Time to get over Islamaphobia

By Editorial Board

Sometimes, we snooty Northern city folk like to think we’re better than our overly religious, red-neck Southern cousins. When I saw people protesting the proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., I rolled my eyes, unsurprised. Progress seems to take a little longer south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet it was a rude awakening to hear that people in upscale suburban Naperville have taken the same stance on a proposed mosque just south of their border.

When plans to build HOPE United Church of Christ on a 14-acre site in the west suburbs fell through, the Islamic Center of Naperville voiced interest in buying the land to build a mosque. According to HOPE Rev. Timothy Silvia, there were no complaints for the proposed church, but as soon as it was changed to a mosque, protests erupted at a meeting on Oct. 5. Although no complaints were aimed directly at Muslims, it’s clear what motivates the opposition.

During the past decade, Islamaphobia has brought out the unsavory side of a society that only recently come to terms with racial prejudice. It’s true that the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck a national nerve, and few were left unaffected by the tragedy. Yet it’s clear that misinformation and plain bigotry separate a good portion of the population from the reality that out of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, very few engage in or support terrorist activities.

This issue isn’t new—it repeats itself in almost every community in which a peaceful group of people wish to build a house of prayer. It was brought to national attention when an Islamic community center was planned for lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Months after the New York City Council almost unanimously voted in favor of building the Islamic center, conservative radio and TV hosts fanned the flames of bigotry by launching ridiculous attacks against the project’s leader. The idea that Muslim Americans would build a terrorist boot camp a few blocks from the World Trade Center to recruit and train jihadists blows my mind.

Unfortunately, prejudice runs deep in our collective psyche. Sure, a few Muslim terrorists have been U.S. citizens, such as the one who attempted to ignite a bomb in Times Square, as well as the one the president recently killed with a drone strike. There have also been plenty of white domestic terrorists, such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski.

Muslim Americans have faced discrimination since the attacks that’s completely unwarranted. A much larger percentage of Germans identified with the Nazi cause, yet we were quick to forgive nearly everyone but the highest ranking officials for their crimes. And it’s possible that as a fellow predominantly white, Western culture, we understand Germans better. The hijab scarves, strange language and strict religious devotion of Muslims are alien to us, and we tend to fear what we don’t understand.

It’s time for Americans to get educated on Islamic traditions. It’s an ancient, fascinating culture that for many centuries was far ahead of Europe in science, math and technology. Muslims are unified by religion more than Christians, which could be why many ignorant Americans identify anyone from Morocco to Indonesia with one word. Almost all Muslims who move to America come for a better life, not to raise sleeper-cell terrorist babies.

I say this not to impose my own cosmopolitan view on everyone else, but because as demographic trends show, more and more people will be interacting with Muslims. According to the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life, the Muslim population in America will grow from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030. And they’ll want to build places of worship, so we better get over ourselves.

The NBC logo, “The more you know,” applies to a lot, and Islamaphobia is no exception. Learning never hurt, and anyone who does any legitimate research will find out that the Koran actually preaches peace, not violence. The whole 72 virgins thing is something al-Qaeda leaders manipulated to recruit naive youth into their ranks.

Many will continue to misunderstand Muslim culture and treat it as a pariah. But these bigots, in turn, should be treated as pariahs. It’s time to stomp out Islamaphobia. Let’s not be the simple-minded red-necks we’re presented as when people across the world can see our prominent commentators on TV denouncing religious freedom.