Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The GOP And Me.

(WARNING: This post has nothing to do with baseball. On Election Day, I have decided to grab on to both third rails - religion AND politics - at the same time. If you don't want to read any further, you have my permission to click away now. I have no intention of revisiting these subjects any time soon, and maybe ever. But if you come here with an open mind, I'd be honored if you read this column. Just be warned - it's a long one. No, I mean, REALLY long. Pack a picnic basket for this one.)

Almost before I knew that I was an American, and almost before I knew that I was a Muslim, I knew that I was a Republican. I knew this because my father told me so. My father finished his cardiology fellowship just weeks after I was born, and moved the family from Michigan, where we had relatives and a large Muslim community, to Wichita, Kansas.

Kansas, then as now, was a Republican state, and those political sensibilities suited my dad just fine. These were the 1970s, when the income tax rate on the highest earners was 70%, a rate that people of all political persuasions would agree today can only be described as confiscatory. My dad had just left behind Syria, where the government had literally confiscated his family’s wealth, and he would be damned if he was going to let the American government take more than two-thirds of his marginal income.

So a political party whose platform rested on tax cuts and placed small business owners on a pedestal – well, they didn’t have to ask my father twice. The early years in Wichita were the Jimmy Carter years, and while my parents admired Carter and what he accomplished with the Camp David accords – bringing the first measure of peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict – they were swept up by the Reagan Revolution.

Government is not a solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

My parents had settled in America to get away from an authoritarian regime in their homeland, and here came a man running for President on the platform that the best way to govern was to leave the public alone. All my parents wanted was to be left alone, to work and raise their children and own a house with a finished basement and a white picket fence. My dad, who had just obtained his American citizenship in 1978, became a reliable supporter of the Republican Party, both with his ballot and occasionally with his checkbook. He wasn’t alone. Most immigrant Muslims to America – once they obtained their citizenship – joined the Reagan Revolution.

Most of the men who had come to America were self-made men, men who had only made it to America by dint of hard work. Many, like my dad, were doctors who had to outperform millions of their classmates on high school exams to get into medical school in their home countries, and saw a career in medicine as their ticket to America. Others had come to America to attend college, braving a new land and a new culture and a new language in order to forge a career as an engineer or an architect or some other credentialed profession. And others had come to America with little formal education and no intent to further it, but with the entrepreneurial spirit needed to buy and sell and trade their way to the top. They opened grocery stores and drove taxicabs and manned gas stations to forge a living for themselves and their families, and to send money to their relatives back home.

It was hard work and it involved long hours. The Muslims who immigrated to America in the 1970s, like the ones who immigrate to America today, were not lazy. Lazy people don’t leave their homeland 5,000 miles behind to move to a foreign country where they speak a foreign language. For these Muslims, the Republican message of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, the exaltation of small business owners, the emphasis on cutting taxes to encourage industriousness, was catnip. So too was the vilification of people sucking from the public teat and asking for handouts. There were no Muslim welfare queens, and Muslims joined the Republican stampede against them.

The immigrant Muslim community remained a reliable pillar of support for the Republican Party throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as the party underwent a gradual but very significant change. Ronald Reagan’s platform when he ran for president in 1980 was largely an economic one; social issues were only an ancillary part of his message. Twenty years later, when George W. Bush ran for president, his platform revolved around social issues: his pro-life and anti-gay marriage positions were front and center. His platform reflected the massive influence that Christian organizations had had on the Republican Party over the previous two decades, intertwining Christian religious beliefs with politics, and co-opting the Republican message on issues of great concern to devout Christians.

Believe it or not, Muslim support for the Republican Party did not waver in the face of its gradual Christianization. On the contrary, Muslims saw common ground with Christians on most social issues. While the topic of abortion is not nearly as cut-and-dried for Muslims as it is for many Christians, the Muslim community certainly agreed with the goal of limiting them as much as possible – and more to the point, in limiting unwanted pregnancies in the first place by stigmatizing casual sexual encounters. Muslims shared with their Christian neighbors their belief in the sanctity of the nuclear family, and their belief that a household headed by a married mother and father was the best household in which to raise children.

By 2000, the Muslim community in America was several decades old, and had started to mature as a political entity. Muslim organizations almost unanimously endorsed George W. Bush. I voted for Bush that year. I would have voted for Bob Dole in 1996 if I weren’t so busy with medical school that I forgot to vote; I would have voted for Bush Sr. in 1992 if I weren’t still 17 years old.

In the 2000 election, approximately 70% of Muslims in America voted for Bush; among non-African-American Muslims, the ratio was over 80%.

Four years later, Bush’s share of the vote among Muslims was 4%.

What happened? Well, a lot.

It would be easy to say everything changed on 9/11 – because everything did change on 9/11. But 9/11 was a chance for America to show off the better angels of its nature, and as a nation, by and large, we did. A week after the World Trade Center came crashing down, President Bush spoke before both houses of Congress in one of the defining moments of his presidency. He did not disappoint, and while he outlined the need to attack Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was scrupulous not to point the finger at Muslims in general. “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics, a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam,” he said. And later, “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

In the chaos and hysteria that accompanied the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush’s speech was deeply reassuring to American Muslims that whatever the fallout of the attacks would be on our community, the federal government was on our side.

But words were not followed with actions. Quite the contrary; a month later, when the PATRIOT Act was signed into law, Muslims were taken aback by the far-reaching implications. Citizens could have their phones or computers tapped with neither their knowledge nor any recourse. Muslims in Indiana found themselves on the No-Fly List because they had the misfortune of sharing the same name with a terrorist suspect in India - and there was essentially no way to clear their name from the list. Thousands of Muslims, many of whom had lived and worked in America for decades, were arrested on flimsy immigration violations and deported back to their countries of birth.

An illustrative example: In May, 2004, a gentleman named Brandon Mayfield, who was an attorney living in Oregon, was arrested on suspicion that he had been involved in a terrorist attack that occurred in Spain that March. It was, on the surface, an absurd accusation – apparently his fingerprint had turned up at the crime scene. Mayfield had never been to Spain; he hadn’t traveled outside of America in over a decade. But he was arrested and held without charges for over two weeks. Mayfield would later learn that prior to his arrest, the FBI had covertly searched his house, wiretapped his phones, and bugged several rooms in his home.

After two weeks, Mayfield was released, after the Spanish authorities insisted that Mayfield’s fingerprint was not a perfect match, and in fact that they had matched the fingerprint found at the scene to an Algerian national. Actually, the Spanish authorities informed the FBI of the mismatch before Mayfield was ever arrested; the government withheld this information from Mayfield’s lawyers. He was released only after the European press broke the story that Mayfield’s fingerprint had been cleared weeks earlier.

Mayfield sued the government, and won a judgment of $2 million, along with a formal apology. The District Court Judge who presided over the case, Ann Aiken, stated in her decision that the evidence that Mayfield’s fingerprint was a perfect match to the one found at the crime scene was “fabricated and concocted by the FBI and DOJ.” Aiken also ruled that two provisions in the PATRIOT Act were unconstitutional, as they violated the Fourth Amendment. The government appealed this ruling, and these provisions were restored in December, 2009.

Why was this troubling to the Muslim community? Because in the 1980s, Brandon Mayfield had converted to Islam. What's that, Paul Harvey? “And now you know…”

Individually, each of these incidents was upsetting but tolerable. But they were part of a pattern; while officially the Bush Administration was careful to say that the American Muslim community was not under suspicion, their actions spoke otherwise. Most egregious was the way the government handled the case of the Holy Land Foundation.

The Holy Land Foundation was a charity founded in the late 1980s, ostensibly to provide humanitarian relief to the people of the Palestinian territories. In December, 2001, the federal government formally accused the Foundation of siphoning some of their funds to support Hamas, which had been designated a terrorist group by the United States in 1993. While some thought this was a witch hunt against a pro-Palestinian organization, most Muslims - myself included - were mortified that a respected charity had deceived the American Muslim community as to where their donations were going. The case finally proceeded to trial in 2007, and every count against the Foundation ended in either acquittal or a mistrial, in what the New York Times called “a stunning setback for the government.” Undaunted, the Feds pursued a retrial the following year and obtained convictions on many counts.

But it’s not the way the Bush administration handled the Holy Land Foundation that rankled the Muslim community. It’s the way they smeared virtually every Muslim organization in America in the process. As part of the indictment against the Holy Land Foundation, the government submitted a list of “unindicted co-conspirators”. This was a list of individuals and organizations who the government had not a shred of evidence implicating them in supporting terrorism, but decided to smear them with the accusation anyway.

It’s hard to overstate just how distraught and disappointed this made the Muslim community. The list of “unindicted co-conspirators” ran over 300 members long, and included the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the largest umbrella organization of Muslims in America; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the premier civil-rights organization working for Muslims; and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), which as holder of the deed of hundreds of mosques, is the largest Muslim endowment in America. Basically, if you were a Muslim organization and weren’t on the list, you probably weren’t that important.

Now try to parse the term “unindicted co-conspirator”. The layman sees the word “conspirator” and naturally assumes these people were guilty of something – and if it was a conspiracy, well, it must be something awfully sinister. But the key word is “unindicted”. These people weren’t arrested and found guilty. They weren’t arrested. They weren’t even indicted. Given the maxim that a good district attorney can indict a ham sandwich, what does it say about these Muslims that they weren’t even indicted? (Maybe that’s their secret: Muslims don’t eat pork.)

It’s bad enough that the concept of an “unindicted co-conspirator” turns the bedrock principle of American law on its head, and makes everyone on that list guilty until proven innocent. But it’s much worse than that, because they’re guilty with no recourse to prove they’re innocent. How can you defend yourself against an indictment that doesn’t exist? For the last decade, the most prominent Muslim organizations in the country have carried this “unindicted co-conspirator” tag around with them like it was herpes.

Without charging these organizations with any crime, the Bush administration succeeded in tarnishing their reputation. Any time someone wanted to cast suspicion on the American Muslim community, all they had to do was bring up the leadership of ISNA, which included some of the most respected Muslim scholars in the country, and remind their audience that ISNA was an unindicted co-conspirator. CAIR filed a lawsuit against a corporation for firing a Muslim woman because she refused to take off her head scarf at work? Unindicted co-conspirator. A Muslim community somewhere in America wanted to borrow money from NAIT to build a mosque? Now they’re doing business dealings with an unindicted co-conspirator.

After these organizations sought legal redress from the government for years, in October, 2010, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis issued a ruling that stated the government should never have publicly released the names of the “unindicted co-conspirators”, and that the government had violated their Fifth Amendment due process rights by doing so. Fat lot of good that’s done. The list is out there, and you can’t squeeze toothpaste back in the tube.

And then, of course, there was the Iraq War, which was deeply unpopular among the Muslim community. I was actually among the minority of Muslims who grudgingly supported the war, on the theory that the Arab world was so shackled by tyranny that it would be almost impossible to make things worse. I was wrong. The invasion was a cakewalk, as expected. But the breathtaking lack of post-invasion planning; the absence of any weapons of mass destruction; the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib – somehow we did the impossible: we made the Iraqi people pine for the days of Saddam Hussein.


But as frustrated as the Muslim community was with President Bush, we had to grudgingly admit that he at least respected our constitutional right to practice our religion. He never suggested that Islam was somehow un-American, or that Muslims as a whole were a threat to our nation. Perhaps we didn’t realize how good we had it with Bush until his term expired, because when he retired to his ranch in Texas, that’s when the crazies came out.

I got a taste of this during the 2008 presidential campaign, when my friend Mazen Asbahi, who had gone to work for the Obama campaign, found himself smeared as a terrorist sympathizer. I won’t rehash that here; I wrote about it at the time, and talked about it on an episode of NPR’s This American Life. ("Unindicted co-conspirators" feature prominently.)

After Obama was elected, things started to get crazy. Let’s take a tour of what some of our duly-elected congressmen and congresswomen have said about Muslims:

Let’s start with a press conference held on October 14, 2009, by four Republican members of the House: Paul Broun (GA-10), Trent Franks (AZ-02), Sue Myrick (NC-09), and John Shadegg (AZ-03). This press conference was called to expose shocking allegations about CAIR. (The press release sent out by Rep. Myrick’s office stated that “CAIR was named as a co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism case”. Somehow the word “unindicted” was left out. I’m sure it was an oversight.)

Rep. Myrick said, “It’s frightening to think that an organization with clear-cut ties to terrorism could have a hand in influencing policy – especially national security policy – within our government.” Rep. Broun said, “I believe allegations that CAIR has targeted members of Congress on security related committees must not go uninvestigated.”

Rep. Franks, care to comment? “This Congress must be deliberate in taking a strong stance against those groups and organizations that align themselves with terrorists, and standing with organizations that are standing against Islamic extremism and terrorism.” Rep. Shadegg, you have the floor. “Muslim Mafia is just one of many books that highlight the infiltration of radical Islamists into our society and the dangers that this poses.”

So what’s this all about? The press conference was held in part to announce the release of the book “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that’s Conspiring to Islamize America.” (Personally, I think the title is a little understated.) The book was written by a guy named Paul Gaubatz, after his son Chris Gaubatz, posing as a new convert to Islam, managed to work as an intern at CAIR for six months before anyone smelled a rat.

Six months was long enough for Chris to learn the inner workings of the organization, and to obtain internal documents that might cast the organization in a bad light. One of those documents, outlining CAIR’s long-term strategy, was the centerpiece of the accusations in the book. It was the smoking gun that brought four members of Congress together to denounce CAIR as an organization with “clear-cut ties to terrorism”.

What did the document say? “We will impact local congressional districts with each chapter influencing at least two legislators through strong grass roots responses. We will focus on influencing congressmen responsible for policy that directly impacts the American Muslim community. (For example congressmen on the judiciary, intelligence, and homeland security committees.) We will develop national initiatives such as a lobby day and placing Muslim interns in Congressional offices. We will work to add at least 30,000 new voter registrations.”

The horror. “Grass roots responses”? “Influencing congressmen”? “A lobby day”? “Muslim interns in Congressional offices”? Worst of all, “new voter registrations”? My God, it’s worse than I thought. This document didn’t prove CAIR were aspiring terrorists. It proved they were aspiring – gulp! – lobbyists.

Call me naïve, but if someone with an axe to grind with CAIR spent six months working undercover, and the most damning document they could come up with expressed a plan to help Muslim interns be placed in Congressional offices – that strikes me as pretty persuasive evidence that CAIR was not a nefarious organization, or at least no more nefarious than the rest of the political outfits that work in DC. Instead, four Republican members of Congress thought that the threat from CAIR was so pressing that they held a press conference, and afterwards they pressed the House of Representatives to research whether CAIR was, in fact, a security threat.

Fortunately, many Democrats in the House denounced the press conference as the ridiculous Kabuki Theater that it was, and eventually the matter died down. But not before the Republican Party made it crystal clear to the Muslim community that we were all under suspicion.

Any residual doubts were dispelled during the grand summer of 2010, when a group of Muslims made the mistake of trying to build a Muslim community center in their neighborhood. It would have included a small prayer area for Muslims, but it also would have held an auditorium, a theater, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a culinary school, and a performing arts center. It just so happened that their neighborhood was lower Manhattan, and the proposed building would have been a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center stood, and oh my God you would have thought they had proposed a statue of the 9/11 hijackers.

Rudy Giuliani called it a “desecration”, and said, “Nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor.” Never mind that there are, in fact, many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines near Pearl Harbor. And never mind that Muslims have conducted prayer services inside the chapel at the Pentagon – which also had a Boeing slam into it on 9/11 – for many years.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House: “It's not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.” Speaking with regard to the original proposed name for the building, the “Cordoba House”, Gingrich said, “’Cordoba House’ is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain–the capital of Muslim conquerors, who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex... every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.”

With all due respect to Gingrich…he’s a moron. Muslims recognize Cordoba as a symbol of the most enlightened era in Islamic history, as a nation where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peacefully for centuries. Maimonides, perhaps the most respected rabbinical scholar in Jewish history, was born and raised in Muslim Spain. Decades after the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Muslim leader purchased a small church from the local Christians, and over decades it was converted into the largest mosque in the country. It wasn’t a symbol of victory, and anyone who says otherwise is historically illiterate. Or just politically opportunistic.

The National Republican Trust Political Action Committee produced this television ad that included this voiceover: “On September 11th, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.” Yep, you caught us. American Muslims – dozens of whom were killed along with their fellow countrymen by the 9/11 terrorists – want to celebrate the darkest day in our history by building a monument to tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Man, we can’t slip anything past you guys.

Ilario Pantano, a Republican candidate for Congress in the 2010 elections, wrote in an op-ed piece that “This is not about reconciliation or understanding. It is about marking religious, ideological, and territorial conquest. The mosque is a Martyr-Marker, and it must be stopped.”

Okay then.

Not all elected Republicans opposed the mosque. Notably, Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Ron Paul, who despite his party affiliation is really a libertarian, both supported the Muslim community’s right to build the community center on the basis of an obscure clause in a federal document that guarantees freedom of religion. But it was not lost on the Muslim community that, with very few exceptions (most notably Senator Harry Reid), every politician who was publicly opposed to the project was Republican. In contrast, prominent Democrats (President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois) and Independents (New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) all came out in support of the fundamental right of Americans – all Americans – to build houses of worship as they see fit.

To the Muslim community around America, the implications of this tempest in a teapot was far more troubling than the simple matter of whether the Park51 Project (as it was formally known) would get built. I live in suburban Chicago; ultimately it doesn’t affect my life one way or the other if this project comes to fruition. And certainly, I understand how raw our nation’s emotions are, even a decade later, about what happened on 9/11. If one of the developers had asked me for my opinion before the project was announced, I might have suggested a slightly different site than the one that was picked.

But the controversy over the Park51 Project quickly veered away from a discussion over whether it was insensitive, and became a discussion over whether Muslims are trying to take over America. Which is not just ridiculous, it is deeply frightening. If Faisal Abdul Rauf, the original spiritual force behind the project, was guilty of anything, it was naïveté. Instead, he was portrayed by the Republican Party as some sort of extremist Muslim radical trying to plant the flag of Islam in Manhattan like he was an astronaut on the moon. Abdul Rauf is such an extremist that when journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered by true Muslim extremists in Pakistan, Pearl’s widow asked Abdul Rauf to speak at a memorial service for him.

At the service, here is what Rauf said.

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one, Mr. Pearl. And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different

Clearly, those are the words of a man bent on world domination.

I and most American Muslims were deeply ambivalent about the project when we first heard about it, because we understood the emotions involved. When Sarah Palin tweeted, as only she can, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” I understood her concerns. I disagreed with them, because like most Muslims, I saw the building of a community center run by Muslims who were dedicated to a moderate, tolerant version of Islam blocks from Ground Zero to be a giant middle finger to Al-Qaeda. But I respected her right to feel slighted by it.

But it’s one thing to claim the project was insensitive, and quite another to claim the project celebrates the murder of thousands of Americans, or that it was a symbol of Islamic conquest. This attempt to lump moderate American Muslim leaders with the murderous thugs of Al-Qaeda was a clear message from the Republican Party to their Muslim constituents: all you Muslims are the same. Believe me, we got the message.

In August of 2010, when the Park51 Project controversy was at its peak, I happened to be exiting my local mosque in suburban Chicago after evening prayers. I ran into my friend Eiman, who pointed to a car in the parking lot and grinned widely. “You think that guy is here for prayers?”

He was pointing to a large pickup truck that was stopped in the driving lane between parking spaces, loudly blaring a Toby Keith song. We shared a laugh. The mosque shares the parking lot with a bank and several other businesses, so I didn’t think much of having a truck blaring music right outside our mosque.

Until I noticed that the truck wasn’t playing just any Toby Keith song. It was playing “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue.”

Now this nation that I love
Has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker-punch came flyin’ in
From somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the Fourth of July

Hey Uncle Sam 

Put your name at the top of his list 

And the Statue of Liberty 

Started shakin' her fist 

And the eagle will fly 

Man, it's gonna be hell 

When you hear Mother Freedom 

Start ringin' her bell 

And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you 

Brought to you courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue 

Justice will be served 

And the battle will rage 

This big dog will fight 

When you rattle his cage 

And you'll be sorry that you messed with 

The U.S. of A. 

'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass 

It's the American way 

Huh,” I thought, “that’s interesting.” The car wasn’t parked, but it wasn’t moving either. I turned to Eiman and said, “I wonder if this guy is trying to send us a message.” Finally, the song came to an end.

And immediately, the same song started playing from the beginning.

Well, at this point we had heard enough. Eiman and I slowly walked over to the pickup truck, to see whether we could give directions to the driver, who was clearly lost and thought he was outside the caves of Tora Bora. At that moment, a big SUV pulled up behind us and the driver jumped out – it was the landlord of the property, who had clearly figured out the same thing we had. At which point the pickup truck hauled ass and drove away.

I’m not sure what the driver was trying to accomplish, honestly, other than to intimidate us with a crappy country song. (No offense, Toby. I love “Beer for My Horses.”) But it was deeply unsettling. Our congregation had been worshipping in that same building for the past eight years, and someone decided that this was the moment to make us feel unwelcome.

On the other hand, the mosque is located barely 800 miles from Ground Zero. Maybe he just thought our location was insensitive.

But just in case the message from the GOP wasn’t clear enough, some Republican officials have decided to eliminate any pretense of differentiating between the massive moderate Muslim majority and the tiny wing of violent extremists. Herman Cain ran for the GOP nomination for President in today’s election. When asked whether he would consider appointing a Muslim to his cabinet or as a judge, he replied, “No, I will not. And here’s why: there’s this creeping attempt – there’s this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.” Cain also argued that a community in Tennessee had the right to ban the building of a mosque there, and claimed that the majority of Muslims in America "share the extremist views". This is where we’re at in 2011: a presidential candidate openly – and proudly – proclaims that all American citizens of a specific religion would not be welcome in his administration, or really, in America. And not one prominent member of his political party has stood up against his statements.

Newt Gingrich, who also ran for President, introduced an angle that I – and presumably every American of sound mind – had never considered before. Speaking at a Texas church in March, 2011, Gingrich brought up his grandchildren to the audience, and then said, “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

I’ll admit: I had never considered the threat of secular, atheist, radical Islamists before. But then, that’s why Newt Gingrich was running for president and I wasn’t. He sees things the rest of us don’t. He even has the ability to see things that don’t actually exist.

(Mitt Romney, perhaps because he is a member of a religious minority himself, has not said anything nearly as inflammatory about Muslims. On the other hand, he once said, in response to a question about whether a Muslim might serve in his Cabinet, “based on the numbers of American Muslims in our population, I cannot see that a Cabinet position would be justified.” I’m waiting for him to say the same thing about Episcopalians, or Jews - or Mormons.)

The inevitable end result of the GOP’s demonization of Muslims were the congressional hearings called in March, 2011 by Peter King, Republican congressman from Long Island and chair of the Committee on Homeland Security. The hearings were called on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” Congressman King, who was fond of saying – without a shred of evidence – that “over 80 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams,” wanted to put the American Muslim community on the spot as to whether they supported terrorists. (In fairness, if anyone in Congress knows about supporting terrorists, it’s Peter King – who was a zealous supporter of the IRA and once compared Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to George Washington.)

The hearings wound up being more political theater than hard-hitting investigation. The highlight of the hearings came when Leroy Baca, Sheriff of Los Angeles County, testified. Baca’s testimony – that the Muslim groups that he had worked with, specifically CAIR, had cooperated with the authorities to combat extremism in the local community – didn’t exactly fit in with the hearing’s agenda. Chip Craavack, Republican Congressman from Minnesota, challenged him on his testimony. Speaking about CAIR, Craavack said, “You’re dealing with a terrorist organization,” and “they might be using you, sir.” (After all, they’re unindicted co-conspirators!)

To which Baca replied, “If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forth and charge them in court.” After the gasps died down, he continued, “We don’t play around with criminals in my world. If CAIR is an organization that’s a quote, ‘criminal organization’, prosecute them.”

In the end, the hearings accomplished little other than to allow politicians on both sides of the aisle do some political posturing. And CAIR never was prosecuted.

But the ugliest episode of Republican-instigated attacks on the American Muslim community – at least so far – occurred when a Muslim organization known as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) held a fundraiser in Orange County in March of 2011. The fundraiser was being held to raise money for Hamas and Hezbollah…no, wait, they were raising money for homeless and women’s shelters in the area. It’s so easy to get those confused. But ICNA made the terrible mistake of inviting a well-known Muslim leader to speak at the event, a gentleman named Siraj Wahhaj, who is – you guessed it – an unindicted co-conspirator. (Man, those guys are everywhere.)

The fundraiser, then, attracted a crowd of protestors that lined up outside the banquet hall to give those who attended a piece of their mind. They held signs that read “ICNA supports Hamas and Hezbollah.” (Hamas, homeless shelters…they do sort of sound alike.) They also held signs that called the Prophet Muhammad “a pervert” and “a child molester.” The chant “GO BACK HOME!” was a continuous drumbeat as attendees filed in. (Go home to where? Anaheim?) A Muslim man who had the audacity to film the protestors was greeted with calls of “You beat your women and rape your children!” Other catcalls included “One Nation Under God, Not Allah!” and “Never forget 9/11!” and “Your hands are bloody!”

The protestors were a motley crew of locals, egged on by well-known Islamophobes like Pamela Geller. (Geller, one of the leaders behind the opposition to the Park51 Project, runs an organization knows as “Stop the Islamization of America”, an organization that’s been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 mostly-teenage Norwegians in July, 2011 for the crime of being “multiculturalists” who were allowing Muslims to take over Europe, cited Geller in his manifesto.)

It also included three elected Republican officials, two of whom were congressmen. All three officials addressed the gathering mob outside.

Congressman Ed Royce told the crowd, "A big part of the problem we face today is our children have been taught in schools that every idea is right, that no one should criticize others' positions no matter how odious. That’s…and…what do we call that? They call it multiculturalism, and it has paralyzed too many of our fellow citizens to make the critical judgments we need to make to prosper as a society."

He was followed by Congressman Gary Miller, who kept his comments brief. “The only reason I’m here today – is to give you a flag, and to say ‘I am proud of you, I am proud of what you’re doing, and I’m proud of this country and what we believe in, and let’s not let people who disagree with us destroy it.”

Just in case the intent of their comments wasn’t explicit enough, though, Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly also spoke at the podium. “Let me tell you – what’s going on over there right now,” she said, as she pointed to the banquet hall, “make no bones about it. That is pure, unadulterated evil.” She continued, “And I don't care. ... I don't even care if you think I'm crazy anymore. I have a beautiful daughter. I have a wonderful 19-year-old son who is a United States Marine. As a matter of fact, I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise."

Nice people. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, you can get more details and watch video here and here.)

It hasn’t been much different here in the Chicago suburbs where I live. My own mosque, that started congregating out of converted space in an office park a decade ago, spent over two years attempting to win zoning approval to build a formal house of worship on land that we purchased next to a Greek Orthodox church and a Buddhist temple. The resistance that we got from the Republican-controlled county zoning board was so intense that it was covered by the New York Times, and eventually the Chicago Tribune had to publish an editorial defending our right to build a mosque.

Perhaps it’s just as well that we haven’t built it yet, given the threats to existing mosques. Last year on Halloween morning, a mosque on the west side of Wichita was set ablaze. While no one was ever arrested, authorities determined that it was, in fact, arson. It just so happens to be the mosque that I attended with my family in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This year, in the pre-dawn hours of August 6th, the mosque in Joplin, Missouri burned to the ground. Again, it was ruled arson. Again, no one has been arrested. I don’t know about you guys, but this isn’t my idea of a Border War.

The day before the Joplin mosque was incinerated, a former army veteran with ties to white supremacists named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee and opened fire, killing six people before turning the gun on himself.

The Sikh massacre was on a Sunday, the mosque burning was on Monday. On Wednesday Congressman Joe Walsh – a Republican who represents a district here in suburban Chicago – spoke at a town hall meeting about the threat of radical Muslims. “One thing I’m sure of is that there are people in this country – there is a radical strain of Islam in this country – it’s not just over there – trying to kill Americans every week. It is a real threat, and it is a threat that is much more at home now than it was after 9/11.”

Accuse me of political correctness if you must, but when there was a terrorist attack on American soil just three days ago, and the victims of that attack were a religious group frequently confused with Muslims, now might not be the best time to accuse Muslims of being potential terrorists. Granted, Walsh was speaking in generalities, and just saying that somewhere in America lurked extremist Musl- “It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here.”

Wait, what? Did a member of congress just claim that there were terrorist threats lurking in specific, small towns – both Elk Grove and Addison have fewer than 40,000 residents? There are probably not more than a few hundred Muslims living in both towns combined. That’s a pretty extraordinary accusation to make.

Walsh made his comments on a Wednesday. On Friday, shots were fired at a mosque in Morton Grove, a suburb not far from where Walsh spoke. A nearby resident named David Conrad was arrested. On Sunday, a homemade acid bomb was thrown at a Muslim school in the suburb of Lombard, while worshippers were praying inside. No one was arrested for that one.

Congressman Walsh stood by his comments. Meanwhile, my local mosque had to hire private security to watch our back for the remainder of the month of Ramadan.

This is where we are today. Barely a decade ago, the American Muslim community was safely in the womb of the Republican Party. Today, prominent Republican leaders have made it clear that they view all Muslims with suspicion; they accuse prominent Muslim organizations of trying to infiltrate the U.S. government because they dare to support placing Muslim interns on Capitol Hill; they label a Muslim community center open to all faiths as a “victory mosque” for Al-Qaeda; and they publicly declare that Muslims are evil. No, wait, not evil – pure, unadulterated evil. In case there was any doubt as to which kind of evil they were.

They have the chutzpah to play up the threat of homegrown Muslim terrorists causing another 9/11 at the same moment that Muslims and Sikhs are ducking for cover from genuine terrorists.

Oh, and many of them believe that President Obama is a secret Muslim sent here by Terrorist Command Headquarters to destroy our nation. A full 30% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim. If any of you are among that 30%, I don’t know what to say to you, except to say that PRESIDENT OBAMA IS NOT A MUSLIM. If he is, believe me, no one would be more surprised than the Muslim community. Yes, his father was born a Muslim – but his father was openly atheist as an adult, and abandoned his family when Barack Jr. was a toddler. President Obama’s mother and the grandparents who helped raise him were Christian. He attended church his entire adult life. He’s never been seen praying like a Muslim, or fasting like a Muslim, or doing anything like a Muslim.

But as offensive as it is that so many people believe he’s a Muslim, even more offensive is the implication that there would be something terribly wrong with that. I’ll let a once-respected national figure explain:

“I’m also troubled by…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 is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

The man who said these words was Colin Powell, a Republican. Powell, himself a minority, was likely drawn to the Republican Party for the same reasons my family and I were many years ago. It’s probably not a coincidence that Powell’s own prominence within the GOP coincided with my allegiance to it. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Powell is today a marginalized and forgotten figure. Powell said those words on Meet the Press, on the eve of the last election, in the process of explaining why he was endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency. And his words eloquently summed up why, in 2008, I did too.

It was with some reservation that I voted for Obama today. I have found his presidency to be a disappointment in many ways. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough about addressing the financial crisis he inherited, nor did he press for a public airing of what caused the crisis in the first place. His sustained use of drones to fight the War on Terror has been both utterly immoral – an inordinate number of innocent victims, including children, have been killed – and completely counterproductive, because the obvious immorality of these attacks has ignited more terrorists than it has killed. Obama’s weak and unfocused response to the horrors being committed every day by the Syrian government is appalling.

But - third parties aside - the alternative was Mitt Romney, and I could not vote for Mitt Romney. There is simply no way that I can justify voting for a party that denies the very legitimacy of my identity as an American. And there is no way that I can justify voting for any member of that party that does not, in the strongest possible terms, denounce that view. Nor can most other members of the American Muslim community, who just happen to be clustered in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. If Nate Silver is right, not only will Romney lose the election, but it can be safely said that if the Muslim community had voted the same way they had in 2000, he would have won.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Muslim community still shares many core values with Republicans, the same core issues that attracted most Muslims to the Republican Party in the first place. Muslims haven’t changed their views on limited government, or the superiority of the traditional nuclear family, or the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship. A Republican Party that focused on its core principles rather than on demonizing a minority as a way to score cheap political points would find support among the American Muslim community again.

Look, I don’t want to be a party-line voter. It does Muslims no good to be identified with a single political party – we run the risk of being taken advantage of by the Democratic Party, while having our needs completely ignored by the Republicans. And I look forward to the day, hopefully in the near future, when I once again vote for a Republican candidate. If Chris Christie - who unlike Romney has forcefully denounced "the crazies" (his term, not mine) - runs for President, I'll give him full consideration.

But first, the Republicans have to stop insinuating that I’m alien to this nation. They have to stop implying that I support terrorists. They have to stop accusing me of being anti-American. And they need to denounce anyone in their ranks who does those things. That, I’m afraid, is not negotiable.

(Please note: given that the risk of a flame war in the comments section approaches 100% when the subject of the article involves Muslims, I am turning the comments for this post off. You can hit me up on Twitter if you like.)

No comments: