Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears.

At the time, the Obama team was already concerned about the false rumor that their candidate, a self-identified Christian, was a closet Muslim. (According to a recent survey, nearly one-fifth of Americans continue to believe this). When approaching potential voters who believed the rumor, volunteers were instructed not to get in an argument over Muslims, their rights, much less what Islam really stands for. Instead, we were given pamphlets about Obama’s faith in Christ and were told to talk about the then-senator’s churchgoing habits.

On one campaign stop I knocked on the door of a middle-aged woman who was shocked to see her son’s name on my list of potential Obama voters. “He had better not vote for Obama,” she declared to me on her doorstep. When I asked her why, she leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “Well, for one, he’s a Muslim and I have the proof.”

Although I was curious to see her “proof,” I could already imagine what it was: The same old laundry list of hateful ideas that continue to divide American society. That Ohio mother was probably never going to vote for Obama, but what was of greater concern to me was the idea that being a Muslim automatically disqualified an individual from public service in the United States. Looking at me, my appearance and physical features, she might have guessed that I was a misguided but well-meaning New York, Jewish liberal. She had no clue that I was a Muslim.

The only thing I would add to this excellent piece is that southern Ohio, alien as it may seem to coastal dwellers, is clearly not an exception in having people with these kinds of attitudes. More to the point, many people in the area to which I traveled in 2008 were decent, open-minded and supremely unprejudiced. But there were also those with Confederate flags in their windows who looked at you like you were pulling their legs when you said “Obama” — or worse, shouted the most vile words at the campaign headquarters. But you wouldn’t have to travel to Ohio find such people. I have no doubt it would be easy in any other state. What makes Ohio the perfect example is that it is our heartland — a lot of American policies and priorities emanate from the middle states and their culture. Further, what makes the prejudice against Muslims exceptional is that progressive people everywhere would denounce racism against Obama; but the fact that many people think that being a Muslim makes one unfit for national service is viewed more as an impolite inconvenience.

“Haha, of course you’ll have to pretend to be someone you’re not for a day when you actually talk to people out here. No biggie, right?”

The fact that Obama had to accommodate the ignorance to win, rather than repudiate it, is something that I hope we will look back on with solemnity and regret one day.

As Mokalla points out, the lower Manhattan issue is not about just a “mosque.” It is now a civil rights issue and an issue about creed-blind citizenship. It didn’t start out that way the day the ultramoderate imam Feisal Abdul Rauf announced plans to build the community center. But that is what the people who have decried it have turned it into.

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