Elmhurst College: Islamophobia Flies in the Face of American Ideals

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Islamophobia Flies in the Face of American Ideals

Islamophobia, the unfounded fear of Islam and Muslims, threatens the constitutional right of religious freedom and contradicts the country’s values of tolerance and diversity.  

That was the central message of an April 25 panel discussion, Islamophobia: An Inquiry, that drew more than 300 students, faculty and community members to the Frick Center.

The discussion was moderated by Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes a global interfaith movement, who noted that the promise of religious freedom and threats to that freedom are deeply rooted in history.

Patel recounted that in 1790, in a letter to a Rhode Island Jewish congregation concerned about its ability to practice its faith, President George Washington assured the group that the government would “give bigotry no sanction” and that religious freedom was a pillar of the new country.

“That’s the America I was taught about when I was growing up,” said Patel, a Muslim who was raised in the Elmhurst area.

More than 200 years later, a Muslim-American ambulance driver who died in the World Trade Center destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, was vilified by attempts to portray him as a terrorist when in fact he was a patriotic American who perished while trying to save lives, Patel said.

“I don’t think Islamophobia is about Muslims. It is about America,” Patel said. “The great gift this country gave the world is that people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds could come together as a country. If we can’t accept the multiple contributions of all these diverse groups, we will never become a [cohesive] nation.”

The discussion of Islamophobia was part of Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith, the College’s yearlong series of dialogues on faith and its role in the modern world.

Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite, a theology professor and former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, showed a video of protestors in Orange County, California, waving U.S. flags while objecting to a fundraiser for a Muslim organization. Thistlethwaite said the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom is “America’s first freedom” because it is mentioned before freedom of speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government.

Bigotry must be met head-on
She termed such protests “anti-American” and said, “We need to be very clear that we have a common goal to protect America’s first freedom.”

Another panelist, Scott C. Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program and associate professor of Islam at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, discussed an article written in 1856 by a New York Congressman that warned of the growth of Papal power  and that the Catholic Church would “aid in the destruction of the Republic.”

Today, conservative Christians warn of “creeping Sharia,” the alleged efforts to impose Islamic laws in the U.S. that have prompted several states to consider legislation that would outlaw Sharia.  

Both are examples of religious bigotry sparked by perceived threats to the traditional power structure, Alexander said. “Religious bigotry hurts and often kills and can’t be tolerated in our society.”

Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said that despite the long-standing differences with Muslims, several Chicago-area Jewish organizations reached out to Muslims in the wake of 9/11.

“There are many points where we as Jews can poignantly feel the opportunities to join together and create community,” Ramsey said. “We need to push back against any forms of hate, discrimination and bigotry and instead work on the building of ties and understanding.”

Inamul Haq, adjunct professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Islamic Studies Program at Elmhurst, said America’s fear of Muslims “does not differentiate between a small criminal element and the total body of Muslims.”

Haq said “education and promoting human relations are most important” in persuading Americans to become more accepting of the 5 million Muslims in the U.S. Sharia is not a threat to America’s traditional laws because 90 percent of Sharia deals with personal and worship issues, not civil matters.

“Every Muslim is obligated to respect the laws where he lives,” Haq noted, adding that Muslims who call for full Sharia in the U.S. do not represent the majority. “In a free society we’re free to say anything we want, and some of those crazies will be Muslims.”

Thistlethwaite agreed that education is key. “We have to get to know our religious neighbors,” she said, but added that bigotry needs to be met head-on. “I’m okay with approaching people and saying, ‘Wouldn’t you rather not be a bigot?’”

Alexander took a more conciliatory tone, saying, “A lot of bigotry comes out of fear. We have to have a certain amount of compassion for those who have fear.”


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