Note: Written for the Orange Peel, Pitzer College’s newspaper on 5/21/2011.
Islamophobia in Yorba Linda
Pitzer students were rightfully distraught after viewing a video sent out on Student Talk of protestors verbally attacking Muslim families attending a fundraising dinner in Yorba Linda, California for ICNA Relief, a Muslim social services organization. The demonstrators chanted for the families to “go back home” and screamed, “we don’t want you here.” They labeled the families “terrorists” and asserted that the men beat and molest their wives. While some protestors showed up to specifically protest against Siraj Wahhaj and Amir Abdel Malik Ali*, two controversial Imams whom ICNA Relief invited to speak at the event, the demonstrators’ words captured in this footage were clearly aimed at all Muslim-Americans. This event illustrates the growing trend of “Islamophobia,” or the prejudice, fear, and hate of Islam and Muslims in our country. In this article I will deconstruct this event and connect it to this broader trend.
The fundraising dinner on February 13th, hosted by the Southern California branch of ICNA Relief at a Yorba Linda facility, was meant to raise funds for local social justice projects such as women’s housing, hunger prevention, and funeral and burial assistance. According to the event’s poster, the Imams Wahhaj and Ali were to speak about “our responsibility towards our neighbors-an Islamic perspective.” As stated earlier, the demonstrators in this video do not just have a problem with these two speakers; they have a problem with the entire religion of Islam and the fact that there are Muslims in America. Protestors came from as far away as Corona and the San Fernando Valley, and members from ACT! For America, an “Islamofacism” awareness organization, The California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), and a local Tea Party group, were represented in the crowd. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group which tracks both far-left and far-right hate groups, lists the CCIR as an anti-immigration hate group. Also in attendance was Pamela Geller, author of the blog “Atlas Shrugs” and co-creator of the organization Stop Islamization of America (SIOA).
The SPLC lists Geller as a “hate-monger” and SIOA as a hate group. Geller believes Obama is a Muslim born outside of the United States and claims Supreme Court Justice Kagan, who is Jewish, supports Nazi ideology. Geller appeared alongside former Speaker of the House Newt Gringrich, and Dutch politician and Islamaphobe Geert Wilders at a rally against the building of the Cordoba House, or Park 51, an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. In the Netherlands, Wilders wishes to ban the Koran, instill a tax on women who wear a hijab, and end all Muslim immigration to his country.
An examination of the hateful words of the protestors reveals classic xenophobic rhetoric as well as factual errors. At different points in American history, Jewish, Catholic, and Asian immigrants would have heard groups of Americans chanting at them to “go back home” and expressing that same “we don’t want you here” message. This rhetoric can also be heard today at rallies against both documented and undocumented immigrants from Mexico. When protestors yell, “go back home” at Muslim-Americans, they are implying that they do not believe Islam has a place in America and therefore Muslim-Americans should return to the country of their ancestors. Who are these protestors, mostly whom are descendants of Europeans, to tell Muslim-Americans to return “home”, when their own religion and ancestors are not native to the Americas? Who gets to decide what is “American” and what isn’t? Finally, when protestors label the attendees as “terrorists” and wife beaters, they are flawed in correlating practicing Islam with supporting terrorism, being a terrorist, or supporting or engaging in domestic violence. They also fail to realize that domestic violence is a problem effecting American women and families from all backgrounds.
The greater debate about Islam is America is often hateful, hypocritical, and one-sided. To understand the growth and scope of hate and fear against Islam, one must be aware that virtually every time a new mosque, or an expansion to an existing mosque, is proposed in the United States, there are protests (A notable example is the opposition to an expansion of the Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamic Center). An example of hypocrisy is the fact that several Fox News anchors criticized Imam Faisal Rauf, the Imam planning Park 51, for the fact that one of his foundations (but not Park 51) is partly funded by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. However, these anchors failed to point out that bin Talal is personal friends with Rupert Murdoch and that his Kingdom Holding Company is the second largest owner of News Corp’s, Fox’s parent company. Lastly, Americans must question why there isn’t more mainstream coverage about the work of progressive Muslims such as NYU chaplain Imam Khalid Latif, feminist Amina Wadud, and Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.
Yes, there are radical Muslims and Imams in the United States, just like there are radical leaders and followers of all religions. The government and media will denounce acts of extremism based on any faith. However, it is only the Islamic religion that is treated as “guilty before proven innocent.” That is, Muslim people and organizations must prove themselves moderate and are preemptively investigated by talk shows and organizations for personal and financial ties to terror. A liberal student once told me that he is weary of Muslim Americans until they prove to him that they are moderate.
The best way for individuals to combat any fears or misunderstandings about Islam or Muslim Americans is to talk to and learn about American Muslims. Read articles or talk to a Muslim friend about what the hijab represents to her and why she chooses to wear it. Attend an interfaith event or listen to lectures posted online by Imam Latif. Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are cast on the wrong side of history. Islamophobia will be too. What side of history do you want to be on?
Siraj Wahhaj is sometimes viewed as controversial because he was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. On the other hand, he attended a Ramadan dinner hosted by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, was the first Muslim to give an invocation (opening prayer) at the United States House of Representatives, and has been heavily involved with anti-drug activism.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group which tracks both far-left and far-right hate groups, and which understands that critiquing Israel or Zionism does not make one an Anti-Semite, lists Amir Abdel Malik Ali as a someone who crosses “the line into denigration of Jews as a group.”