Liberty and xenophobia don't make comfortable bedfellows. In a community consumed by grossly irrational hatred - including racism and sectarianism - economic and political freedom will never flourish.
This simple fact was taken for granted 140 years ago by American anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips, who spoke the famous words that are now part of political folklore of Western liberal democracies:
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States and much of Western Europe, paranoid xenophobia has reared its ugly head at times.
Seventy years ago, mainstream newspapers in parts of Europe sought to make Europe's small Jewish minority responsible for economic and political woes.
By 1945, Hitler's regime had massacred millions on the basis of ethnic and religious identity.
Today, irrational hatred is again endangering our fragile liberal democracies. The paranoid rants of Osama bin Laden and his ilk against the Crusader West and against Jews and Hindus, have led to horrific atrocities such as Americans saw on September 11 and that Iraqis see every day.
Since September 11, Wendell Phillips' historic sentiments are fast being abandoned by some so-called conservative Americans who pride themselves as being guardians of liberty. Instead of distancing themselves from the sectarian paranoia of al Qaeda, they mimic the hatred and direct it towards anyone they consider to be associated with Islamist terrorists. Two examples in US politics illustrate the growing environment of American xenophobia. At the last congressional elections, the voters of Minnesota sent America's first Muslim to Washington. Criminal defence lawyer Keith Ellison easily beat his Republican opponent, academic Alan Fine.
Minnesota is a Democratic Party stronghold and Fine had little chance of winning. This didn't stop Fine from playing the religion card. Before polling day, he said:
I'm extremely concerned about Keith Ellison, Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Ellison Muhammad ... I'm personally offended, as a Jew, that we have a candidate like this running for Congress.Ironically, Fine was condemned by his own brother, who defended Ellison. Things didn't end there for Ellison, who made public his wish to place his hand on the Koran at a swearing-in ceremony. A neo-conservative talkback host from Philadelphia posed this offensive question to Ellison on CNN:
Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.Writing on the conservative commentary website Townhall.com, Dick Prager lamented that Ellison would not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran. According to Prager, this act undermines American civilisation.
Ellison did swear on the Koran , his critics silenced when it was revealed that Ellison borrowed from the Library of Congress the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States.
Another example concerns Barack Obama, the Democratic Party senator from Chicago who hopes to be the first African-American to occupy the White House. If his allegedly conservative opponents have their way, Obama's mother's matrimonial choices may be used against him. Obama regards himself as a Christian. He shares his Christian name with millions of Muslims.
His father was a Kenyan of Muslim heritage and nominally of the Muslim religion.
Obama's middle name is Hussein, but he rarely uses that name in public. This doesn't stop the journalistic imbeciles at Fox News from repeating the views of far-right magazines claiming that Obama is, in effect, a Muslim posing as a Christian.
The tabloid TV network cited a story from Insight Magazine claiming that for four years Obama was educated at a madrassah terrorist training school in Indonesia, funded by Saudi Arabia and preaching Islamic fundamentalist Wahabi doctrine.
Anyone familiar with Indonesian Islam knows that most Indonesian Muslim religious schools (known as pesantran, not madrassah) are managed by small communities under the auspices of large religious foundations such as Nahdhatul Ulama, who are very hostile to Wahabi doctrine. Few receive funds from the Indonesian Government, let alone the Saudis.
Later, CNN and Associated Press did some digging and discovered that Obama never attended a pesantran. He attended a state-run school in Jakarta, where most students were Muslim - as you would expect in the world's largest Muslim-majority state.
With Keith Ellison, it was a case of having the wrong religion. But with Barack Obama it was a case of having a mother who twice married men of Muslim heritage.
Yet, as the Washington Post says:
A President with an understanding of Islam and the developing world would be welcomed by those who too often feel misunderstood and slighted by the United States.Thankfully, the xenophobia of Muslim-haters can only have so much influence in the Land of the Free. However, the fact that sectarian and racist rhetoric continue to be effective political tools is cause for continuing concern. Effective vigilance must remain eternal if liberty is to be protected.
First published in the New Zealand Herald on 28 February 2007.
Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf
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