Several months ago, as primary season approached, I looked forward to a time of writing about ideas and intellectual challenges, about character and dignity, about America’s place in the world — about who we are and want to be.
Mindful elected officials and those running for public office as well as all who are in positions of trust and responsibility, including educators and journalists, are tasked to speak directly to reaffirm our values whenever community norms of civility and common respect are breached, I write this final pre-primary column having witnessed, in the last few months, the disintegration of many of those norms that support a vibrant democracy.
And most alarming to me, as a native Arab American Muslim son of New Hampshire has been the alarming increase in anti-Muslim, Islamophobic rhetoric being spewed in our Public Square, sanctioned by political candidates and tolerated, either through ignorance or indolence, by mainstream media (MSM).
So when Phillips Exeter Academy graduate and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ’02 posted on Dec. 9, 2015, “I want to add my voice in support of Muslims in our community and around the world. After the Paris attacks and hate this week [San Bernardino], I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others. As a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities. Even if an attack isn’t against you today, in time attacks on freedom for anyone will hurt everyone…”
I welcomed his reflection, knowing that such understanding and opposition to bigotry is not universal, even in our Granite State.
This week N.H. state Rep. Ken Weyler, of Kingston, clerk and vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, co-sponsored and submitted testimony on a bill forbidding “any member of a foreign terrorist organization from receiving public assistance, medical assistance, or food stamps,” and that “Giving public benefits to any person or family that practices Islam is aiding and abetting the enemy. That is treason.”
Weyler continued, ” … Islam is intolerant and deceitful, and its adherents are ordered to overthrow our way of life and to replace it with ‘sharia’(sic) law.”
Weyler’s delusions are clearly shared by other New Hampshire Republicans. In 2014, the N.H. Republican Party called upon its members to “take any and all actions possible to protect against the implementation of any part of Sharia law in N.H., including legislation outlawing Sharia law,” in spite of the fact Sharia can never be implemented here — or anywhere else in America — as that would contradict the U.S. Constitution.
It was local, too, last summer when Jerry DeLemus, today a N.H. co-chair of “Veterans for Trump” proposed to hold a draw the Prophet Muhammad contest and recently, in front of Concord High School, as I wrote in “Ugly words spoken as truths,” a Trump supporter was filmed spewing Islamophobic invective.
This week, on the very day Weyler submitted his shameful testimony, President Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first visit to an American mosque. To the assembled guests and worshippers he spoke, “We have to understand that an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” Obama said. “When any religious group is targeted we all have a responsibility to speak up.”
Obama’s sentiments are clearly not shared by demagogues like Sen. Marco Rubio who, although he heavily stressed America’s obligation to protect religious liberties while campaigning in Iowa, appeared to suggest that such liberty does not extend to Muslims in a comment he gave while stumping through Dover.
Rubio criticized Obama’s speech, “I’m tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president’s done. Always pitting people against each other. Always! Look at today: He gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”
Let’s be clear: Muslims in America are feeling discriminated against and targeted. Even as Republicans like Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and their empowered followers — along with a mainly complicit media that chooses to frame the argument as “he said, she said” — spew their xenophobia and Islamophobia against some Americans, we witness that attacks against Muslims have tripled since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Such attacks are shameful and un-American and the place to stand against it is at the ballot box.
New Hampshire’s Muslim community is tiny, perhaps fewer than 2,000, and well-assimilated. They’re our friends and neighbors and the lives they lead among us enhances and secures for us what it means to be American. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said of Obama’s Baltimore speech it’s, “important for people to know that they have worth, that they have value, that we’re all, you know, we’re all American.”
To paraphrase the German Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out – Because I was not Muslim.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not Jewish.
Then they came for the Christians, and I did not speak out – Because I was not Christian.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
On Tuesday at the ballot box, we in New Hampshire have the opportunity — and the obligation — to speak out against discrimination and injustice. We should all, regardless of belief or tradition, agree with President Obama: “We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.”
This column first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.