US to Muslims: Please Sit at the Back of the Bus

Islamophobia is growing in the United States. Hate graffiti is now discoloring my own building here in New York City -- calling for the Holy Quran to be burned. The publicity-hungry Terry Jones in Gainesville could be discounted if he did not have his finger on the pulse of America. But the protests near the World Trade Center confirm that he is not alone. Even the self-proclaimed sheriff of Lower Manhattan - Donald Trump - has told our city's Muslims to get out of town - at his own expense.

2010-09-14-Sit_at_the_Back_of_the_Bus_A.jpg Graffiti this week in the stairwell my New York City apartment building.

We are asking Muslims in America to please sit at the back of the bus so we won't have problems. For the life of me, I do not get this logic: Yes, you have the right to build your mosque, but common decency would preclude it. Go somewhere else. Be polite.

In the segregated South, blacks were told to ride at the back of the bus. But don't protest - don't make waves, people told Martin. Play nice. Get along. There was simply no reason why people of color should not sit at the lunch counter or use the same water fountain. They had to. I believe, likewise, the mosque should now be opened in the shadow of the World Trade Center if that is where they want it - or all that is great about our nation will be a sham (in all honesty, it is really closer to City Hall, but the haters have positioned it in our minds as almost in the Pit).

2010-09-14-Sit_at_the_Back_of_the_Bus_B.jpg "Burn the Quran," they have written this week next to my NYC building's elevator.

Why should this hate graffiti be littering our hallway? How could someone - maybe someone I pass every day - have so much hatred in their heart? I have numerous Muslim neighbors, both from around the world and born here. How does this "Burn the Quran" make their children feel? How does "Islam is Evil" impact my own son -- to witness such ugliness so close to home?

The head of our neighborhood Jewish group told me recently how many hours she had to spend with the New York City Police Bias Unit when she reported a swastika painted in her apartment building. I called 311 to ask how this hate crime now in my own hallway could be reported. They transferred me to 911 which sent a squad car to investigate. Two officers came - twice - to investigate.


I believe firmly that the honor of those many, many who died on 9/11 - including our Muslim brothers and sisters - will be diminished if the country they died in cannot protect the concept of religious pluralism that our great nation was founded on. If the Imam and his masjid wish to be in Lower Manhattan, they have a right to be as much as the Mormons building a Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.


In 1964 my parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, helping to train college students who came from New York to Miami University Ohio by bus - en route to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. The students were taught how to participate in lunch counter sit-ins. The evil of segregation, they knew, had to be broken. Thankfully it was. Today, the evil of Islamophobia -- equal to the hatred of anyone of any faith -- must be broken, now, here in New York. Anti-Semitism is wrong. Catholic bashing is wrong. Calling people of Islamic faith "terrorists" is wrong.

As a Muslim friend in Indonesia wrote me today:

In all religions there is always the possibility of fanaticism, which is not right nor has the right to threaten others. It was not Islam that destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but fanatics. We must be able to see differences between Islam and fanaticism in Islam, between Christian and fanaticism in Christian, etc. The press plays an important and crucial role in shaping people's mind. They must better differentiate. May God bless us all.

I am a member of St. Bart's - a far cry from Islam. I also attend a Torah study sponsored by Central Synagogue. Why do I care about Islam? First and foremost, because I am an American. And secondly, the immortal words of Martin Niemoller are never far from my mind: They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist... No group of New Yorkers' protested St. Bart's locating on Park Avenue or Central Synagogue on Lexington.

It is critical to understand what is going on here. The Fundamentalist Mindset is a black-and-white, right-and wrong, good-and-evil extremist worldview that can rear its ugly head in and faith or ideology. A mindset that cannot compromise and brought humanity Kristallnacht. The Cultural Revolution. Northern Ireland. New York City must say No to this mindset. Islam does not equate terrorism. Saying so is not only ignorant but hurtful.

2010-09-14-Sit_at_the_Back_of_the_Bus_E.jpg Sign posted by the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

Our city is lucky to have Mike Bloomberg as mayor at this time. He is resolute that hate crimes are wrong. We can stem the tide of Islamophobia if we are diligent in not accepting our friends and co-workers trash-talking those of different faiths, if we realize that patriotism and tolerance are one and the same, and if we call the New York City Police Department to report hate crimes. They respond.

I myself am going to send a $10 check - a small token of interfaith support - to The American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). I wish to be pro-active in my tolerance. This New-York based organization, founded in 1997 to elevate the discourse on Islam and foster environments in which Muslims thrive, is dedicated to strengthening an authentic expression of Islam based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration arts and cultural exchange. We cannot turn a blind eye to hatred.

As Americans, as human beings, we must move forward and learn to accept one another. No American -- or visitor to our shores -- deserves to sit at the back of the bus. As-Salamu Alaykum.

All photographs by Jim Luce for The Stewardship Report.