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June 23, 2011

Islamophobia hurts us all, author says

Scott Stockdale

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Stephan Salisbury, cultural page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Mohamed's Ghosts, asks how the United States became so Islamophobic, when ten years ago (before 9/11) this phenomenon barely existed.

Speaking at a Canadian Charger fundraising dinner recently, Mr. Salisbury began by outlining a litany of examples of Islamophobia and then he explained how the United States government instigated this phenomenon, and the mainstream media helped perpetuate it.

Although not justified, it's not surprising that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims and people thought to be Muslims swept over the U.S. Hundreds of beatings and about a dozen reprisal killings were reported coast to coast.

Mr. Salisbury said that on September 17, 2001, a day after he told the nation that it was mounting a "crusade" against terror, President Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and proclaimed that "Islam is peace." He added that at literally the same moment, across Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller held a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into their investigation, an undisclosed number of immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were in custody, and major legislation was being prepared to add muscle to government surveillance, immigration, and anti-terror activities. Despite all this, Mr. Mueller said that complaints of ethnic targeting pouring in from Arab-American communities were completely mistaken.

After the Patriot Act became law a month later, Mr. Ashcroft launched a nationwide program of 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with Muslims from the Middle East. Internal Justice Department memos instructed interviewers to detain anyone suspected of immigration violations.

A year later, Muslims began to disappear from the streets of America, Mr. Salisbury said, as a result of a special immigration program requiring men from two dozen predominantly Muslim countries to register with immigration authorities. Nearly 84,000 registered, resulting in 3,000 being detained and over 13,000 promptly subjected to deportation proceedings. The situation became so ominous, Mr. Salisbury said, that “Lawyers wearing yellow shirts with "Human Rights Monitor" written on the back sought to keep track of individuals heading into registration centers in New York and Los Angeles—and not coming out.”

Needless to say, these law enforcement activities led many Americans to believe that Muslims were a threat to their country. And Mr. Salisbury explained that the mainstream media helped fan the flames of Islamophobia.

“By 2003, announcements of elaborate terror "plots" and investigations had already taken over the news. These would regularly serve, like booster shots, to revitalize public suspicions and fears that foul things were afoot. Muslims in Lodi, California, were plotting to blow up supermarkets. In Columbus, Ohio, they were targeting malls. In New York City, it was the Herald Square subway station. In Philadelphia, it was the Ansaarullah Islamic Society and its unnamed and never articulated plots.”

Dozens and dozens of such cases have been reported over the past decade – about 200 (50 involving so-called home-grown radicals). Virtually all of them involved Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims. But Mr. Salisbury said virtually none of the supposed plots had any chance of happening, and many were, in fact, concocted and fuelled by zealous government informers and covert agents.

“As with the numerous immigration detentions and deportations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much publicity surrounded announcements that deadly "jihadist" plots had been thwarted. Often, when the suspects finally came to trial, charges and evidence amounted to something far less ominous.”

Meanwhile, in the last year or so, since the controversy over the Lower Manhattan Islamic cultural center exploded in the run-up to the 2010 elections, it has become acceptable for the mainstream U.S. media to provide an outlet, usually unchallenged, for all manner of bigotry when it comes to Islam.

Mr. Salisbury said he is talking not just about Fox News here or News Corp.’s other holdings, but the national media in general. Major politicians running for major offices, including now virtually all candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president, make statements about Islam that would be unacceptable were they made about any other religion. They impugn Muslims in a way that would be unacceptable with any other people. He notes a couple of effects of this rhetoric.

“First, it legitimizes anti-Muslim views as part of normal political discourse, which in turn legitimizes anti-Muslim attitudes in daily life. Secondly, it makes acceptable more and more extreme language and action across the political spectrum.”

In his book Mohamed's Ghost, Mr. Salisbury gives an example of the extreme actions being taken by law enforcement officials in this politically-charged climate.

The book focuses on federal law enforcement and immigration efforts directed at a small mosque in a rundown section of Philadelphia. The imam was arrested in a massive raid by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2004, seized by dozens of armed agents, as he was dropping his 12 year old step daughter off at school. But the imam, Mohamed Ghorab, was not the only member of his once-thriving congregation to be arrested. As many as a dozen members of the mosque were taken into custody. At least eight were eventually deported, including Ghorab. No one was ever charged with any acts associated with terrorism. Immigration violations ruled.

The raid produced headlines not only in Philadelphia, but all over the country. But Mr. Salisbury said that upon looking into this case, he discovered a congregation riddled with informers and under constant surveillance. There was both more and less to the story than reported in the media.

Not surprisingly, the number of hate groups has escalated in the midst of this Islamophobic rhetoric. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking right-wing and racist groups in America for decades, recently reported that hate groups in America are at record levels, topping 1,000 for the first time last year.

Mr. Salisbury said that with the mainstream media absent and largely indifferent, with a well-oiled, well-financed anti-Muslim network permeating the internet, with a government focused on a terrorist threat defined by Islam and little else, it is absolutely critical that alternative sources of news and information – like the Canadian Charger – receive the support to continue providing news that uncovers on-going abuses.

“News outlets like the Canadian Charger are essential in the effort to connect the dots. They provide information that is disseminated far beyond the Muslim world.”

Despite the informers and police hostility, the arrests and suspicion and xenophobia, Mr. Salisbury said it's up to the Muslim community to hold the US to its founding promise of justice and equality.

“As long as injustice exists in America, it diminishes every citizen. Therefore the struggle for equal rights carried forward by Muslims is really a struggle for all Americans, and ultimately for Muslims and other citizens throughout the world.”

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