After Tahrir: Protecting US Muslims from Bigotry

Of all the images to come out of the North African uprisings, this is the one that consistently makes me tear up.

These are Coptic Christians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, holding hands around Muslims during Friday prayer, to protect them from surprise attack.

We could do this. We could do this here, in the United States, to keep our Muslim citizens safe. All of us, Christians and Jews and atheists, anyone committed to the First Amendment, to the idea that religious freedom is essential to American society, could join hands to protect Muslims living here from rising prejudice.

The people of the United States are capable of visiting horrors on those we decide aren’t really like “us” enough to count: Blacks owned, women silenced, Jews segregated, gays repressed, Japanese interned, the catalog of American hate and fear runs to many pages.

And now it’s happening again, with political fear-mongering around the Park51 Islamic community center in New York and Rep. Peter King’s recent grandstanding on radicalization in the American Muslim community fueling a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ attitude towards Muslim citizens and organizations. We should certainly worry about murderous homegrown radicals, but that’s because murderous radicals are dangerous, not because they are religious; David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, and David Brian Stone were all homegrown and all evil, but none of them were Muslim.

I don’t know how bad this kind of prejudice will get, but it will get worse than today. To counter this threat, we have to integrate the Muslim experience into the American experience, just as the Protestants came to shed anti-Catholic prejudice, and the Christians anti-Jewish prejudice. As imperfect as those expansions have been, even today, the United States is a better place for having widened our sense of who constitutes “us,” of having engaged in what Richard Rorty called justice as larger loyalty.

I don’t know how to do this, how to keep people safe from the bigots who want the very fact of Muslim faith or heritage to generate suspicion and oppression. I do know some ways to start. We can respond to prejudice when we hear it; the thing that woke me up was hearing one of my cousins argue that a mosque in lower Manhattan was an affront to American identity, as if Muslim citizens were inherently less American than Christian ones.

We can care about how Muslims are treated, here and abroad. Democratic governments respond to public preferences; bigotry thrives on the silence of those of us who support freedom of religion, but not out loud. (Hence this post.) Democratic governments also respond to voters; it’s a safe bet that the organizations helping register Muslim-American voters in 2008 will do so again in 2012, and they need our help.

We can donate. I’ve given money to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and to Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad (ijtihad meaning, roughly, independent reasoning.) These are of course political choices — Project Ijtihad is explicitly progressive and feminist — and your politics may run more to What Unites Us, an organization set up to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, to the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association, or any number of local or interfaith organizations opposed to religious bigotry.

Perhaps most importantly, we can tell people we’ve donated or participated. It will be better to donate $5 to a group combatting anti-Muslim prejudice and then announce it on Facebook or Twitter, than to give $500 quietly. (I’m using #AfterTahrir.)

As President Bush said at the Islamic Center of Washington

Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

Bush was right. America’s finest hours have always been integrative and our most shameful ones prejudiced. Now, again, we have to pick, and we have an opportunity to learn from the protesters in Tahrir what political courage looks like.

14 Responses to “After Tahrir: Protecting US Muslims from Bigotry”

  1. helloaphy Says:

    Thanks for the post Clay,
    Thought u might be interested in this http://www.worththeask.com/2011/02/sectarian/ it’s a blog post written by the woman who took the photo in tahrir square. You may enjoy her words as well as her yfrog pic.
    Thanks again for your writing

  2. Charlie Says:

    Clay,

    I noted with concern after 9/11 the number of hate crimes aimed at Arab-Americans. The most heart-rending was the killing of a Coptic Christian storekeeper in southern California. Neighbors say the gentleman spoke Spanish as well as English and earned a living with a small convenience store. The painful irony that the Egyptian-American wasn’t even Muslim, which one would assume was the reason for the hate crime.

    But it isn’t just hate crimes. Most of my friends feel the conflict of their hyphenated status. A Hungarian-American, Syrian-Italian-American, a Polish American and of course, a “Persian-American” friend all try to keep their ethnic origins out of public conversations. They all live with the idea that if people knew who they really were, people would act differently toward them.

    I remember a taxi driver in San Diego, who said he immigrated from Europe when I asked him where he was from. His accent sounded familiar to me, like an old friend’s. Of course, he was from “east” Europe, which in the 21st century, seems like an absurd distinction, but he still feels uncomfortable telling me where he’s from.

    It really shouldn’t be like that. Thanks for your post.

    http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2002/spring/the-forgotten?page=0,3

  3. Adam Says:

    Hi Clay,

    I really appreciate your perspective. It’s mindblowing to me that so much hatred and ignorance can persist in 2011! I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the best way to promote open mindedness and inclusion (I’ve recently decided that, to me, tolerance, which should be the absolute baseline should not be what we’re striving towards)

    I think that JR’s work and his TED Prize WIsh is one thing that has done a lot to help groups of people see “others” in a different light. I’m attempting to do this as well with an organization I founded called Tagai (www.tagainyc.org)

    I’m also based in NY and would relish the opportunity to discuss this with you further.

  4. Proud of America Says:

    “We could do this. We could do this here, in the United States, to keep our Muslim citizens safe.”

    Really? You’re campaigning to keep Muslims safe…in the U.S.?

    Despite horrific attacks on our country by terrorists who were Muslim, to my knowledge there has not been a single documented death of a Muslim on U.S. soil in retaliation. Not one. You would think that one loon would have shown up in the last 10 years.

    In fact, the only attacks on U.S. soil since 9-11 were actually perpetrated by Muslims against their own citizens (e.g. Nidal Hasan, who was free to do his dirty work due to political correctness). So I think U.S. citizens have proven to an incredible degree to be tolerant and discerning regarding who is deserving of our wrath.

    Of course there is bigotry in the world (and that includes the U.S.). Of course there is. Welcome to the Earth where people don’t always like each other – and often for ridiculous reasons. I’m not defending bigotry. It sucks. But don’t single out the U.S. and its reception of the Muslim population in general like there’s a big problem here.

    I appreciate the thrust of your message – we should use our influence to fight the ignorance that leads to bigotry – but spare me your patronizing rant. We’ve had our problems as a country, but we have carried the cause of freedom in the world unlike any people in the history of the world.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Excellent article, but I would have left out the Bush bit. He started the war in Iraq that has killed over 100,000 muslims…that is a pretty poor record and you really don’t want to be quoting him in this sort of article.

  6. Ian Says:

    When the time comes that Muslims fear for their lives, perhaps Americans will surprise you. Only the loudest squawkers and most obnoxious pundits get any press, Mr. Shirky. Don’t write us off yet.

  7. Coptic Christians Protecting Muslims During Friday prayer « Fast Aperture Says:

    [...] Coptic Christians Protecting Muslims During Friday prayer By rbucich via shirky.com [...]

  8. Nancy Campbell Allen Says:

    Love this post, and the photo is amazing. Thank you so much!

  9. Marcio Says:

    Thanks Clay for keeping these ideas in the public consciousness. As an immigrant to America, recent MIT PhD and company founder I can say with conviction that voices like yours are what have made America so great. In spite of the flaws you mentioned, the arc of history here does bend towards justice.

    Marcio

    ps: loving Cognitive Surplus, which is inspiring my current project

  10. Rich Says:

    I read this on my RSS feed as I just passed one of the London bomb locations in 2005 – at Tavistock Square.

    Really appreciate your post, that photo.

    I fear there’s a tough battle ahead.

    I filter who and what I read but so does a bigot. The Daily Me affect can be polarizing, but how can you mitigate when choice isn’t readily available? I’m a Caucasian Christian-ish Brit and have access to Al Jazeera English. I note this isn’t regularly available Stateside.

  11. Jack C Says:

    A well put and gallant call for support!

    It is odd thing, what passes as socially acceptable bigotry in the U.S. (e.g., Gays, Muslims, etc.). One hopes that we are in fact moving more in the direction of defining “self” based more on internal factors and less based on contrasting with a perceived “other.”

  12. victoria thorne Says:

    thank you for this image of courage and your words of peace

  13. Rafat Ali Says:

    Thanks Clay, this was a much needed post. The digi-tech community, usually very progressive on social issues, has been silent on this for too long. Heartened someone of your stature is talking about this.

  14. Matt Says:

    Thanks for the post Clay,
    Thought u might be interested in this http://www.worththeask.com/2011/02/sectarian/ it’s a blog post written by the woman who took the photo in tahrir square. You may enjoy her words as well as her yfrog pic.
    Thanks again for your writing

Comments are closed.