Washington DC – How many “Wake up calls” do we need to see our subculture of bigotry, fear, hatred and violence for what it really is? Why can’t we see that rising xenophobia and Islamophobia is threatening and actually eroding the fabric, safety and security mean for all of us Americans? The slaughter of Sikhs gathered at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is the latest casualty of this metastasising culture war.
Far right extremists like Wade Michael Page, responsible for the deaths at Oak Creek, like the Norwegian militant Anders Behring Breivik,the self-described anti-Islamic militant who admitted killing 77 people, are not simply crazies or lone gunmen. They are the product of extremist ideologies and movements from white supremacists, politicians, media pundits, religious preachers and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim websites and blogs that have received more than $42 million over a 10-year period, according to the recent Centre for American Progress study, Fear Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.
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This danger goes way beyond discourse and can easily lead to a deadly reality. Racist and vitriolic “us and them” language feeds a culture war that increasingly targets immigrants, non-whites, Muslims (and those like Sikhs who are mistaken for Muslims), not only in the US, but also in much of Europe. We passively read comments like: “There is no escaping the unfortunate fact that Muslim government employees in law enforcement, the military, and the diplomatic corps need to be watched for connections to terrorism.” (Daniel Pipes, in Jerusalem Post, January 22, 2003, p9) or “where there are Muslims, there are problems” from a New York Post editorial that warns of New York becoming “New Yorkistan“; Newt Gingrich warning of Sharia taking over American courts, or Ann Coulter encouraging us to “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” because “We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war“.
We indifferently learn about Tea Party protesters against an Islamic Centre in Temecula, CA, who are encouraged to bring their dogs because Muslims hate Jews, Christians, women and dogs, or protesters against a Bridgeport, Connecticut mosque who confront children leaving the mosque shouting “Murderers!”, carrying placards with “Islam is a lie”, …”Jesus hates Muslims” … In this environment, our children can easily be exposed to those who speak of “towelheads”, “ragheads”, “dirt people”, “aliens”, who threaten “our white American Christian way of life” who represent a massive demographic threat, since mosques are monuments to terrorism, and “those people” are all followers of a jihadist religion who cannot be loyal citizens or serve in government.
Government agencies like the FBI, human rights organisations like the Southern Poverty Law Centre, major polls and studies have documented the sharp rise in far right extremism, white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups, and hate crimes. Will it take even more carnage to raise awareness and to act? What will it take to marginalise and contain preachers of hate who influence and enable xenophobia and domestic terrorism?
Those who shout “Go back to where you came from” are victims of an ethnic and cultural historical mass amnesia. They have forgotten that, except for Native Americans, they are themselves descendants of Americans in this great land of immigrants who responded to the call: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
John L Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University. His recent books are The Future of Islam (with I Kalin) and Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century.