The Increasingly Fraught Position of American Muslims

In politics and cultural controversies, the religious minority group is increasingly and unjustly vilified.

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Opining on the effort to persuade advertisers to boycott the reality television show All-American Muslim, Jonah Goldberg said something wise. "Isn't it a good thing that there's a show celebrating the fact that you can love America and be a Muslim?" he writes. "Is it really such a disaster to have a show propagating the idea that you can embrace modernity and American values and still be a Muslim?" Indeed it is a good thing, for the overwhelming majority of American Muslims are upstanding citizens who do in fact daily embrace the values of this country.

A commenter at National Review makes a similar point:

I, somewhat randomly, attended the annual convention of ISNA, the largest Muslim organization in the United States a few years ago. It was a massive affair in a Chicago convention center, attended by tens of thousands of people and it was EASILY among the most boring events I've ever been to. Tens of thousands of people schlepping their kids around to endless booths, selling halal cookbooks, prayer mats, and other random ephemera, while there were panel discussions about whether kids should attend public or religious schools, about discrimination in the workplace, etc. The young people were relentlessly flirting and getting into minor mischief. It reminded me EXACTLY of the Jewish conferences I attended in my youth.

This is the face of Muslim America. This is the face of America. Anybody who's been swept up in the nonsense that Islam is incompatible with America should be sentenced to witness with endless line of minivans filled with whining kids at the ISNA convention. Maybe this show will have a similar effect. To boycott is utter nonsense.

Alas, it is nonsense with a precedent. In this year's GOP primary, Herman Cain advocated requiring Muslim American appointees to take a special oath before being permitted to work in the White House. The current frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, suggested that Muslim Americans should not be able to build a mosque several blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan until Saudi Arabia permitted the construction of synagogues and churches anywhere in the country. Another way to put this is that bigotry against Muslims, including calls to deny them rights guaranteed by the Constitution, is no obstacle to winning the GOP nomination.

It is alarming that even as we're getting farther from the September 11 attacks, demagoguery targeting Muslim Americans seems to be increasing, at least among political elites -- partly because George W. Bush, for all his flaws, commendably made sure o explicitly encourage tolerance in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

On the other hand, Muslim Americans have special reason to be alarmed by the PATRIOT Act -- and to fear domestic spying, President Obama's decision to assassinate an American citizen without due process, and senators like Lindsay Graham and John McCain who'd give the executive branch the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens without charges or trial by jury. Those infringements on civil liberties ought to be worrisome to us all, of course, but Muslim Americans have the most to fear, because they are most likely to be falsely accused of terrorism and least likely to inspire widespread popular backlash if they are indefinitely detained.

That is the context in which we should see the controversy over All-American Muslim, the Christian group urging advertisers to pull their support, and the decision by Lowe's Home Improvement to capitulate to it. It is now controversial merely to portray actual American Muslims if they come across as normal. That fact, coupled with the steady erosion of civil liberties protections against government abuse in the War on Terror, has to be terrifying to anyone pondering what might happen if there is another successful attack on America in the near future. Should innocent Muslim Americans be detained after such an event, responsibility will fall not only on government officials but on everyone who was complicit in empowering them.  

Image credit: Flickr user Cod Gabriel
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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