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A closer look at Islamophobia

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 28, 2008 | 11:15 am

Andrea Elliott won a Pulitzer last year for her amazing series “Imam in America.” In today’s New York Times, she tells another powerful story about American Muslims. Her subject is Debbie Almontaser, who last year started an academy that would teach Arabic to its students, Arab American and those of other ethnicities.

Weeks before classes even began, though, Almontaser resigned as its founding principal. Here’s why:

Ms. Almontaser, a teacher by training and an activist who had carefully built ties with Christians and Jews, said she was forced to resign by the mayorâ€(tm)s office following a campaign that pitted her against a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda.

In newspaper articles and Internet postings, on television and talk radio, Ms. Almontaser was branded a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” She stood accused of harboring unpatriotic leanings and of secretly planning to proselytize her students. Despite Ms. Almontaserâ€(tm)s longstanding reputation as a Muslim moderate, her critics quickly succeeded in recasting her image.

The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Ms. Almontaserâ€(tm)s downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle.

“Itâ€(tm)s a battle thatâ€(tm)s really just begun,” said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Ms. Almontaser and the school.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, critics of radical Islam focused largely on terrorism, scrutinizing Muslim-American charities or asserting links between Muslim organizations and violent groups like Hamas. But as the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.

Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.

The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.

“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.”

Mr. Pipes refers to this new enemy as the “lawful Islamists.”

They are carrying out a “soft jihad,” said Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York and a vocal opponent of the Khalil Gibran school.

This is ridiculous. Pipes has a point when Pew contains details like this or a protest at UC Irvine carries messages like this. But not when it comes to preventing American Muslims from enjoying the religious freedom most of us have in this country.

How easily Pipes and Wiesenfeld overlook that wherever Jews have lived (and, of course, this is before they were expelled or worse) they have taken their unique cultural observances, like not working or handling money on the Sabbath. And what about Christian doctors who refuse to perform abortions? How are these examples different than using a bank compliant with sharia, or having a footbath at NYU or not transporting a passenger carrying alcohol?

These politically motivated attacks fall into the category of Islamophobia. I first wrote about this fear of everything Islam last spring, and I received a ton of hate mail for it. This post should turn up some gems.

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