Whatever happened to religious freedom?

Xenophobia: intense or irrational dislike or fear of strangers, foreigners or anyone perceived as different. Albeit a social faux pas, it is quite possible that this fear of “the other” was of evolutionary value, making it a psychological trait that was selected for in our ancestral past. Phewww. I thought the angry Americans protesting against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre in the neighbourhood of Ground Zero were just plain crazy! Regardless of the reason, it has made for an unfortunate situation for Muslim Americans who are all being painted with the same derogatory brush.

American history is riddled with discrimination and bigotry and there is no end in sight. Since the 19 al-Qaida members made their grand attacks on American soil in 2001 the very presence of a Muslim, or one assumed to be Muslim, has become enough to set off the internal fear-o-meters of the uneducated, intolerant and ignorant. Some, like an editorial in the Washington Times, are blatant in their bigotry, referring to the proposed centre as a “monument to terrorism,” while closet Islamophobes try to disguise their prejudices by saying it is not the Islamic centre itself that is the problem, it is the location.

Don’t kid yourself, the location of the centre is not the problem. Other proposed mosque locations in American and Canadian cities have been sources of controversy or have been rejected, even if they were nowhere near the site of any terrorist attack. If you understand that Muslims are not terrorists then it should not matter if a mosque was built right in the middle of Ground Zero. Those who oppose the mosque’s construction consider the word “Muslim” to be synonymous with “terrorist.”

This backward way of thinking has repercussions far greater than whether or not a cultural centre is built — this recent event has merely illuminated some American heartfelt intolerance and bigotry. Despite the first amendment of the U.S. constitution, some Muslims are frightened to practice their religion and rightfully so. Recent hate crimes toward Muslims are disconcerting: vandalized mosques, a slashed taxi driver and harassed worshippers are among the examples of the challenges Muslims face. This violence not only threatens the physical well-being of those targeted, but is detrimental to emotional and psychological health as well. It is also a double whammy for Muslims who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks — rather than having the support of their community to help them heal, they are being further victimized.

Of the 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, not many more than 1,000 are members of al-Qaida. This means that we are ostracising an entire religion based on the actions of roughly 0.0000006 per cent of its members. If they were building an al-Qaida cultural centre then I could see what all the commotion is about, but this is not the case. We did not stereotype all Christians based on the atrocities of the Crusades or the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. This is because in North America we are comfortable with the term Christianity, and while there may be some extremists, we know plenty of “good Christians” to offset this. Many of us do not know Moses from Adam, but we are Christian by default and this makes us feel safe. On the other hand, a lot of non-Muslims are unfamiliar with Islam. We do not personally know any Muslims but, thanks to sensationalist journalism, we do know that recent terrorists have been Muslims and this makes us feel scared. Rather than learning the truth, we let our fears lead us to shameful actions.

While xenophobia may be in our genes, we are also a product of our environment (which is why it does not help that we have the Fox News lunatics spreading fear and hatred by tossing around terms like “terror mosque” and “terrorist command centre”). Education is the best tool we have to squash North America’s fear of Islam and move toward a peaceful coexistence of all religions. Many Americans suffered dearly from the attacks of 9/11, but ostracising Muslims (or anyone who fits the stereotypical description) will not change that. People must be educated on the difference between a Muslim and a terrorist so this insanity can stop.

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