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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Muslims deal with stereotypes

Six years ago this month, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed when Islamic terrorists committed what some would call the ultimate hate crime.

Consumed by a heady mix of contempt for the United States and a twisted love for Islam, they commandeered planeloads of people and crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

Most of the people in the buildings who didn't escape were reduced to ash and DNA.

Collective shock and sorrow over the attacks soon turned into outrage. But for many, the outrage soon metastasized into hate.

Hatred toward anyone with olive skin and dark hair, bedecked in a head scarf or turban.

Hatred like the kind that caused a man in Mesa, Ariz., to drive into a Chevron station and fatally shoot its Sikh owner.

Hatred toward anyone who dared fly while being an American of Middle Eastern descent. Or Muslim.

It has been a struggle to get much of society to see past the cloud of suspicion that enveloped all Middle Eastern Americans and Muslims on Sept. 11, 2001.

But it's getting better.

"We are going through a phrase where a great deal of this paranoia occurred, but is now subsiding," said M. Ashraf Shaikh, a founding member of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, who also said that after Sept. 11, 2001, the center had to deal with picketers out front. "But it has also caused some members of the non-Muslim community to learn more about Islam.

"We also feel pain as Muslims, because those who perpetuated those acts call themselves Muslims ... [Islam's] image has been tarnished because of a few criminals, but instead of them alone being blamed, the faith that I cherish is being blamed for it."

But even though fewer bias crimes against Muslims are being reported, fears about Muslims are still being fed - mostly by people who have turned fear and hatred into a cottage industry.

There are the preachers who believe that glorifying Christ means vilifying Islam.

Yet as people remain fixated on Islam being the only fount of terrorism that threatens the United States, more such founts are threatening to erupt. And they aren't all coming from al-Qaida.

Mike German, a former FBI agent who specialized in domestic counterterrorism from 1988 to 2004, warned that homegrown extremism - extremism like the kind that killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing - is escalating.

In a 2005 Washington Post article, he wrote about how the FBI tends to classify terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who was behind the Oklahoma City bombing, as "lone wolf" terrorists.

But German said that "lone wolf" label ignores the fact that McVeigh spent quite a bit of time hanging out with militias and white supremacist groups, while Eric Rudolph, who set off a nail bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and bombed two abortion clinics and a gay bar, was reared in the Christian Identity Movement, a hate group.

And these non-Muslim, homegrown hate groups are everywhere.

The point here, of course, isn't to compare the capabilities of fanatics to use religion as a license to destroy rather than redeem or create. But whenever I hear of someone like Shaikh talk of how painful it is to hear his religion being constantly demeaned since Sept. 11, 2001, I think about the burden he and other Muslims have to shoulder when people single them out as potential terrorists rather than citizens.

I think about the pain of him having to hear pundits shriek about how Muslims should be put in internment camps basically for committing an act of religion.

And I have to wonder: Would those pundits have recommended the same thing for McVeigh? [Link]

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