By Jason Johnson
“I will do all I can to break down the wall of political correctness and drive the public debate on Islamic radicalization.”
Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) Dec. 20, 2010
The incoming Republican Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress has thrown down the gauntlet against Islam. The problem is that the “Islam” question in American politics has for too long been muddied by international fears, racism, nationalism and a general lack of education in the American public.
So, when a prominent American politician declares that he’s taking an entire religion and its followers to task, the question is what are Muslim Americans going to do about it?
Over the last decade, whenever there have been political questions about Islam in America, the answers have often come from Muslim immigrants, the nation of Islam or even leaders from abroad; seldom from homegrown African-American Muslims. This is strange considering that African Americans make up over 25 percent of the eight million Muslims living in America today.
In the face of more aggressive Transportation Safety Administration pat downs, (news analyst and commentator) Juan Williams claiming Muslims on airplanes frighten him and other discriminatory acts, African Americans who happen to be Muslim are finally letting their voices be heard. And unlike some other groups, the unique history of African Americans means they aren’t taking “Islmaphobia” lying down.
A clear example of this new discrimination and the voices speaking out against is the case of Basheer Jones, who is about as African, and American, as apple pie and he’s Muslim. Jones, a Morehouse alumni and former Cleveland radio host, planned to put on an end of Ramadan celebration last fall with a business partner at the famed Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The event was to feature poetry, dance and musical acts but was cancelled by Fox at the last minute.
According to emails sent by employees of the theatre to the businessmen their event “…was a Muslim event and it just falls too close to the anniversary of 9-11!” The story became huge news in Atlanta but received little national attention.
A couple of months later Jones is the spokesperson for the Islamic World Conference to be held on January 14th in Atlanta. The conference is meant to promote the idea that Islam is a religion of peace but with a new twist. The passive voice might be a thing of the past.
“Most media focuses on Muslim immigrants who just want to come here and be accepted, or the nation of Islam that has its own agenda. But Black Americans, we have our own story to tell and we’re not just going to sit back while our rights and dignity are taken away,” said Jones.
Political and religious leaders have been waging war against Islam for almost a decade now and all too often some of this behavior is promoted and tolerated within the African-American community. From barbershops to pulpits to Congressional podiums a sort of “Islamaphobia” has been fomented that does this nation and its future no good.
I am generally loath to use the suffix “phobia” on any word as it suggests an irrational fear of a particular people or idea. There are legitimate reasons for Americans to fear extremists and some of those extremists are Muslim. However, Christian Nationalists groups have been sprouting up all over the United States since the Clinton administration and you didn’t see Republican members of Congress saying they were going to stamp out the radicalized Christians who were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. When we conflate religion, nation and a race of people no good can come of it for public discourse or American policy.
The Islamic World Conference looks to be quite a show. There will be a showing of the new film “Mooz-Lum” by Qasim Basir, starring Nia Long and Danny Glover. There will be Muslim Ambassadors from South Africa, there will be music, and there will be dance. But most importantly there will be dialogue, and there will be voices from the African-American community that are seldom heard and even fewer times respected.
We are looking at the prospect of a Republican Congress that plans on stirring up whatever hostility they can against the fastest growing faith in the United States. Therefore it is in the best interest of all patriotic Americans to support any attempt to set the dialogue and policy discussion in the right direction. There are a lot more Basheer Joneses than Timothy McVeighs in this country and that’s something we should celebrate no matter what Congressman King wants to promote.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)