BOSTON (JTA) — In recent months our society has devolved into one more and more characterized by polarization, rage, stridency and partisanship.
We find ourselves in a time where people are put to loyalty tests, where one’s motivation in disagreeing is interpreted in the most cynical way no matter the record of the individual. And it opens one up to hyperbolic charges of one kind of another. People can’t just have different legitimate opinions anymore — they are charged with being guilty of betrayals, of conspiracies, of abandonment of principles, of endangering all our values.
Most symptomatic is the tendency to exploit issues associated with an ethnic, racial or religious group by reviving or updating stereotypes about a particular community.
Unfortunately, this is not new to America. The classic case study is the treatment of African Americans.
As American Jews we have been subjected to virulent anti-Semitism, often with the acquiescence of government or its apathy. Catholics, too, were victims of religious prejudice. As recent as 50 years ago, some questioned whether a Catholic should be president: Would John F. Kennedy be directed by the pope rather than the American people? Mormons continue to be ridiculed for their religious beliefs.
Now, as a result of the debate surrounding the mosque near Ground Zero, we are witnessing a surge in anti-Muslim bigotry. It is evident that this surge is taking place with greater force now than at a time when one might have expected it, immediately after 9/11.
At that time we were worried about an explosion of hatred against American Muslims, particularly after there were a few serious incidents following the terrorist tragedy. As things turned out, anti-Muslim bigotry did not explode. Yes, there were incidents, and even one is too many, but dire predictions did not materialize.
But now, nine years later, we are seeing a surge of incidents. I believe it is related to the broader trends in America — the lack of civility, the tendency to see enemies all around and the reinforcement of prejudicial views rather than diverse views.
Islam is one of the world’s great religions. But like Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism and others, if it isn’t your religion you most likely have little knowledge, if any, of its beliefs and practices. Ignorance has always been one of the common denominators of those who are bigoted against “the others.” And ignorance can breed fear, which too easily can become hatred.
The Muslim community in America is being confronted by ugly, in-your-face religious bigotry and we must speak out against it, educate against it and label it anti-American.
Therefore, despite the fact that there is a serious enmity between the Children of Ishmael and the Children of Isaac; despite the fact that the greatest conveyer belt for anti-Semitic incitement in the world today comes from the Muslim world — in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Europe and even in Latin America; and despite the fact that Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Iranian regime purport to speak in the name of Islam, and commit to end Israel’s existence and to the destruction of the Jewish people — when religious bigotry rears its ugly head against Muslims, we must speak out.
We must differentiate between extreme theology and ideology in Islam, and condemn it and challenge it, while at the same time define and separate it from the non-extremist ideology and theology. We must condemn the brand of Islam that venerates violence and intolerance, and welcome into the modern world the rest of Islam that rejects violence and intolerance.
We must speak out when there are threats to burn the Muslim holy book, the Koran. ADL condemned the threat to burn the Koran on “Burn a Koran Day” in Gainesville, Fla., and spearheaded a coalition of interfaith leaders to speak out with the message of "we will not remain silent in the face of religious Intolerance.”
We must speak out when Muslims face opposition to the legal building, expansion or relocation of their houses of worship — their mosques, which is why we established an interfaith task force. We must speak out when Muslims are denied religious accommodation.
We believe you fight hatred — be it because of one’s religion, race, ethnicity — with legitimate action and civil discourse.
By standing up, speaking out, saying no to religious bigotry, gaining understanding and respect through education and working together, we can — to borrow an ADL catchphrase — make a world of difference and at the same time strengthen the fabric of our democratic and diverse society. We can do no less. We can help restore respect and civility.
(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This Op-Ed was adapted from a speech he delivered to ADL’s annual meeting in Boston on Oct. 7.)