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Islamophobic Salem
Judging Muslim-Americans

What are you scared of?

Who is an American? I hope the question is never answered too certainly. To answer it puts fences around the idea, contradicting the essence of America’s plural identity. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being an American who once was an immigrant, it’s that the attempt to judge who is a proper American is in itself an act of profound ignorance that seeks to couch exclusion in the language of patriotic doctrine. So I’ve always found it more useful — more American — to question the questioner than to answer the question.

A few of those questioners made themselves heard when the News-Journal last Sunday front-paged the story of Palm Coast’s Muneer family of seven — the parents originally from Pakistan, in Palm Coast for the last 16 years. Talk about an affront to a bigot’s sensibilities (such as they are): Here were brown-skinned people, all of them Muslims, some of them wearing those Islamic head-scarves, praying to Mecca in a three-column picture above the fold, in suburban comforts and under a 65-point headline that called them “An American family” — in Arabic, for Allah’s sake. Judging from their responses, some readers must’ve thought the News-Journal — which has had its troubles lately — was bought up by al-Jazeera (not that there’s anything wrong with al-Jazeera).

“These people are not Americans and I will never accept them,” commented a reader in the News-Journal’s BackTalk segment online. “They are all just crap and let me remind you this is 1 NATION UNDER GOD!” One reader who doesn’t know his Middle East from his middle finger ( Pakistan is near neither, nor is Palm Coast) wanted us to “remember all of the bad the people from the Middle East have caused… besides they stink.” Another, using imagery once favored by Nazis and Hutus in their respective genocide of Jews and Tutsis compared “all Muslims” to “cockroaches, infesting our society, quietly laying in wait.” You get the idea: The way to be American, according to these red-white-and-blue-necks, is to conform to something vaguely reminiscent of mass Aryan assemblies in 1936 Germany.

By my count, 47 of 79 comments responding to my colleague Linda Trimble’s main story on the Muneers, or 59 percent, were positive, compared with 22 negative ones (28 percent). Ten comments meandered neither here nor there, and three or four particularly foul ones were removed by the online administrator. The numbers shouldn’t be reassuring: That more than a quarter of respondents felt compelled so bitterly to attack the Muneers for being Muslims and American should be more of an alert. Bigotry, or at least shameless (and shaming) misunderstanding, is rife.

Yes, the sample is not scientific. But scientific surveys produce grimmer numbers. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press three weeks ago released its survey of the American public’s views and understanding of various religions. Just 43 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Muslims (compared with a 76 percent for Jews and Catholics, and 60 percent for evangelicals). That’s down from 48 percent just three years ago. We’re going backward. One-word impressions of Islam? “devout,” “different” and “peaceful” but also “fanatic,” “terrorism,” violent” and “radical.”

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and fewer would-be terrorists among them than there are seats in the average minor league baseball stadium. By that math, the leap from Muslim to would-be terrorist makes you all white-bred Christian Americans, especially heartlanders and Floridians, even more especially ex-servicemen, would-be terrorists because Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was white, Christian, from Kansas and Florida, and a Bronze Star-decorated Gulf War veteran.

Still, stories like those about the Muneers educate Americans away from their silly prejudices less than tabloid hysterics and their talk-radio and blog drones bait those prejudices. Oct.22-26 has been designated “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” on university campuses by David Horowitz, the Marxist-turned reactionary mullah of university conservatives. It’s a stunt. But then, so was 9/11: Never underestimate the ability of a few fanatics to wreck a society.

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