I’ll never forget when Ranya, Priscilla and I were speaking about our book to a small group of businesspeople in Oklahoma City, and during the book-signing portion a man leaned over our table and said to Ranya, “Your people killed our people.” Taken aback, Ranya said, “My people? Your people are my people, too. I am an American.” The man couldn’t see it that way and implicated Ranya and all Muslims in the 9/11 attacks. He was quickly shepherded away by the event’s organizers, but his stinging words left a lasting impression.
The prejudice that enraged that Oklahoma businessman now radiates from the Oval Office where our president is advised by Steve Bannon, a man who, according to the New York Times, has said that “Islam is not a religion of peace,” and that “the Judeo-Christian West” is at war with Islam. Bannon has hosted notorious Islamophobes Pamela Geller, who led the movement against the construction of a mosque near the World Trade Center site, and Robert Spencer on his radio program. The danger of their narrow, conspiratorial view is already present in the travel and refugee ban that Donald Trump instituted by executive order and that is being contested in U.S. courts.
Ranya anticipated this backlash against Islam and Muslims after 9/11 and attempted to get out in front of it with our work on The Faith Club and her book Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie. While I know that The Faith Club was read by a group of spouses in the George W. Bush administration, I doubt whether Trump, Bannon or Flynn has cracked its cover. If anyone was ever in need of a Faith Club, it is those three. And a Faith Club limited to conservative Christians doesn’t count.
The prejudice that Trump’s words are stoking is dangerous in so many ways. From inciting the increase in hate crimes documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to providing evidence for ISIS recruiters that the U.S. is at war with Islam, to the insidious delegitimization of Muslim Americans. Want to hear an American speak about the pain of being the target of prejudice? Watch the 1965 James Baldwin-William F. Buckley, Jr. Cambridge debate on the question “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” It seems to me that you could substitute Negro for Muslim and re-stage this debate today.
The similarities between the 1960s opposition to racial integration and today’s opposition to Muslim immigration abound. You will easily recognize them in the new documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Both anti-integration movements painted their opponents (African-Americans and Muslims) as un-American. African-Americans were labelled communists. Muslims are labelled terrorists. Fortunately, there are many Americans who see beyond those labels, and we are calling, writing, protesting and protecting our fellow Muslim Americans. Just look at this image from the Texas Muslim Capitol Day when non-Muslims gathered arm in arm in a broad circle of support around their fellow Muslim citizens. I am reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, words, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” King’s optimistic words assume that people will show up and pull on that arc. Let’s make it happen.