Islamophobia: We Have More to Fear than Fear Itself

Stan Guthrie | Contributing Writer | Friday, September 17, 2010

Islamophobia: We Have More to Fear than Fear Itself

September 17, 2010

In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR famously comforted America with the soothing words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Of course, he was wrong. Still to come were Pearl Harbor and Hitler, not to mention economic suffering that would drag on for the better (or worse) part of a decade.

Today, amid what is being called the Great Recession, FDR's heirs are singing a similar tune about Islam, the self-proclaimed "religion of peace." A chorus of commentators, responding to a publicity-seeking pastor of a microscopic church in Florida who threatened to burn the Qur'an, says we have nothing to fear from Muslims, radical or otherwise, but only from our reaction to them. 

In other words, we need only fear our fear. Time magazine rhetorically asks on its latest cover, "Is America Islamophobic?" To ask the question is to invite the unquestioned answer: Yes. Meanwhile, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have just condemned what they have labeled a growing "anti-Muslim frenzy" in the country. 

"There are those today who want to make Islam the new Evil Empire," says evangelical gadfly Rich Cizik, hearkening back to Ronald Reagan's essentially correct characterization of the Soviet Union. "To those who would exercise derision, bigotry, open rejection of our fellow Americans of a different faith, I say, shame on you." 

Quoting Cizik, this "anti-Muslim frenzy" consists of "derision, bigotry, [and] open rejection." Does this really sound like a frenzy, or constitutionally protected freedom of speech and association? It's bad form, perhaps, but hardly dangerous in itself. 

At the same time, Muslims in venues such as Afghanistan protesting the Qur'an burning that wasn't do more than express their ill manners. They kill. And yet we hear nothing of "anti-Christian frenzies." Why is that? Is it because we know, deep down, that we have much more to fear than simply fear itself? 

Actually, the defenders of Islam nuance their assurances a bit. We in this country have nothing to fear—if we go along and keep our mouths shut. 

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who insists on building his mosque and community center near Ground Zero despite the vociferous objections of two-thirds of the country, says that had he known the furor he would cause, he might not have chosen that particular site. But he fears what angry Islamists worldwide might do now if he moves Cordoba House. So he must insist that it stays put. 

Of course, Rauf says Muslim extremists aren't the only, or even the main, problem. The struggle "is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between moderates of all the faith traditions and the radicals of all the faith traditions." In other words, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist "radicals" bear just as much responsibility for the current tensions as the Fort Hood shooter, who shouted "Allahu Akbar!" while slaughtering 13 defenseless soldiers and wounding 30 more. 

And what has been America's response to Islam in its midst and to the deadly provocations of a minority of Muslim extremists? Are we experiencing an upsurge in hate crimes sparked by what one commentator calls a "current wave of anti-Muslim demagoguery"? 

According to the FBI, a total of 1,732 hate crimes based on religious bigotry were committed in 2008 (the latest year for which statistics are available). These occurred in a country of 300 million people, for a smidge over five a day. Two-thirds of these acts targeted … Jews. (Perhaps we are facing an "anti-Jewish frenzy"?) 

Another 8.4 percent were against Christians. The share against Muslims: just 7.7 percent. While any hate crime (as well as any crime) is reprehensible, given the fact that most of the world's terrorists—including those who perpetrated 9/11—claim to follow Allah, that is a remarkably small number. 

Gallup, for its part, noted in January that 43 percent of Americans admit to at least "a little" prejudice against Muslims, most of whom are peaceful. Fifty-three percent, meanwhile, say they have an unfavorable view of Islam, making it the most negatively viewed religion in the country. Aha, confirmation of Cizik's growing "frenzy"! 

Yet Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says there is little evidence of worsening attitudes: "I just could not make a case that in general U.S. public opinion has either hardened or softened" toward Muslims. 

The alarmists, however, say the mosque and Qur'an-burning controversies have made all this worse, and they present anecdotes purportedly showing an upsurge in hatred. In a debate with me on ABC's Nightline Twittercast, Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations listed several incidents and blamed elements such as the Tea Party for anti-Muslim hysteria. Silly me, I thought the Tea Party was focused on out-of-control government spending. 

It's true that a few sad, benighted souls around the country have (anonymously) burned the Muslim holy book, and one New York cabbie was reportedly attacked by an unbalanced fare, but these kinds of incidents have, thank God, been few and far between. One alarmist, apparently running out of examples, recounted breathlessly that "right here in Queens, a drunken man recently barged into a mosque, raised his middle finger and urinated on prayer rugs." Excuse me, but isn't that what drunks usually do? 

Can you imagine the response of the alarmists if the gun-toting fanatic at the Discovery Channel offices had been protesting Islam instead of an alleged lack of environmental sensitivity? We're all against demagoguery and hate crimes, but there has to be a middle ground between an "anti-Muslim frenzy" and abject silence. We cannot hand over our First Amendment right to speak up about the problems of Islam, pretending that all faiths are essentially the same. They aren't. As Stephen Prothero notes in his new book, God Is Not One, "One reason we are willing to follow our fantasies down the rabbit hole of religious unity is that we have become uncomfortable with argument." Argument is not a crime, at least not in America. 

But Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer says burning a Qur'an is akin to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater because of the mayhem this vile act might spark and so might not be constitutionally protected. Whether or not his analysis is correct, these ugly acts indeed ought to be condemned. But shouldn't we also condemn the ugly acts of Muslims that have poured gasoline on the smoldering fire of anti-Muslim resentment? 

And why is it that we reserve so little of our righteous indignation for the far more deadly treatment of Christians, Jews, and dissenting Muslims by Islamic regimes worldwide? The latest World Watch List of Open Doors, for example, reports that eight of the 10 worst—and at least 37 of the top 50—persecuting countries against Christians are run not by "radicals of all the faith traditions," but by Muslims. This is despite the fact that the "religion of peace" accounts for only about one-sixth of the global population. 

Though no religion has an unblemished record, all religions are not alike. Unreformed, Islam is an aggressive, totalitarian system that seeks to control all of life. And it's not anti-Muslim bigotry to say so. 

Islam's victims have a right to be afraid. So do the rest of us. 

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of the forthcoming All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books, November 2010). Stan blogs at