Reza Aslan is a scholar and author of bestselling books on religion; Huma Abedin is a longtime top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both are Muslims, and their recent treatment in the media reminds us that Islamophobia is alive and well across the American political spectrum.
When Aslan went on Fox News to promote his new book on the life of Jesus, host Lauren Green was interested only in questioning his motives. The implication was clear: no Muslim could have a neutral perspective on Christianity. Similarly, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd explained Abedin’s support of her sex-scandal-ridden husband Anthony Weiner’s bid to become New York City’s mayor as a product of her Muslim faith and upbringing. No matter that a slew of (non-Muslim) political wives have stood by their men in the face of extramarital affairs. Abedin is doing it because she “was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.”
Shocking? Not really. Prominent Muslim figures have been under attack in the U.S. for years. Last year, Rep. Michelle Bachmann asked for an investigation into whether Abedin was a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the State Department. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appointed Muslim lawyer Sohail Mohammed to the bench, anti-Muslim columnists and bloggers went on the attack. They claimed that the judge had links to terrorism and predicted he would apply Muslim religious principles in his courtroom.
Folks like Abedin and Mohammed are the lucky ones--they have friends in high places to come to their defense. Ordinary American Muslims don’t have such connections and suffer from systemic discrimination and attacks that are tolerated by society.
Religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, but mosques around the country are under attack. Most people are familiar with the demonstrations against the so-called World Trade Center mosque--a plan to establish an Islamic cultural center near where the Towers once stood. Similar protests, if on a smaller scale, have attended the building of mosques from New Jersey to Tennessee, and some cities and towns have even changed their laws to prevent the construction of mosques. Even the Department of Justice has noted an alarming rise in local efforts to block mosques.
And then there’s the “anti-Sharia” movement, which seeks to convince Americans of the absurd proposition that there is a genuine risk that courts need to be stopped from applying Islamic traditions to deprive us of our constitutional rights. While Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia law was conclusively struck down for targeting Muslims, state lawmakers continue to pass laws seeking to portray Islam as a threat. These bills now take the shape of bans on the use of foreign law, but their intent is clear. The Brennan Center’s research shows that 34 states have considered these bills, and six have already passed. Just last week, North Carolina's legislature overwhelming approved this type of ban.
Anti-Islamic hate crimes are on the rise. Some stories make the papers: last Christmas, a Hindu shopkeeper was shoved in front of a New York subway car and killed because he was thought to be a Muslim; in 2010 a cab driver was stabbed by a passenger when he identified himself as a Muslim. These are not just isolated events. The FBI reports that between 2001 and 2010 there were more than 1,700 incidents of hate crimes based on “anti-Islamic” bias. These types of incidents jumped 50% in 2010 compared to 2009 and remained at elevated levels in 2011.
Anti-Muslim bias in the workplace has jumped too. Muslims are less than 2% of the population, yet in recent years complaints about anti-Muslim bias have comprised 25% of the docket of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This surge in anti-Muslim sentiment is partly the handiwork of a small band of activists--the likes of Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and David Yerushalmi--who specialize in whipping up fear of Muslims.
But President Obama bears a share of the responsibility too. Under his watch, the FBI continues to treat American Muslim communities as pools of potential terrorists who must be constantly watched. Is it any surprise that the rest of America feels free to treat them that way as well? Obama has declared that he wants to end the “war on terror.” Part of that effort must include reining in the FBI and reforming policies that allow profiling on the basis of religion. And the president and his allies must loudly defend the rights of all American Muslims--not just the Abedins and Aslans of the world, but also the cab drivers, halal food vendors, and shop owners who make up this diverse community.