November 24, 2007
Recently a Muslim woman went to a local bank, hoping to open an account. That didn't happen, in part due to misunderstanding but also due to the hysteria that seems to be running rampant in our society. Like the McCarthyites of an earlier age, today's harbingers of fear see Islamic terrorists under every rock. With such a mindset it's not surprising that a woman wearing a hejab was singled out for exclusion. Yes, others of us have been turned down for accounts, but this episode reeks of prejudice built upon stereotype.
I don't know the bank employee's heart, but with the exception of the letter by Matt Hughes, most of the responses from the community have not only been unsympathetic to the woman, but downright hostile. The woman is blamed for her plight because she apparently wears “7th century clothing” and didn't declare clearly enough her rejection of “Islamo-fascist” terrorist aspirations when she put in her application. One letter writer encouraged this woman to be patient with us Americans, since the danger of terrorist attacks is so high in Lompoc that we need time to get to know her before we can trust her.
The stereotype that many Americans have of a Muslim is that of terrorist. But there are all kinds of terrorists. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were terrorists, but they weren't Muslims. The IRA and the Ulster Defense League were terrorist organizations, but they aren't Muslim either. Indeed, the British considered George Washington to be a terrorist. The reality is that the numbers of American Muslims with terrorist sympathies is incredibly small, and the likelihood that a Muslim woman living in Lompoc and wearing a hejab would be involved in a terrorist cell is plausible I suppose, but incredibly unlikely.
Ultimately this isn't just about an account that was denied, it is a symptom of a bigger problem in our society. That problem is a resurgent nativism that encourages us to fear the other - whether that other is Mexican, Asian, or Muslim. This nativist tendency is played out in the immigration debate as well, but here the issue is religious differences. There is great fear among some that “Christian” dominance is being threatened - but in the end our “dominance cannot be sustained by angry acts of discrimination. Our relationships with Muslims both here and abroad aren't aided by fear mongers on talk radio who raise the specter of an “Islamo-fascist” threat.
“Islamofascism” has become a fashionable term, but what does it mean? Fascism is defined in the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary as:
“A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
While it's true that some Islamist groups have autocratic and overly nationalist intentions, the question is: how does a local Muslim woman seeking to open a bank account become the face of such efforts? What danger to America's national identity is posed by a woman dressed in a hejab?
Earlier fascist movements - such as Hitler's and Mussolini's - built on the same kind of fear that incites these kinds of responses to our Muslim neighbors. Hitler was very adept at manipulating the fears of people who felt their way of life was threatened. Could the fascists in our own land not be the Muslims in our midst, but those who raise the bloody flag of “Islamo-fascism?”
Ultimately Matt Hughes's letter gets it right. He puts the shoe on the other foot, and asks the majority culture in this country to consider how it would feel to be in a similar situation. He makes a good point by suggesting that we “try to judge people by their actions, not by their appearances.” If in protecting ourselves we trample on the very principles that make our nation great, do we not undermine our nation's credibility in the world?
Is there a danger posed by terrorism in the world today? Yes, of course. But when acknowledgment of that possibility becomes hysteria, then innocent people will not only experience discrimination, their very lives could be put in danger.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc. He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and may be contacted at email@example.com or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.
November 25, 2007