamophobia in today's America, particularly from public officials and media pundits, we still have the right to petition the government for grievances. I will counsel him that despite the failure of political leaders to courageously condemn bigotry, there are many people of goodwill who have the responsibility to lobby for a change in leadership and a change in domestic and foreign policy.

Moreover, as Americans we must strengthen the Constitution by making sure that even in the midst of crisis, we develop and maintain a vibrant and independent judiciary that will not be swayed by racial or religious bigotry, irrational fears or undue political influence. The promise that America offers to its citizens and to the rest of the world is not rooted in party politics or charismatic leadership, but in an enduring and living Constitution that promotes essential human rights and balances the respective powers inherent in the president, Congress and especially the Supreme Court.


Azam Nizamuddin is an attorney and adjunct professor of religion and theology at Elmhurst College.


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