Since the November 13 attacks in Paris, hate crimes against Muslims have gone up threefold in the US, relative to the monthly average of 12.6 in previous years. It is no coincidence that at the same time, the Republican party’s leading candidate is stoking xenophobia and Islamophobia at unprecedented levels. There’s a political and a public reaction, and both are in some degree responses to attacks by terrorists in the name of jihad. But they also feed off each other: politicians give in to the basest fears of the most extreme sections of their base, and hate-filled political speech drives the public’s hatred. We know from recent history that hate speech can have devastating consequences. In Rwanda in 1994, hate speech on the radio drove regular people to engage in violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus, in a genocide in which between half a million to a million people were killed.
Closer to home, there is no shortage of examples. Last year in Kot Radha Kishan, a local mullah declared that Shama and Sajjad had committed blasphemy. This was transmitted through the town via the mosque loudspeaker; it incited a mob to beat the couple and then push them into a brick kiln. In Afghanistan this year, all it took was the caretaker of a shrine to announce that Farkhunda Malikzada had burnt the Holy Quran — she hadn’t — before a mob beat her to death.
In all these cases, the state bears responsibility at varying levels. In Rwanda, the genocide and the propaganda that contributed to it were both backed by the state. We all know the problems that some of Pakistan’s regressive laws have along with a lack of prosecution of violent vigilante mobs.
Obviously that’s not where America is. But it is a step closer, thanks to the Republican campaign mainstreaming Islamophobia, and Donald Trump’s outrageous policy prescriptions like limiting entry of an entire religion to the country. That the Republican party is so afraid of losing Trump’s potential voters that it does not unequivocally shut him down is shocking — Speaker Paul Ryan denounced him only to say that he would vote for Trump over any Democratic candidate. For the love of America, he should vote for any Democratic candidate over Trump.
The Obama Administration has made laudable efforts to counter this tide of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim sentiment over the last few weeks by convening Muslim Americans at the White House for discussions, and with President Obama giving a speech at a naturalisation ceremony of new American citizens, originally from the Middle East. Individuals have also spoken out against intolerance and engaged in random acts of kindness with Muslims. But the state needs to prosecute hate crimes against Muslims at the fastest possible speed and with great urgency; that will serve as the most important disincentive against such crimes.
Three other trends worry me. First, we see US politicians giving in to the basest instincts of human beings. In other contexts, this does not end well. In Pakistan, for example, the institutionalised legal discrimination against Ahmadis has led to violence against them and has had a disastrous impact on the country.
Second, two weeks ago in Virginia, an entire school district was shut down in response to children writing the Shahada as part of their geography class exercises. Exposure to other religions and cultures should, in regular times, increase tolerance. In this instance, it resulted in disproportionate outrage laced with hatred. A mother from that school district wrote about the classwork: “This evil has been cloaked in the form of multiculturalism.” Calling the other “evil”, maligning an entire religion and an entire minority has never ended well.
Third, the media — especially American cable news — have played a part in how things are unfolding. The media engages in selectivity in reporting, problematic rhetoric and sloppy use of terms like Islamic terror. It covers the Islamic State incessantly, when it is a non-existential threat to the US. It even treats American and non-American terrorists differently. Consider Rizwan Farook, the male San Bernardino shooter, who was born, bred and educated in the US; or the Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Dear. Both terrorists’ backgrounds and motivations have received less attention than Tashfeen Malik’s. It is time for the Republicans to end this streak and let America return to its true values.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2016.