Almost from the beginning of their coverage of the horrific and deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, CNN and other news media went out of their way to send a message to the American public: ‘Sikhs are not Muslims’. But what are we to make of that message? If the temple’s members had been Muslims, would the attack have then been justified?
We say we don’t endorse prejudice against one group or another, but for some reason we also want to make sure people know who the ‘we’ and the ‘they’ really are. CNN would probably say it was simply trying to clear up a common misunderstanding that, in this case, may have been shared by the gunman himself. Fair enough.
The assertion that Sikhs are not Muslims is certainly true. Jains are not Hindus, and Mormons are not Methodists either.
But in the post-9/11 context of a deadly act committed by an apparent white supremacist against a congregation that is largely ethnically South Asian — a congregation that includes bearded men in turbans — broadcasting the mantra that ‘Sikhs are not Muslims’ takes on a far more insidious subtext: ‘Don’t blame these people, it implies, for the unspeakable crimes of 9/11. It’s Muslims you want’.
The media aren’t alone in conveying, however unintentionally, this sinister message. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he responded to the inaccurate, but surprisingly persistent assertion that he was a Muslim with this statement in a 2008 debate: “The facts are I am Christian. I have been sworn in [as a US senator] with a Bible.”
As president, Obama has made an effort to stress how important Muslims are to the fabric of US society and has praised the enormous contributions made by Islamic civilisation to human history. Still, his behaviour as a candidate was disappointing.
When ‘accused’ of being a Muslim, he didn’t challenge the darker assumptions behind the assertion. He simply tried to distance himself from Muslims. His campaign also made sure there were no photo-ops in mosques and no women in hijab as part of the diversity tableau that served as a backdrop to his stump speeches.
John McCain got into the act when attempting a noble defence of his opponent in the 2008 race. At a Republican rally late in the campaign, a woman said she couldn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab”.
McCain objected: “No, ma’am; no, ma’am. He’s a ... decent family man, [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” It was a defence that undoubtedly left many Arab Americans (as well as Arabs around the world) horrified by the implication that Arab men must be, therefore, indecent and un-American.
At the height of the accusations that Obama was a closet Muslim, the only public figure I saw get it right was former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, the first black man ever to hold that office. In his famous ‘Meet the Press’ appearance on October 19, 2008, Powell, like others, condemned the “false intimations” that Obama was a Muslim. But he then went on to say: “But really the right answer is, what if he is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s ‘No; that’s not America’.”
It’s time for all of us — Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partyers and Occupiers, conservative evangelicals and progressive Episcopalians, Latinos, blacks, Asians and whites alike — to take the kind of wise and principled stand that Powell took. We need to insist with one voice that American Muslims are not a ‘they’ to be demonised but a treasured part of who ‘we’ are as a people, and that the demonisation of any minority group runs contrary to the spirit of this great country.
In fact, we need to go even further and declare that Muslims the world over are an important and vital part of the one human family, with whom the rest of this same family needs to partner and build relationships of trust for the sake of us all.
If presidential candidates and television networks have trouble understanding these basic concepts, then there is obviously much work that has to be done. We can begin by taking a good hard look at the groups to which we belong and by inviting ‘outsiders’ to help us see the ways in which any aspect of the religious or civic identities we espouse urge us to reject entire groups of “others.”
As we do this, we need to embrace the truth that hatred can never be the touchstone of authentic faith or authentic patriotism. For as tragedies such as 9/11 and Oak Creek remind us, hatred of any kind is nothing less than a profound betrayal of both God and country.
Scott C. Alexander is an associate professor of Islamic studies and director of Catholic-Muslim studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.