Confronting Religious Extremists, Combating Hatred

What's the best strategy for dealing with a Christian extremist who spews hatred that could only be classified as being Islamophobic at every turn? Some, including a number of my students, have counseled that ignoring the perpetrator is the most effective way of countering his vile opinions.

At some level, I agree. There's no reason to give such extreme views more attention than they would otherwise get. However, when the person in question has a national platform and is able to reach millions of people, ignoring the situation makes no sense to me. Under such circumstances, I believe we have to focus on the terribly divisive words and encourage others to recognize them as the hate speech they are.

This question has arisen for me because of a recent essay I wrote criticizing some of Bryan Fischer's outrageous statements about Muslims. He published a rant arguing that Islam, unlike other religions, is not protected by the very clear words in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." And in another screed, he's taken an inflammatory position fully and horrifyingly described in the piece's eleven word title: "Time to restrict Muslim immigration to U.S., send them back home."

Have I helped promote Fischer's hateful position by giving his views additional attention? Given the multiple platforms that Fischer has at his disposal to engage large audiences, I doubt that my writing is extending his reach. Instead, I would like to think that I've brought his tirades to the attention of those who neither were likely to have encountered them on their own nor apt to accept his disgraceful arguments.

Let me remind you just who Bryan Fischer is and the power he apparently wields in conservative and extremist circles. He is the director of issues analysis for the American Family Association (AFA), he hosts Focal Point, a talk show on American Family Radio, and posts regularly on the AFA-run blog, Rightly Concerned. More than that, potential presidential candidates vying for the Tea Party vote seem to be falling all over themselves to be interviewed by Fischer. Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty have all recently been guests on his radio show.

Fischer's employer, the AFA, makes the interesting claim on its website that it has "over two million online supporters and approximately 180,000 paid subscribers" to its print journal. Even if those self-reported numbers are greatly inflated, clearly the AFA has a frighteningly large number of followers.

The AFA hired Fischer in 2009 and by all accounts has been thrilled by the attention he's brought to the organization, apparently figuring that the venom he spews will be returned in the form of increased donations. Although the AFA professes to be a Christian group and claims that it works to "restrain evil" and "promote virtue," it appears to revel in Fischer's hatred. It certainly has done nothing to restrain him, not even after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently put the AFA on its list of hate groups. The SPLC has noted that Fischer is as rabidly homophobic as he is Islamophobic, pointing to his advocacy of criminalizing homosexual behavior and forcing gays into "reparative" therapy.

The fact is, however, there's good reason to believe that Fischer and the AFA are very far out of the American mainstream. Despite their best efforts and the work of many Republicans who have been stoking the flames of fear in Tennessee, a poll conducted last fall by researchers at Middle Tennessee State University provide some positive news: Only 14 percent (and I can't help but wonder who exactly these people are who constitute that 14 percent) of Tennesseans surveyed disagreed with the statement "that Muslims deserve the same rights as any Americans."

(The poll yielded some strange results as well: 32 percent of the respondents indicated that they thought that Muslims should be required to register their whereabouts with the government. The implication is that a bit more than half of those people, those who believe that Muslims should have the same rights as any other American, would argue that everyone should be required to register with the government!)

The views of Fischer and the AFA are demonstrably extreme but ignoring their message is not an effective counter-strategy. Looking the other way in the face of such vile language simply permits the hatred to grow. Instead, we need to raise our voices to condemn the intolerance being preached while making it clear to political candidates that there will be electoral consequences for those who embrace their vitriol and share their airways. Together we can put an end to the hatred.