Sunday, January 6, 2013

Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and freedom of speech

Printed in The Toledo Blade January 6, 2012

Watching Randy Linn in court last month was unsettling. He pleaded guilty to defacing religious property, using fire to commit a felony, and carrying a firearm as he walked through the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo last Sept. 30. He accepted a binding plea agreement of 20 years in prison, without appeal or parole, for the arson.

His diatribe at the hearing was worse. He cited news media, especially Fox News, for inspiring his desire to avenge U.S. military deaths. He conceded he knew nothing about Muslims or Islam, other than that Muslims did not believe in Jesus Christ as savior.

America’s Constitution promises justice, liberty, and protection of citizens. Yet a wave of Islamophobia, reflected in incidents such as the Islamic Center arson, suggests that we are more intent on protecting freedom of speech than Americans’ lives and property.

In 2004, when he signed the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, President George W. Bush said that “extending freedom also means disrupting the evil of anti-Semitism.” The law requires a specific federal agency to document acts of physical violence against Jews, their property, their cemeteries, and their places of worship. It also mandates monitoring of anti-Jewish propaganda and promotion of unbiased school curricula.

There is no similar law to respond to this country’s ferocious and well-funded Islamophobia industry, which relentlessly whips up anti-Muslim sentiment that can inspire disturbed people to destroy property, maim, and even kill.

Just weeks before the Islamic Center arson, the Muslim Public Affairs Council released a report on 25 supposed experts on Islam, who are frequently quoted by news media. The report concluded that just one of the 25 “experts,” Daniel Pipes, has had any kind of education about Islam.

Two so-called academic experts, Pamela Geller and Brigitte Gabriel, do not have college degrees, the report said. Yet not only do these pseudo-experts get frequent attention from mainstream media, some of them also train law enforcement officers and testify about their hate-filled agendas before Congress.

Several of these so-called experts were cited by Anders Breivik, who in July, 2012, planted a bomb in an Oslo government building that killed eight people, then went on a shooting spree that killed 68 people, mostly teenagers. Breivik subsequently told a Norwegian court that violence was necessary to save Europe from Marxism and “Muslimization.” In his manifesto, he repeatedly quoted anti-Muslim propagandists Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Walid Shoebat.

Marc Sageman, a terrorism consultant and former CIA officer, notes that just as religious extremism “is the infrastructure from which al-Qaeda emerged,” the writings of anti-Muslim misinformation experts are “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.” Their rhetoric, he adds, “is not cost-free.”

At the opening last November of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., which survived arson and zoning protests, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez asserted: “Without question, we are seeing real challenges to the civil rights of Muslim Americans, including arsons of mosques, assaults, and other hate crimes. We have a steady diet of these cases.”

Mr. Perez expressed deep concern about harassment of Muslim, Sikh, Arab, and South Asian students in schools. “I have often said that today’s bully is tomorrow’s hate crime defendant,” he said. “So we are vigilant to ensure that schools are taking bullying seriously, and are held accountable when they do not.”

He added: “We are doing everything in our power to stop this blight on our nation.” It is comforting to know that the Justice Department recognizes Islamophobia as “blight.”

The Islamophobia industry helped push Anders Breivik to commit a massacre. Fox News helped incite Randy Linn to burn our mosque. Muslims, mosques, and Islamic schools are attacked every week.

There is a federal law against anti-Semitism. But if I call for a similar law against Islamophobia, I am told that protecting freedom of speech is more important.

Hate speech is turning into hate crime. It starts with words, but it ends with mosque burnings — or deaths.

Dr. Mahjabeen Islam is past president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.