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Is the tea-party movement Islamophobic?

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Charles C. Haynes
July 31, 2010

The current wave of anti-mosque protests around the country represents a new threat to the religious freedom of Muslims in America—a threat directed not at terrorists who act in the name of Islam, but at all Muslims and Islam itself.


Incidents of discrimination and bias aimed at Muslim Americans have been rising since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But anti-Muslim rhetoric has taken an ominous turn in recent months as a growing number of political and community leaders—some with tea-party affiliations—have begun warning of a “Muslim takeover” of America.


For anyone with even passing familiarity with Muslims and Muslim institutions in the United States, the notion that Islam in America is the source of a conspiracy to subvert the Constitution is a ridiculous and paranoid fantasy. Mosques have long dotted our landscape—and Muslim Americans have been loyal and engaged citizens in the U.S. for generations.


But this history doesn’t stop speakers at rallies and meetings from New York to California from sounding the alarm, telling angry protesters that mosques are a danger to America because—and this is the new line of attack—Islam is not really a religious tradition but a political movement working to impose Islamic law on the rest of us.


Tea-party activists have been at the forefront of the growing anti-mosque campaign. In June, for example, Lou Ann Zelenik, a tea-party leader and Republican candidate for Congress in Tennessee, described a planned Islamic center in Murfreesboro as “an Islamic training center” that is part of a political, not religious, movement “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.”


On July 14, hundreds of Murfreesboro residents marched to oppose the Islamic center, petitioning county officials to halt construction. Protesters held signs proclaiming “Islam is not a religion.”


Next up, a rally was scheduled for July 30 in Temecula, Calif., organized by local tea-party groups, to oppose plans to build an Islamic center there. An advisory from a tea-party leader warns that “Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide movement meant [sic] on domination of the world.”


In recent months, tea-party groups in New York have also helped organize opposition to mosques in Manhattan (the controversial plan to build an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero), Brooklyn and Staten Island. Tea-party meetings in Tennessee, Texas and California feature speakers warning of the “Islamization of America.”


In an ironic twist reminiscent of the anti-Catholic rallies of the 19th century (warning against “Romanism” seeking “despotic control” of America), anti-mosque protests in Murfreesboro, Temecula and elsewhere feature groups of citizens invoking their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly to call for denying another group of citizens First Amendment protection.


By labeling Islam “political,” mosque opponents tap into anti-Muslim hysteria without appearing to attack religious faith or religious freedom. Last week, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a tea-party backed Republican candidate for governor, took refuge in this characterization of Islam in answer to a question about the “invasion” of Muslims in America.


Ramsey said he was for religious freedom, but against what he described as efforts to “bring sharia (Islamic) law” into Tennessee. “You could even argue,” he added, “whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it.”


Such ill-informed, inflammatory statements must be music to al-Qaida’s ears. After all, al-Qaida has worked hard to convince the Muslim world that its political and violent ideology is the true face of Islam—and America’s “war on terrorism” is actually a “war on Islam.”


If the anti-mosque protests are any indication, Islamophobia—the fear and loathing of Islam as a “violent political ideology”—is a growing threat to religious freedom in the United States. And in many communities, some tea-party activists are actively encouraging and supporting this dangerous trend.


Since “tea party” is a label adopted by many loosely affiliated groups with a range of agendas, it is difficult to say how widely supported the “stop the Islamization of America” propaganda is in the tea-party movement. If there are counter-voices in the ranks, they have been silent.


Now would be a good time for tea-party activists of conscience to speak out against anti-Muslim rhetoric—and speak up for religious freedom.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at theNewseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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