Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Defeating hatred in America

By Hassan Shibly | | June 1, 2012 | [Original Article]

Today is my one-year anniversary in Tampa as executive director and legal counsel of CAIR Florida. It has been a year of tremendous responsibility, challenges and accomplishments. Since moving to Tampa I have joined the Florida Bar Association, been blessed with a beautiful daughter, enjoyed excellent fishing in the Gulf and made many wonderful friends.

The events of the past year have greatly increased my appreciation for the great freedoms we are guaranteed as Americans. This year has also taught me that some people will question my loyalty and integrity as an American, label me as "the other" and never accept me as a fellow countryman, simply because of my religion.

It seems that since the abhorrent events of 9/11 every Muslim has become guilty until proven innocent. This collective punishment and irrational fear of Muslims and Muslim organizations is nothing new. We have seen this against African-Americans, Japanese, Jews, the Irish, Catholics and many other minorities in our nation's history. The theme that Jews were taught by their religion to lie so they could take over has been used by Nazi propagandists before the Holocaust. And today, we find that same theme being promoted by local hate groups against American Muslims.

To this day, some people expect me and other Muslims to answer for the atrocious attacks of 9/11. But when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was in a 10th-grade public high school class in New York, watching in tears and horror. I was a victim of 9/11, as all Americans were.

It would be patently unreasonable to expect Christians or Christianity to answer for the slaughter in Norway by Anders Breivik in the name of Western Christianity. His terrorist attacks, which killed 77 in Oslo, were inspired by American anti-Muslim groups and bloggers. Yet these same hate groups and their supporters blame all Muslims for the acts of a deranged few; the double standard is clear.

The government has, on occasion, supported this idea of collective punishment for Muslims and, in doing so, has made our nation both less free and less secure. This includes the New York Police Department spying on Muslims simply for being Muslim; the "special" treatment most Muslims get at airports; the labeling of every major Muslim organization as "unindicted co-conspirator" to wrongly defame them; and opposition to mosques and attempts to outlaw Muslim tradition. These attacks against religious freedom and theories of guilt by association are abhorrent to our ideals as Americans.

I experienced this government discrimination for the first time when I was 18 and the government decided to detain all attendees of a mainstream Islamic conference. It was this first major incident of profiling I faced that prompted my desire to become a civil rights attorney. At that young age I felt the principals that make America a beacon of freedom — freedom of religion, speech and association — were being threatened by overhyped fear of Muslims, and that it was up to us to defend our Constitution and American freedoms, lest we lose them by taking them for granted.

In the seven years since, I have become an imam, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the largest Muslim civil rights organization in Florida. This past year we worked with diverse interfaith and civil rights coalitions to defeat legislation that threatened religious freedoms; we have won many cases on behalf of victims of discrimination and built strong coalitions to defend freedom and justice.

In the course of this work, I have been called a terrorist a few times and even received threats against my family. But this hatred has only reinforced my desire to keep working to unite our community through understanding and tolerance. The beauty of our nation is that the same laws that give freedom to those who promote hatred and intolerance also give us the freedom and ability to challenge such hatred. I find comfort in remembering the sacrifice, struggles and opposition faced by all those who stood against fear mongering, discrimination and hatred throughout our nation's history.

Our challenge as fellow Americans is not to defeat our enemies but to defeat the enmity we have for each other in our hearts. United we stand; divided we fall. Thank God for the U.S. Constitution, which I have had the privilege of defending for the past year, and hopefully for many years to come.

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