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Sep
04

Is today’s Islamophobia part of America’s history of fear?

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof yet again sheds an interesting perspective on the today’s hysteria about Islam. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/opinion/05kristof.html?_r=1&src=ISMR_HP_LO_MST_FB

Historically, unreal suspicions were sometimes rooted in genuine and significant differences. Many new Catholic immigrants lacked experience in democracy. Mormons were engaged in polygamy. And today some extremist Muslims do plot to blow up planes, and Islam has real problems to work out about the rights of women. The pattern has been for demagogues to take real abuses and exaggerate them, portraying, for example, the most venal wing of the Catholic Church as representative of all Catholicism — just as fundamentalist Wahabis today are caricatured as more representative of Islam than the incomparably more numerous moderate Muslims of Indonesia (who have elected a woman as president before Americans have). Similar suspicions have targeted just about every other kind of immigrant. During World War I, rumors spread that German-Americans were poisoning food, and Theodore Roosevelt warned that “Germanized socialists” were “more mischievous than bubonic plague.” Anti-Semitic screeds regularly warned that Jews were plotting to destroy the United States in one way or another. A 1940 survey found that 17 percent of Americans considered Jews to be a “menace to America.” All that is part of America’s heritage, and typically as each group has assimilated, it has participated in the torment of newer arrivals — as in Father Charles Coughlin’s ferociously anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Today’s recrudescence is the lies about President Obama’s faith, and the fear-mongering about the proposed Islamic center.

But we have a more glorious tradition intertwined in American history as well, one of tolerance, amity and religious freedom. Each time, this has ultimately prevailed over the Know Nothing impulse.  Americans have called on moderates in Muslim countries to speak out against extremists, to stand up for the tolerance they say they believe in. We should all have the guts do the same at home.