‘All this hate rhetoric and all these stereotypical images poison people’s beliefs’

An interview with Jack Shaheen on the images that drive our perceptions of Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans

DUMMERSTON — The Commons: It seems like we've come full circle with regards to people's opinions on whether a Muslim should be president of the United States. We saw and heard Islamophobic remarks toward President Barack Obama during the 2008 election, and now it's come back to haunt us in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Why are we back to where we started?

Jack Shaheen: I think what's happened is the anti-Muslim rhetoric has intensified over the last several years. We see it with special-interest groups, movies like The Taken, and television series like Homeland, Tyrant, Strike Back, and Dig, that under the guise of pretending to be balanced, vilify Arabs and Muslims.

There's a current epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry; politicians especially are scapegoating a vulnerable minority. Because there aren't so many American Muslims, they think they can get away with it.

Republican candidates for president share much of the blame. For example, at a town hall in New Hampshire, a man stood up and asked Donald Trump this question: “We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know, he's not even an American. We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. My question: When can we get rid of them?”

The billionaire businessman candidate failed to take issue with this question.

Other Republican candidates have discovered that if they vilify anything related to Islam, their supporters will send money to their campaign headquarters.

For example, Ben Carson said Islam is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, and that he would “not advocate” electing a Muslim as president. What happened? He received more money. That's what it's all about.

If you can vilify a person's culture, creed, or color you'll receive additional funds to help you achieve your goals. Moral principles be damned! Apparently, Ben Carson doesn't have any scruples when it comes to vilifying a faith that's embraced by 1.5 billion people worldwide.

It's both dangerous and sad. Only a small percentage of Americans have personal contact with American Muslims, less than 1 percent. Most of us don't know any. We fail to understand that 99.9 percent of American Muslims are pretty much like American Christians, American Jews, American Buddhists, and others. They are peace-loving people who love America.

But all this hate rhetoric and all these stereotypical images poison people's beliefs.

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The Commons: What is your response to the recent arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim from Irving, Texas who was arrested by police for making a clock as a science project?

Shaheen: What troubles me is the lack of ample press and public outrage coverage when young Ahmed was arrested. Had he been Jewish or Christian or an African-American, that story would still be on front pages of newspapers. Regrettably, the words “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “mosque” trigger fear and hatred in so many circles.

You don't judge a person based on his color, creed, or culture. You judge someone based on his/her accomplishments in public office.

And all of this anti-Muslim bashing has to stop. It's un-American and unethical. The president and many Democrats are remaining silent. They need to come out - and so do religious leaders of other faiths before this all gets out of hand.

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The Commons: How should the media have handled this anti-Muslim rhetoric?

Shaheen: One minor but important step would be a one-hour television special focusing on the vilification of Arabs and Muslims in America. Number two, politicians need to come out and address this issue as well. As Colin Powell said, an American Muslim child has the right to dream and think that he or she could one day maybe be president of the United States.

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The Commons: Whenever we bring up issues of prejudices and racism among white people, it's like white people refuse to acknowledge it's there and just don't want to talk about it honestly. Your response?

Shaheen: I think if you say to people, “You're racist,” they'll say, “No, I'm not.”

I think many people think the way they think based on the information they receive, and since much of the information they receive about Muslims and Arabs is prejudiced, they embrace it.

And ignorance plays a role in here, too. We forget that during World War II, we never referred to Japanese-Americans as “Americans.” They were “Japs.” Today, we seldom refer Muslims or Arabs as Americans. They're seen as “Muslims,” as if they're linked to ISIS.

We don't link all Catholic priests to child abusers and we don't link all Jews to radical Zionist settlers, so why are we doing this with American Muslims?

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The Commons: Whenever one speaks up about racism and bigotry, it always seems that you're blamed for being a divider.

Shaheen: Yes, that's the bigot's argument. That makes no sense whatsoever. That's like the [Ku Klux] Klan telling us that defending African-Americans and Catholics is too divisive. Come on!

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The Commons: What are your thoughts about Black Lives Matter? Would a movement like Muslim and Arab Lives Matter be effective?

Shaheen: That's a tough question. That's not the way I would do it. To me, All Lives Matter. I mean, saying Black Lives Matter (or All Arab or Muslim Lives matter) is fine, but I prefer All Lives Matter.

Also, every American has the right to dream about becoming president of the United States regardless of her or his color, creed, or culture. Every American, like Ahmed Mohamad, has the right to create an invention and not be handcuffed, arrested, and taken to a police station. And every American has the right not to be vilified because of his or her faith. That's the way it should be.

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The Commons: In your experience, what have been some examples of successful campaigns in combating Islamophobia and racism against Arabs? Why were they effective?

Shaheen: I'm not sure if that many were effective.

The good news is that more scholars are documenting and writing about it, but I don't think it's reached the general public yet. Some religious leaders in some parts of the United States have worked together to squash these stereotypes, and they deserve to be complimented on the work that they've done. But much more needs to be done.

That's why I think President Obama has to come out and condemn these stereotypes. He should say “No, I'm not a Muslim. I'm a Christian. But what if I were a Muslim? It wouldn't make any difference.”

It starts at the top and filters down to news, then filters down to popular culture. It has to be a three-pronged approach.

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The Commons: But what can people do locally to combat Islamophobia and racism against Arabs? What do you think works at the local level?

Shaheen: We need to understand that, left uncontested, these bigoted comments and images will continue to incite violence and hate crimes against American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, including Arab-Americans.

This is why politicians - Republicans and Democrats - as well as journalists, civil rights activists, religious leaders, and others must stand up and repudiate these anti-Muslim comments and all xenophobic and bigoted comments made by political candidates.

We should speak out and say what we think about this virus of intolerance. Tell your neighbors, tell your friends, tell even one person.

When someone says horrible things about Muslims and Arabs, or that Obama is a Muslim, just say this: “What if Obama is Muslim, so what? What difference would it be?”

What's happening now brings back the time when there was so much hate directed at Catholics in the U.S. When John F. Kennedy was running for office, many people protested, saying the Pope was going to control his actions. Kennedy was attacked because of his faith.

Isn't it time we unlearned our prejudices? Who benefits when we vilify our fellow Americans?

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