Since the end of the Jim Crow era, politicians have dressed racism in the rhetoric of food stamps and illegal aliens. But as the past 10 years have shown, it seems that politicians need no such disguise for Islamophobia.
Unspoken assumptions often provide more insight into American public opinion than what can be explicitly stated. Public figures today assume that they can openly disparage Muslims, thinking that Muslims are worthy of our fear and hatred. This Islamophobia pervades the discourse of the Republican primaries. Putting aside the claim, still common today, that Barack Hussein Obama is secretly a Muslim, let’s take a look at what some of the current and former GOP hopefuls have to say about Islam.
While he was a frontrunner in the race, Herman Cain said he would never appoint a Muslim to his cabinet and that the majority of Muslims hold extremist views. You would have to work hard to be more blatantly intolerant than that. What is even more deplorable, however, is that this comment had little to no impact on his popularity.
Newt Gingrich, who famously claimed that Palestinians are “an invented people,” is known for his support of patently Islamophobic anti-Shariah legislation, such as the bill Alabama State Senator Gerald Allen proposed last year that would ban courts from citing Shariah and other foreign laws. When asked at a press conference to define Shariah, Allen was unable to muster a response. It turned out the text of Allen’s bill that defined Shariah was lifted from Wikipedia.
Even the moderate frontrunner, Mitt Romney, based much of his 2008 campaign on the need to combat “violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism.” In a debate last month, he claimed, “The right course for America is to recognize we’re under attack … [by] radical violent jihadists around the world.” It is exactly this sort of simple-minded explanation of world events that feeds America’s growing paranoia of Islam and Muslims. If this is the rhetoric we tolerate from a man who might be our next president, imagine the kind of discrimination that Muslims face on a day-to-day basis.
You don’t need to go very far to see the real consequences of negative attitudes towards Muslims. Yale Muslims — your classmates — have been (and, judging by the direction of our society, will continue to be) victims of Islamophobia. Rakibul Mazumder ’13 recalls growing up in post-9/11 New York City, where he faced random searches and profiling on a weekly basis. To his surprise, the hate followed him to Yale; he recalls being harassed by drunken partiers one night with anti-Muslim slurs.
Parents of Muslims students said their goodbyes at the beginning of last school year knowing that their sons and daughters were coming to New Haven just as Connecticut Muslims had requested police protection for Friday prayers. “Politicians and pundits are playing the fear-mongering game,” said James Jones, president of the Masjid al-Islam mosque on George Street. “It absolutely scares me.” For Muslim Yalies, the safety of being Muslim in New Haven has come into question.
As the Alabama state senator’s inability to define Shariah attests, much Islamophobia is based in utter ignorance of Islam. College campuses have historically been influential in combating such ignorance, and Yale in particular has been exemplary in this regard. In the 1960s, Yale Chaplain William Coffin organized busloads of students to challenge racism in the Jim Crow South. Those Yalies put themselves in harm’s way to combat hate.
However, the situation today is often different from the Jim Crow South and merits a different response. Today, we can be informed and inform others. To promote this goal, the Yale Muslim Students Association recently organized Islamic Awareness Week, hosting events every day that exhibited a different side of Islam and Muslims — one based in truth rather than fear.
In the tradition of the Yalies who opposed Jim Crow, we must spread the word: people like Herman Cain are wrong. Not only are they wrong, but the Islamophobia they represent has no place in acceptable public discourse. Just as it was absolutely unacceptable for the mayor of East Haven to make offensive statements against Hispanics, so too should we be outraged about inflammatory comments against Muslims.
While Islamophobia is frightening for so many reasons, Yalies have a chance to make their mark in stemming the growth of intolerance. Educating ourselves is an important first step in eradicating this hateful mindset and progressing to a more respectful public discourse.
Mostafa Al-Alusi and Faisal Hamid are juniors in Morse and Trumbull Colleges. They are the president and vice president of the Muslim Students Association.