There is a man who stands on North Michigan Avenue in
Chicago with a sign that says Russian spies are everywhere. Teenagers
scoff at him, tourists take pictures and laugh, local businessmen elbow
him out of their way as they hurry passed.
But I pay attention to him.
I remember my grade-school years during the Reagan era, when
movies like Red Dawn riled my friends and me up, had us planning how we
would take out the Russians when they arrived on our shores, or came out
of the trees in our backyard. “Russian” was the insult hurled at
whoever happened to be unpopular on the playground that day, a precursor
to a gang tackle and pummeling.
These days, it seems ludicrous to think of ordinary Russians
as our enemies. We understand that we were fighting a regime, not a
people. Now, when they hear the word “Russian”, young people are more
likely to think of Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, rather than Nikita
Which is precisely why we should be paying attention to the man with the
sign – he is a useful reminder of how quickly most of us return to our
senses once a frenzy of bigotry dies down. But he is also a reminder of
what is worst in us, of the times when we stereotype an entire race or
religion or ethnicity by the actions of its criminals.
The name that kids are called on the playground today before
being gang-tackled and pummeled is “Muslim”. And the bullying does not
stop there. It is being done by people who should know better in
quarters that are supposed to be more responsible.
In the world of media and books, Muslims are increasingly portrayed as a
potential fifth column, a threat that lives next door. Commentators
like Daniel Pipes spread crazy notions like “Sudden Jihad Syndrome”,
whereby your normal Muslim neighbor who works at the local car
dealership goes berserk and murders you in your driveway. Books by
former Muslims that blame Islam for everything bad in their lives and
the world become bestsellers by providing an “insider’s account” of the
evils of the faith. Prominent anchors like CNN’s Glenn Beck claim to
speak for the masses when he challenges Representative Keith Ellison, a
Congressperson from Minnesota who happens to be Muslim American: “Prove
to me that you are not working with our enemies”.
Their fear mongering is having an impact. Last year, a Gallup poll
found serious prejudice against Muslims. About 40 % of Americans admit
to feeling bias against Muslims, and about the same number support
increased security measures applicable only to Muslims, like carrying a
special identity card. This climate is at least partially responsible
for the spike in hate crimes against Muslims, which are according to FBI
statistics up a dramatic 400% from the years 2000 to 2005, a period
which otherwise saw a general decline in religiously-motivated hate
In this climate, the fear that Muslim Americans, and many government
officials, live with is this: how bad will the backlash be in the event
of another terrorist attack, regardless of whether the perpetrators are
part of the Christian Identity movement or al Qaeda?
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a report which found that
Muslims in America were “largely assimilated, happy with their lives,
and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided
Muslims and Westerners around the world.”
In other words, a largely immigrant community distinguished by its
religious belief is attempting to enfranchise itself in this nation
through the age-old methods of hard work and patriotic commitment, and
an industry of people has emerged to block their progress by speciously
linking them with criminals who happen to share a part of their
A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Muslim
Americans (disclosure: I was on the Task Force) makes the crucial point
that the challenges Muslims face are not just the problem of a minority
community, they are a violation of America’s ideals and a threat to her
strength. For centuries, this country has uniquely stood for the idea
that people from different backgrounds can live in equal dignity and
mutual loyalty within a single national community. Our worst moments
have been when we disenfranchise entire groups based on irrational fear.
My voice is hoarse from condemning terrorists who have perverted my
beloved religion, and so are the voices of all the Muslim Americans I
know. But it will take all of our voices, insisting on the American
ideal of pluralism, to defeat our real enemy. If there is one thing
that extremists who perpetrate acts of terror in the name of Islam hate
it is the idea of a place where people of all backgrounds thrive.
I fear for my community in these times, but I mourn for my
nation, because I believe her most cherished principles are seriously
under threat. The poison of bigotry is never satisfied with infecting
only one group, it always seeks to spread, and it inevitably winds up
diminishing us all.
I long for the time when that man on North Michigan Avenue
holds a sign that says Muslim terrorists are everywhere, and people
I long for America to be America again.