Dozens of events organized under the banner “March Against Sharia” were held across the country last month. Organizers said that the effort was not anti-Muslim, but there can be no question that the campaign to depict sharia as a threat to the Constitution, and to pass “anti-sharia” laws at the state level, is about portraying American Muslims as un-American.
Such views have had deadly consequences.
These anti-sharia marches – organized by a group called ACT for America,which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) classifies as an extremist anti-Muslim organization – did not take place in a vacuum. They came shortly after a horrific incident in Portland, Oregon, in which a white nationalist who was screaming anti-Muslim abuse at two teenage girls brutally stabbed three men who stepped in to defend them. U.S. Army veteran Ricky Best, 53, the father of four children, and recent college graduate Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, were killed.
Our sorrow over these events is compounded by knowing that they are part of a broader reality in the United States since President Donald Trump’s election, in which harassment, intimidation and physical violence against Muslims, people wrongly perceived to be Muslims, and other religious and ethnic minorities have been on the rise.
In the first 10 days after his victory, the SPLC reported 867 incidents of harassment and intimidation. The group also reported that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States went from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents over the same year.
Behind these numbers are real people, sacred sites and wounded communities. Hate crime charges have been filed against a man accused of setting the fire that destroyed a mosque in Victoria, Texas, in January. In February, a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized (Muslims stepped forward to raise money for repairs). In May, African-American Richard Collins, a newly commissioned U.S. Army second lieutenant on the verge of graduating from Bowie State University, was stabbed to death, allegedly by another student who belonged to an “alt-Reich” white-supremacist online group.
Has our president paused to wonder why his campaign and election have coincided with such attacks?
In Virginia, where I live, a Muslim teenager was killed last month as she walked with friends near their mosque. It was a horrific and senseless crime that has deeply shaken the community. Police think the killing grew out of a “road rage” dispute, but how could you blame Muslims for fearing that she was targeted for her faith? And how could you blame Muslims for grieving that the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia has not been able to bring himself to renounce the support he had sought from a local Republican leader who works for ACT for America?
The campaign against sharia reflects, at best, a deep misunderstanding of what sharia is and, at worst, a willingness to blame all Muslims for the heinous acts of those few who brutalize others in the name of Islam. Such misplaced blame can lead to piling tragedy upon tragedy.
ACT for America’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, had said that a practicing Muslim who believes the words of the Koran “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” Lest you think this view is relegated to the political extremes, virtually identical language – “devout Muslims cannot truthfully swear the oath to become citizens of the United States of America” – has been used by the American Center for Law and Justice, whose founder, Jay Sekulow, is part of Trump’s personal legal team. As a Muslim, a patriotic American and a Gold Star father, these false assertions offend me deeply.
Other conservative Christians who rub shoulders with prominent Republican officials have argued that Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian ideology, and that therefore American Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Some of those who refrain from saying such things decline to speak out against those who do.
This is a dangerous form of divisiveness that is completely contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution. Intimidating and threatening communities on the basis of their religion goes against the core values of this country.
Khan is a board member of People For the American Way.