This Sunday, millions of devout Americans in cities across the country will go to church. But what would happen if instead of entering peaceful places of worship, they encountered hundreds of hostile protesters, some armed with assault rifles, surrounding their churches screaming profanity-laced anti-Christian slurs?
Americans would rightly be outraged, because such hatred and intimidation offends our bedrock principle of religious freedom. Sadly, this is not a hypothetical scenario. It is a reality some Muslims worshipers will be facing.
This weekend, a hate group named the Oath Keepers has organized events in 20 cities called the Global Rally for Humanity. Thousands are predicted to gather to stoke public prejudice, even as some Republican presidential candidates add fuel to the fire with their own rhetoric.
This will not have been the first time these protests have happened. In May, protesters, some armed with AK-47s, surrounded a Mosque in Phoenix, spewing hate speech and intimidating worshipers. After the protest, Christian and Jewish religious leaders gathered at the Islamic Community Center for a solidarity vigil to reject the message of hatred and build interfaith understanding. Neighborhood churches provided a safe place for Phoenix’s Muslim Americans to pray until the hateful protests ended.
This unity and moral courage truly reflects who we really are as a country.
The bigotry and hatred championed by groups like the Oath Keepers does not represent the majority of Americans, who believe in a pluralistic and democratic society. But it is incumbent upon the majority to speak truth to hate. To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: An attack on religious freedom anywhere is a threat to religious freedom everywhere.
These protests are designed to generate fear. And they are harmful. Using hate speech and misinformation to exploit fears and secure authority has long been a danger to the freedom and safety of minorities.
Neuroscience teaches something about why bigots try to induce fear: Fear makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity and prejudice. When we are afraid, we are less likely to think critically, challenge authority or judge objectively — all critical components of an informed citizenry participating in a representative democracy. Fear works for demagogues who want to control people.
Anti-Islamic rhetoric is a political tactic to divide Americans and win elections. Many blame terrorism in the name of Islam for anti-Muslim sentiment, however polling data over the past 14 years suggests that fear of Muslims and Islam is linked more to election cycles than terrorist acts, especially among Republicans. For example, the percentage of Americans who believe there is a link between Islam and violence did not change after the Boston bombing in 2013. That number, however, rose 10 percentage points among Republicans during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles.
This campaign season is no different. A September poll of North Carolina Republican primary voters, for example, found that 72% believed a Muslim could not be president. Forty percent of this group was also as likely to say Islam should be illegal.
These bigoted views do not reflect the principles of our multicultural society or the views of most Americans. In fact, results from a Gallup Poll indicate the majority of Americans would support a well-qualified person for president, regardless of his or her religious affiliation. Unfortunately, the Global Rally for Humanity events accentuate an already poisonous political climate as GOP presidential candidates are competing, yet again, to see who can capitalize most on the call to exclude millions of American Muslims from their country’s political life.
Ironically, those making or tolerating virulent anti-Islamic comments don’t realize their actions empower terrorist groups like ISIS. When people assert Islam is incompatible with American values, they make common cause with ISIS, which recruits Muslims who feel angry and isolated from the rest of America. The more Muslims are isolated from society and political processes, the stronger ISIS’ message becomes.
Efforts to combat prejudice and exclusion are being led by American Muslims who are responding with greater civic engagement and coalition building. Some American Muslims are engaging by dedicating their lives to public service. These Muslim men and women are breaking down barriers and working to protect the freedoms of every American.
So, how should we respond to groups like the Oath Keepers?
The intended impact of anti-Muslim hate rallies is intimidation and exclusion. The most effective response is not silence or even a counter-rally, but instead a massive voter drive and calls to elected officials asking them to defend American pluralism.
Yet the response cannot be limited to American Muslims. Those who believe in the fundamental rights of all Americans to worship freely and receive equal treatment under the law must speak out against fear-mongering in our political culture.
Freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble are bedrock principles that distinguish free societies from tyrannical regimes. These freedoms, however, are not absolute. The Constitution does not protect behavior that prevents the free exercise of religion or causes the incitement of violence or prejudice against protected groups.
No matter which group is targeted for hate — blacks, Jews or gays — fear mongering threatens our democracy that celebrates differences and a system of justice that strives for equality under the law.
Our founding principles were created by those with moral courage. Let us follow their example and call the Global Rally for Humanity what it really is: anti-American.