If you were in New York City in the weeks after September 11th, you remember the sudden and conspicuous appearance of American flag decals on taxicab windows and food carts—many of which were driven and owned by Muslim and Hindu merchants. The stickers were described as a sort of “insurance policy”: proof that these were patriots, and not terrorists intent on plotting the next national tragedy.
These were simply people living peacefully in the United States— but in that climate, it was better to put the sticker in the window, or hang a flag on the dashboard.
September 11th gave harbor to something that has long plagued our society: a deep, sinking suspicion of “the other.” In this case, “the other” was Islam.
For all of his gross miscalculations in the months following the attacks, it was President George W. Bush who immediately understood this, and who spoke directly to Muslims throughout the world in the days after, saying, “We respect your faith... Its teachings are good and peaceful. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
But in the intervening years, Bush’s words have been forgotten. The fear around Islam and the “Mideast” has become further ingrained, the paranoia more insidious. When President Obama has been called “a secret Muslim,” the charge is no longer criticized for its inherent bigotry (So what if he is, in fact, Muslim?), it’s challenged as a matter of truth (Of course he’s not Muslim!).
On Sunday morning, an Army vet and a member of two racist skinhead bands, is alleged to have opened fire on worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding four. While we don’t yet have details on what motivated him, many, including the New York-based Sikh Coalition, say that practitioners of the Indian religion are often confused with Muslims because of their traditional beards and turbans. Since 2001, the Coalition says it has received more than 700 requests from Sikhs needing assistance with hate crimes, discrimination and bullying.
In the hours after the rampage in Oak Creek, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been earlier targeted by an arsonist burned to the ground. Said the head of the mosque: “This is the month of Ramadan. We just take this as a test from God.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has increased by 69-percent since 2000.
Census data shows that Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just 12 miles north of Oak Creek, was the most segregated city in America last year. To this dubious distinction, its mayor, Tom Barrett, explained, “I think there are still some people who don’t want to live with people who have different skin colors than theirs.”
What these statistics and stories show us is a volatile mix of bigotry, fear, and hate. While President Obama said today that he was “heartbroken” by the events in Oak Creek, and Mitt Romney has pulled campaign ads and cancelled all local events until further notice, perhaps a better prescription might be a forceful reminder from our leaders about who we are and what we value.
Namely: that targeted violence and destruction are not tests for the faithful, but proof of a society that is sick and in need of healing. That the story of America is precisely the story of people of different skin colors living together. That there is no law that says you must prove your patriotism or defend your innocence with a bumper sticker or a flag decal. And that you can wear a turban, a yarmulke, a skullcap, or a hijab and be protected under our laws— and the fact that you are is precisely what makes this America.