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U.S.: Political Leadership Critical to Fighting Rising Islamophobia

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 2012 (IPS) - The attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in early August on the heels of the shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado signals the rise of right-wing domestic terrorism in the United States, experts say.

After the shooting at the Sikh temple, a statement repeated on nearly every U.S. media outlet was that the Sikh shooting was a case of mistaken identity and that because gunman Wade Michael Page was actually trying to gun down Muslims and desecrate a mosque, the act was somehow therefore justified.

A talk held by the New America Foundation on Aug. 23 entitled “What do we make of extremism after Wisconsin?” sought to address these issues and highlight hate crimes against Muslims that have not received the same media attention as recent events.

On Aug. 6, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burnt down. The day before, the Sikh temple shooting had taken place in Wisconsin. On Aug. 7, pigs’ feet were thrown into a mosque in southern California. On Aug. 10, pellet shots were fired into a mosque in Illinois. The list doesn’t end here.

Haris Tarin, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council believes that a change in attitude towards Muslim Americans needs to come from the top. “Democrats and Republicans need to come together to fight Islamophobia. We don’t want it to become a partisan issue,” said Tarin, who pointed to Representative Michelle Bachman’s witch hunt as an extremely dangerous turn taken by politicians.

Participants at the talk argue that how politicians portray American Muslims has a significant impact on how they are treated. “When the president talks, it helps. When politicians talk in favor of a certain group, it definitely helps,” says Valarie Kaur, director of the Visual Law Project.

Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that Muslims in America are held accountable and answerable for terrorist crimes perpetrated by a select number of Islamic extremists – most often foreign elements – who, moderate Muslims have explained, do not represent true Islam.

Spencer Ackerman, a senior reporter at Wired.com, dismissed the idea that people weren’t educated about Islam. “I’m an American Jew, and I have never had to explain or defend actions of Jewish people around the world. I realize I am in a privileged position. So why do American Muslims have to explain themselves or defend other Muslims’ actions?” said Ackerman.

Kaur added that no white Christians would ever be held responsible for the actions of other white Christians across the world.

The double standard is mind-boggling, but a truth that slowly seems to be permeating American society.

After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims and turban-wearing Sikhs more than doubled. The word “terrorist” has become synonymous with “Muslim extremists”. The Aurora shootings, the Sikh temple tragedy – neither of these incidents was treated as “terrorist” activity by the media.

The manner in which media covers such events, as well as how politicians talk about Muslims, plays a huge part in the way Muslims are perceived in the United States.

“Rhetoric does not fall on deaf ears. Rhetoric is how political extremism becomes mainstream,” says Tarin. “There is a correlation between violence, rhetoric, and political extremism; hate crimes do not occur in a vacuum,” he adds, explaining how the media and the government can mould the public’s view towards certain groups.

Two incidents that highlight this correlation are Bachman’s witch hunt against Muslim politicians, and Representative Joe Walsh’s (R-IL) claim made in a town hall that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week”. The town hall was 15 miles from the Morton Grove Mosque, where pellets were fired by David Conrad. Other attacks such as an acid bomb incident in Lombard, Illinois and graffiti in Evergreen Park, Illinois, also took place in Walsh’s district.

Although negative perceptions of Muslims have reached extreme levels and can and have take on dangerous forms, there is reason to believe that not all Americans maintain such negatively biased beliefs about Muslims.

An evangelical friend of Tarin, along with a group of other evangelicals, has bought ad space and plans to put up signs reading, “I stand with my Muslim brother. I stand with my Sikh brother.”

“This is the greatness of America, its democracy and its pluralism; that people stand up and support one another,” says Tarin. Yet a lack of exposure to other cultures and religions is perhaps one of the largest factors for fear and hatred towards certain religious groups.

“The most supportive pro-Islam groups in the U.S. are returning veterans. Most Americans don’t travel, (they) only assume,” says Ackerman of the need for people in the United States to broaden their horizons and understand other peoples and cultures.

Whether Islamophobia will decrease in coming years will depend greatly on the media, and the U.S. government’s willingness to tackle hate crimes and counter negative perceptions of this religious group.

 
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