Prejudice: So what if he is a Muslim?

Now about that WMD thing…

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Democratic Presidential nominee Sen. Obama is certainly big news. In endorsing Obama, Powell did not hide his respect for Sen. McCain. But he underscored two very important points – the narrowing of the Republican agenda and the questionable selection of Sarah Palin.

A particular point of Powell’s interview on Meet the Press caught my attention:

“I am also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is – what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.”

On the ballot this election is not just the selection of the 43rd president but also a referendum on the future of American politics. Will we continue to look the other way as minorities like Muslims or Hispanics become cannon fodder to score cheap political points? Or will Americans finally transcend their fears and say enough is enough.

As a nation, we are at a crossroad. One path is laden with fear and paranoia. The other path is sober and pragmatic. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11 “fear” was the primary motivator behind U.S. policies. While not rational or defensible, this is at least understandable. But nearly seven years later the fact that our policies and politics continue to be driven by fear ought to be our collective concern.

Policies and politics driven by fear will be naturally irrational. To sustain such counterproductive policies, politicians resort to fear mongering, thus unleashing a vicious cycle. One in which “fear” leads to bad policies and bad policies lead to more “fear.”

There are many victims of this vicious cycle, the foremost of whom are our soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that is ill-defined and a goal that is ever elusive. Domestically, it is the American Muslim and Arab community that have been one of the groups bearing the primary brunt of our fear-driven politics.

Muslims and their faith Islam are misunderstood, feared and shunned. A USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that 4 in 10 Americans admit having some prejudice against Muslims. A country as diverse as America and one that stands on the principles of liberty and justice can ill afford to remain entrenched in such paranoia.

Despite the fact that the American Muslims have to live with the consequences of such pervasive prejudice, the community shows remarkable optimism. A recent poll by the Pew Center concludes that that American Muslims are mostly mainstream and decidedly American in their outlook, values, and attitudes. American Muslims have a positive view towards the larger society and overwhelmingly reject extremism in all its forms.

At some level, I share the pessimism in John Mueller’s book “Overblown” that, despite the low odds of terrorists succeeding, politicians will be inclined to sanctimoniously to play to those fears, bureaucrats will stoke the same fears, entrepreneurs will work very hard to milk it, and the press will continue to make sure that what bleeds leads. Yet I am more persuaded by a sense of optimism and hope.

Because the power to change this situation is in the hands of those who choose not to accept the status quo. It is my hope that this election we will finally transcend the politics of fear and forever change the direction of our country. However, if ordinary Americans continue to be mired in stereotypical assumptions about Islam and Muslims, then my fear is that even the audacity of hope will not be able to transcend the politics of fear.

The challenge for the next President will be to develop global alliances that will focus on terminating those political conflicts that spawn terrorism. This alliance is only possible when American foreign policy changes course to reflect America’s values of liberty and justice for all, not some.

A recent study sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that a well-integrated and empowered Muslim population would far better serve the United States than a population that feels marginalized and harassed. More than ever before, our nation needs the voices of American Muslims to navigate the critical policy challenges both here and abroad.

If we were to do this, American will not only be safer, it will be freer. America will be more respected for its moral convictions than feared for its military might. We will once again (in the words of former President Clinton) lead by the power of our examples not the examples of our power.

Parvez Ahmed is associate professor at the University of North Florida. He can be reached at pahmed@unf.edu.


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