By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Tuesday 31 October 2006
Religious and ethnic bigotry have long been at the root of the most heinous abuses of America's freedoms. For years, Jews were the targets: They controlled the banking system, the press, and all the other levers of power. Absurdly, they were also Bolsheviks and Communists.
Bolsheviks and Communists were, of course, the bull's-eyes in later episodes of government target practice. During the 1920s, American fears were whipped up by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, who rounded up and deported hundreds of US citizens and legal residents. Thirty years later, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy famously dragged the nation into a scary and pathetic "Red Scare."
Then there was Papism. Espoused by many prominent Protestant clergymen and embraced by millions of their followers for more than a century, Papists equated the Roman Catholic Church with the absolute obedience of its adherents to the orders of the Pope.
It was against this background that, on September 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy decided to take the bull by the horns and deliver his now-famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
He told the group he believed in "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act ... For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew - or a Quaker - or a Unitarian - or a Baptist ... Today I may be the victim - but tomorrow it may be you - until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."
I wonder if JFK realized how prescient he was. The Cold War is over. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are of course still with us, but have been largely marginalized to the lunatic fringes of our society. But today - post 9/11 - we have a new target of hate: Islam. And there is ample evidence that it is being embraced not only by the lunatic fringe of America, but by a majority of our people, including clergymen on the religious right, and by the US government.
In the hysterical days and weeks following 9/11, hundreds of Muslims, along with South Asians mistaken for Arabs, were rounded up and imprisoned by John Ashcroft's Justice Department, though not a single person was ever charged with any terror-related crime.
Sadly, many prominent members of America's evangelical community have joined the Muslim-bashing crowd. Evangelical leaders like the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, have publicly branded Islam, or Islam's prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent.
Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and head of a global missions agency, Samaritan's Purse, said that Islam was "a very evil and wicked religion." Vines described Muhammad as "a demon-possessed pedophile." Falwell said in a "60 Minutes" interview that "Muhammad was a terrorist."
According to a nationwide survey conducted by Cornell University, nearly half of all Americans believe the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Our Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has shut down five major Muslim charities in the United States since 2001, and seized millions of dollars in assets. As of today, not a single officer or organization has been convicted of any crime connected to terrorism. But charitable giving - one of the pillars of the Muslim faith - has fallen precipitously, out of prospective donors' fear of becoming a target of government investigation.
President Bush has lavished praise on Muslim-Americans. But simultaneously, the FBI and our Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are clearly practicing ethnic profiling and conducting surveillance at Mosques and other Muslim gathering places. At the same time, they are actively conducting "outreach" programs to Muslim-American communities in the US.
They are also aggressively attempting to recruit Arab and other Muslim-Americans into the CIA, FBI, and other national security agencies (these recruiting programs have largely failed because, when the agencies learn that many of these prospective employees have friends and family in the Middle East, they are denied security clearances).
Many other forms of more and less subtle discrimination are taking place. For example, seven Muslims who have been waiting years to become US citizens were finally notified that their applications had been approved, but only after they joined a lawsuit accusing immigration officials of illegally delaying background checks and allowing applications to linger indefinitely. In Texas, three Muslim Americans wrongly accused of planning a terrorist attack on a Michigan bridge, and after having their bank accounts closed and their neighbors accuse them of being terrorists, demanded that authorities issue a public apology for targeting them because of their race. And an internal investigation by the Justice Department concluded there was "reasonable cause" to believe that senior FBI officials retaliated against the bureau's highest-ranking Arabic speaker for complaining that he was cut out of terrorism cases despite his expertise.
The academic community has suffered as well. For example, for more than two years, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar, has been denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame. First he was told he had endorsed terrorism and violated the USA Patriot Act. Later, after filing a lawsuit against the government and having a federal judge force the State Department to reconsider his application, his visa was again denied because between 1998 and 2002 he had contributed small sums of money to a French charity supporting humanitarian work in the Palestinian territories.
Is this Islamophobia working? Is it smart? Is it helping us to find and prosecute terrorists?
My view is that we're using some pretty primitive blunt instruments to conduct our search for the bad guys. In the process, we're alienating the very people who probably could help us most - the millions of law-abiding Muslim-Americans who live among us - and who are just as terrified of terrorists as the rest of us.
I suppose I might be able to understand our approach if we were still back in 2001. But 9/11 happened five years ago. Isn't it long past time that all the clever folks in our government came up with something that actually works?
William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.