"How do you tell someone he's a racist?"
During a recent lecture to graduate students on Islamophobia and how politicians portray Muslims, a student finally asked the most blunt question of the night.
People claim "Muslims aren't a race, so if I don't like Muslims, I can't be racist." As sociologist Dr. Craig Considine points out, racism goes beyond skin color alone, but also delves into religious and cultural elements. Such racism is on grand display as we observe the diametrically opposed narratives of how some right-wing politicians responded to the Planned Parenthood attack versus the San Bernardino attack.
Even before we had any indication of what might have motivated the two shooters accused of murdering 14 people in San Bernardino, Ted Cruz yelped,
"All of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home. Coming on the wake of a terror attack in Paris, this horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war."
Forget the fact that Cruz was speaking from a position of ignorance. Forget that we are not actually in any declared war with "radical Islam." Forget that the accused shooters were American citizens. Most ghastly is Cruz's double standard, a complete turnaround from the subdued reaction to the Planned Parenthood shooter just one week earlier.
When asked about Robert Lewis Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter, Cruz jumped to declare, "We don't fully know the motivations of this deranged individual." Cruz simply refused to acknowledge that Dear was a radical who identified as Christian. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported:
One person who spoke with [Dear] extensively about his religious views said Mr. Dear, who is 57, had praised people who attacked abortion providers, saying they were doing "God's work." In 2009, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for the privacy of the family, Mr. Dear described as "heroes" members of the Army of God, a loosely organized group of anti-abortion extremists that has claimed responsibility for a number of killings and bombings.
Imagine if a Muslim American praised suicide bombers as "God's work." Imagine if a Muslim American praised Daesh as "heroes."
No doubt the far right -- indeed anyone -- would describe such a person as a terrorist, or radical. So why not with Dear? That double standard cannot stand if we want our country to advance.
As a Muslim, I firmly believe terrorism has no religion. But this brings me back to the question a young grad student finally and bluntly asked me the other night as we discussed the aforementioned double standard that permeates our public discourse about American Muslims.
"I'm just gonna say it. How do you tell someone "You're racist! Stop!" How do you do it?"
The fact is he's right that the double standards in security fears expressed between the Planned Parenthood attack and the San Bernardino attack are just another term for xenophobia and racism. It's no different than why Americans put Japanese Americans into concentration camps, but not Germans. Why Americans persecuted Catholics, rejected Jewish refugees, and discriminated against (sometimes violently) against Irish, Italians, and Mormons, but not Protestants. And let's not even get into the transatlantic slave trade and genocide of Native Americans.
We cannot allow the terrorist acts of a few individuals demonize our view of an entire group. The solution is slow but comes down to the simple commitment we each must make to reach out to one another and dialogue. This is extremely difficult and takes immense patience -- especially in the face of bigotry, judgment, and demonization. There will be times when people's hatred simply gets the better of them. But, you still have the opportunity to maintain your values of pluralism and compassion, even if others don't.
After the San Bernardino attack, and in the face of vicious threats and insults, I went on a live national CNN interview and on behalf of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in San Bernardino county and invited all Americans to a prayer vigil at the mosque. In response I received countless emails, tweets, and messages from non-Muslims thanking me for the invite. Many had never met a Muslim before, let alone attended a mosque. Now, as we mourn the departed together, we have the opportunity to build a stronger bridge forward.
Last week's Planned Parenthood shooting and this week's San Bernardino shooting reminds us again about the humanity of us all. Both acts of terrorism have caused untold human suffering. If politicians like Cruz are serious about honoring the Constitution, they can begin by ceasing their anti-Muslim bigotry and instead promoting the pluralism that advances our country forward.
As human beings, we must stand united against all forms of intolerance and judgment.
That is how we work towards a better and more peaceful future.