The earliest slurs I remember being directed at me occurred at Bakersville Grammar School where I was called rag-head and camel jockey. Ethnic slurs weren’t uncommon — especially in a working class school community that included Franco-Americans, Greeks, Poles, Irish — and three Lebanese. There was a slur or insult for nearly everyone, except for “white” people! I don’t remember knowing any Jews at Bakersville and as there were no students of color no one ever got called out for using hate speech.
We knew hate speech hurt — I’m not sure we understood why.
Our teachers, though, were uniformly white and in retrospect I think they and we were more aware of class differences than about ethnicity and religion — maybe because most of us were “ethnic.” I can remember my friends wanting to come to my house for dinner because of my mother’s wonderful Lebanese cooking and I equally remember sometimes envying others’ lunches of Wonder Bread and peanut butter while eating my okra and lamb stew.
I remember the “K” word and the “N” word being used, often harshly, and I certainly don’t remember our teachers telling us that our language was hurtful and inappropriate — it was how we spoke.
When I got to high school things changed. Manchester Central was one of two city high schools and for many it was the first time the children of mill and factory workers mixed with mill and factory owners’ children. As class divisions became heightened and occasionally defined relationships — who took “college” courses, who took “shop” courses — our use of language became more sensitive as we became more aware of the power to inflict pain through the use of ethnically and religiously charged pejoratives — especially on Jewish classmates.
By the time I graduated, I’d like to believe that hate speech had disappeared from my language not just because I knew it was wrong and inappropriate but because education had broadened my worldview — and because some inner alarm had gone off inside me and I knew, both as American and as Arab, that I wanted to embrace and explore the diversity of a collective global humanity.
America has struggled with issues of diversity and pluralism in the decades since I graduated. Conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq, racial upheavals from Watts and Baltimore ’68 to Ferguson and Baltimore ’15, Affirmative Action, War on Poverty, Civil and Voting Rights actions, the March on Washington and the end to minority quotas in many institutions forced our country to confront injustices and prejudices based on class, color and religion.
Over the decades I’ve sympathized with the communities of color, LGBTs, immigrants and others that have struggled to be accepted within America’s Public Square. I honor the sacrifice of those called to serve our nation — those who defend the promise of America — and I will never turn from those who struggle for justice.
Progress has been made yet these are not easy times.
While we have mostly expunged, except in the minds of bigots and racists, the “K” and “N” words, we struggle still to affirm and protect the constitutionally protected rights of minorities amongst us. While we should feel good that we’ve elected an African American president we struggle still to be inclusive.
Today, as a Muslim, I’m coming to believe that Muslim is the new “N” word, unprotected by ****’s in the language of haters.
When 9/11 happened, it was as though Muslims appeared from nowhere, even though Muslims had been Americans for generations. Following the attacks, Americans were fed a diet of propaganda and imagery which denied that Islam was a religion and falsely asserted that violence was central to Islam — a false meme designed to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion and an endless “War on Terror.”
From 2001 through 2008, when Barack Obama ran for president, through today, anti-Muslim hysteria is daily reinventing itself in more insidious ways. Muslims have become a common target of vilification — a new Other to join the “K’s” and the “N’s.”
Witness: Fox News’ commentators asserting that acknowledging Muslim holidays discriminates against Christians and pastor Jack Hibbs decrying interfaith dialogue, asserting, “Islam today is being embraced by so-called evangelical churches announcing that we worship the same god and they’re our brothers. Listen: That is not only false, it is a demonic doctrine being propagated by heretics.”
Witness: Washington Times columnist Robert Knight writing that a Muslim prayer service held in the Episcopal Church’s National Cathedral turned the church into a “Victory Mosque.”
Witness: “Trunews” host Rick Wiles who believes “Islam must be eliminated from the face of the earth, stomped out like cockroaches.”
Witness: Retired Navy Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, who believes President Obama is “pro-Islam, pro-Iranian and pro-Muslim Brotherhood,” and who claims that 80 percent of American mosques “preach sedition” and who wants to ban building mosques in America.
Witness honoring the free speech of the above critics while witnessing the difficulty of building mosques in Manhattan, Murfreesboro, Tenn., or Manchester, N.H. — all under the very same Constitution.
Such shameful commentary reflects an American Islamophobia that falsely believes violence is somehow inherent to Islam — an American Islamophobia that today permeates our media and body politic in a corrupt, insidious and poisonous way.
Today, I suspect there are hundreds of thousands of American elementary school children strapped into the back seats of cars, or gathered around the dinner table, who are daily exposed to the Rush Limbaughs, Mike Huckabees, Pamela Gellers and others who, like the commentators quoted above, actively proselytize in favor of the disenfranchisement of another American minority.
Tomorrow, will our children, raised on this relentless daily diet of ignorance, be calling their classmates rag-heads and camel jockeys?
Tomorrow, will we be adding another “N word” to our shameful vocabulary of disenfranchisement and exclusion?
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.