Real Americans: Justifying discrimination by limiting membership

This New York Times article documents several communities where residents have mounted resistance to the building of Mosques. What is so troubling and, yet, predictable about this resistance is how folks try to legitimize discrimination by claiming that the people they want to discriminate against cannot be considered true Americans. It is the same argument people like to make about why undocumented workers do not deserve full access to the rights of citizens. Here is a bit from the article:

“At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.

In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.

These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.

“What’s different is the heat, the volume, the level of hostility,” said Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. “It’s one thing to oppose a mosque because traffic might increase, but it’s different when you say these mosques are going to be nurturing terrorist bombers, that Islam is invading, that civilization is being undermined by Muslims.”

Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.”

Remember the expression “those who do not know history are bound to repeat it”? To me it feels that those who do know history are bound to suffer through its repetition. How are these arguments different from those of the anti-Catholic movement of 100 years ago – claims that, as “papists” Catholics could not be true Americans because of their allegiance and obedience to the Holy Roman Catholic Church?

In my research I have observed that folks question the community or national membership of those they seek to dismiss, discount or discriminate against. In doing so, they most frequently make arguments about the moral fiber of the people in question (citing their selfishness, inability to embrace core values, etc) and claim that they are not true members of society and, thus, can be treated as less than equals.

My own take is that we are all here and that fact alone matters. Americans love to endorse grand narratives and collective values when they make sense of our potpourri-of-a-nation (I think because we can’t endorse the myth of ethno-racial commonality) but those are mostly just stories and empty platitudes belied by our history and our current practices at home and abroad. We are a nation only to the extent that we agree it is so and the ideals (e.g. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) we espouse are only true to the extent that we apply them.

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