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Only You Can Prevent Islamophobia

The dangers of letting Donald Trump set the national dialogue.

BY RULA JEBREAL-DECEMBER 8, 2015


Last week, 23-year-old Ruhi Rehman of Newcastle, Britain, became a viral video star.
In a recent video interview with the Daily Mail, she related the story of being abused
on a local commuter train. As the story goes, Rehman and her younger sister had
been sitting quietly on the train when, suddenly, they found themselves singled out and
threatened by a young man, apparently because he objected to their wearing the
hijab. He then demanded that the sisters leave their seats. This is my country; Im an
Englishman, he said. My sister and I replied back, saying, No, we were born here as
well. Were British as well.' But he continued to berate them.
Suddenly, Rehmans fellow passengers stepped forward to confront the man. The
bully yelled at them: What, do you want her to bomb this train? His statements only
stiffened the resolve of the passengers, who forced the man to leave the carriage at
the next station. His departure prompted a round of applause from all the passengers
that made it happen. Rehman recalled the woman next to her bursting into tears and
telling the sisters that no one should go through this.

For Rehman, the experience came as a shock. Not so much because of the abuse
which, she said, occurs all too frequently but because of the all-too-rare, unsolicited
expression of solidarity. Id never expected all those people to help, she said. Ive
never felt so proud to be a Geordie, she toldThe Independent, using the nickname
proudly embraced by residents of Newcastle and its surroundings.
Other passengers recalled the moment when they overcame their fear of tackling a
belligerent bigot to reaffirm their bond as a community. When, despite their collective
protest, the man refused to stop his abuse, everyone came together and made it clear
we would not stand for this type of behavior, recalled fellow passenger Katrina Barber.
Regardless of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, those
passengers who stood for Rehman refused to succumb to fear, hatred, or bigotry.
Its an inspiring story, but also a challenging one.
It forces each of us to ask ourselves: If we had been on that train, would we have
found the courage to do the right thing? This is no mere rhetorical challenge. Indeed,
for Muslim Americans listening to the evolving public conversation in the United
States, fueled increasingly by reporting on the Republican presidential race (with the
witting or unwitting complicity of much of the media), it is starting to feel a lot like the
first part of Rehmans train ride.
In late November, the nonpartisan, Washington-based Public Religion Research
Institute (PRRI) released a survey showing that 56 percent of Americans now believe
that Islam is at odds with Americas values and way of life. At the same time, however,
PRRI has previously noted that seven out of 10 Americans have rarely or ever
interacted with a Muslim, suggesting that their perceptions of Islam are driven entirely
by media and political conversations about the religion. And that conversation has
turned increasingly ugly, as the race for the Republican presidential nomination
devolves into a frenzy of xenophobic bullying of vulnerable and underrepresented
minorities.
The trend emerged with front-runner Donald Trumps outrageous smearsthat cast
Mexican immigrants as thieves, rapists, and drug dealers. The Republican Partys
rabid attentions soon shifted, with both Trump and fellow contender Ben Carson
striving to outdo each others blood libels against American Muslims. On Dec. 7,
Trump went so far as to issue a call to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the
United States, and he has voiced his support for a federal database to track American
Muslims. He and his colleagues have not confined their bullying to those two groups.
African-American Black Lives Matter activists, Jewish victims of the
Holocaust, providersof health-care services (including abortion) to low-income women,
even Americans with disabilities all have been singled out for derision and abuse in
a veritable war on the marginalized, declared by a reckless and cynical cohort of
politicians. Theyre hardly ignorant of the fact that, by spewing dangerous lies and
stoking ignorant fears, theyre fueling the fires of prejudice, hate, and violence. They
simply dont seem to care.
When a couple of Trump supporters in Boston beat up and urinated on a homeless

Mexican man, the candidate defended the perpetrators. They love this country and
they want this country to be great again, he said. They are passionate. When his
supporters beat a Black Lives Matter activist at a campaign event two weeks ago, he
suggested the man maybe should have been roughed up.
Mosques in Texas and elsewhere have become magnets for protests by heavily armed
white supremacists and other hate groups, with more such events planned for the
coming weeks, all fueled by reckless politicians blaming radical Islam for the horrific
mass shootings in California. The Council on American-Islamic Relations cataloged an
alarming spike in threats and actual attacks on mosques and Muslim communities
across the United States in the two weeks following the Paris terrorist rampage and
that was before San Bernardino.
Its only a matter of time, sadly, before some new slaughter of innocents gives
murderous meaning to the Islamophobic discourse now deemed appropriate in the
public square. It is time for the U.S. media to ask itself some tough questions about
the potential consequences of its failure to adequately challenge the bigotry of
politicians.
Such bigotry has now gone mainstream. In just the past several months, a man at a
Trump rally in New Hampshire asked him about get[ting] rid of Muslims. Trumps
reply: Its an idea hed look into. Carson, meanwhile, haslikened Syrian refugees to
rabid dogs. The ostensibly moderate Jeb Bushargued that the United States should
admit only Syrian refugees who could prove their Christianity. And Sen. Marco Rubio
has advocated closing Muslim cafes and mosques.
These statements cross the bright red line of incitement and hate speech. Yet the
media tolerates them as somehow legitimate or even treats them as policy
templates because the people offering them happen to be running for president.
Thats a dangerous moral failure.
When NBC blithely ignores the bile that Trump rains on minorities by inviting him to
host Saturday Night Live, the network gives his brand of xenophobia a free pass and
mocks those who warn of the dangers that his incitement poses to millions of
Americans as if they somehow lack a sense of humor.
By treating Trump as simply another political candidate with policies that deserve a fair
hearing, the media gives a dangerous racist a platform to spread a toxic hatred that
dehumanizes and disenfranchises millions of ordinary Americans. He may not wear
the pointed hood or give the raised-palmed salute, but he represents the same vile
impulses so much so that even a fellow Republican running for the nomination,
John Kasich,compared Trump to Adolf Hitler and warned that the failure to stand up to
him could result in similar tragic consequences for many.
Sure, media organizations claim to fact-check Trumps claims. But even if
CNN subjects to rigid scrutiny the logistical challenges of his promise to build a wall to
keep out Mexican migrants, they are still allowing him to set the agenda of the national
conversation. And turning his race-baiting into mainstream political opinion is likely

doing damage that will last long after the 2016 presidential race.
For years to come, Americans will pay for the disastrous failure of the U.S. media to
sharply challenge the efforts of the political class to bully the country into invading Iraq
a war waged under false pretenses that gave us the Islamic State and ravaged the
Middle East, radicalizing an entire generation in the process. But even when the
disaster of Iraq became apparent to American journalists, important sections of the
media held backfrom covering the harsh realities on the ground, because doing so
was deemed to be a partisan choice in favor of the 2004 Democratic presidential
candidate, John Kerry.
Thats an example of when a commitment to fair and balanced political reporting can
easily result in preventing the media from calling out great dangers to the American
social fabric. The sustained bigotry of some candidates in the current election cycle
threatens to do the same.
When MSNBC invites Trump on to Morning Joe to discuss whether Islam is an
inherently violent religion, it legitimizes scaremongering ignorance. Not only is it utterly
preposterous to cast Trump as some kind of expert on Islam simply by virtue of his
running for president, but it is deeply offensive to hundreds of millions of Muslims
everywhere to suggest that its OK to debate whether their faith is some form of violent
pathology.
Its as if the U.S. media is willing to seriously entertain the Newcastle thugs
suggestion that, because the Rehman sisters wore the hijab, they must have been
planning to bomb the train.Indeed, CNN anchors pressed ordinary French Muslims to
take responsibility for the Paris attacks. To put American Muslims under a cloud of
suspicion and hostility over the actions of a handful of despicable extremists is morally
offensive and politically insidious.
The persistence of some liberals claiming that American Muslims must earn
constitutional rights that are otherwise inalienable to other Americans is bluntly
bigoted. Lumping all Muslims into one monolithic Islamic State-linked basket is the
greatest victory for radicals. If youre an American Muslim Ruhi Rehman, NBC is
forcing you to sit through a torrent of abuse by an ignorant bully, while CNN sits off to
one side demanding a serious conversation about whether the bully actually has a
point.
The inspiring part of Ruhi Rehmans story was the reaction of her fellow passengers,
who risked an unpleasant confrontation to stand up and defend a fellow British citizen
being targeted for her faith. As those ordinary Geordies on Rehmans train proved, it
took the courage of ordinary people standing up for decency, equality, and liberty to
prevent a minority of fascist bullies from defining the norms of our communities and
societies.
The message to the U.S. media couldnt be clearer.
Posted by Thavam