Secular US voices essential to combating Islamophobia

Secular US voices essential to combating Islamophobia

7 min read
22 Dec, 2016
Comment: A growing array of dissenting voices must join together to fight the slide into fascism, writes Dan Arel.
Any loss of freedom to one person is a blow to all people [Getty]

A resistance movement is growing across the United States. A movement against xenophobia, fascism, bigotry, and racism. A movement born out of the populist rhetoric of right-wing extremism and white nationalism. While the forces on the right convene to stop it, the momentum of this resistance is unstoppable.

It was early in the morning of November 9, 2016, when Donald Trump took to a stage in New York City, telling the American people it was time to heal and unite after a hard-fought campaign. For many, however, there was no chance of uniting. The wounds of the campaign still fresh on their minds, their lives, skin color, religion, all mocked and demonised.

Trump's rallies often looked like flashbacks to the civil rights era as people of colour, and Muslims, would be booed, hit, spit at, and threatened with, or be on the receiving end of physical violence. All while the then-presidential hopeful Trump stood on stage encouraging such actions.

Just hours after his election, protesters took to the streets to oppose his presidency and all that he stands for.

Many of his stances and policy ideas were made clear in the early days of his campaign. In a statement released by his campaign on December 8, 2015, he called for a ban on all Muslim entering the United States.

"Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," the campaign press release said.

This announcement came shortly after Trump had called for a national database of Muslims living inside the US.

When Trump declared victory on that morning on November, 9, the resistance was born, the streets became filled.

Many American minority groups now feel unsafe as the white nationalist movement behind Trump's campaign becomes empowered by their victory, which they see as vindication of their views, leading to an increase in hate crimes. Anti-Muslim hate crimes alone in the United States rose 67 percent, from 154 incidents in 2014, to 257 in 2015.

Rhetoric from the administration alone is frightening. Trump's pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, compared liberal Jews in the US to Nazis. his national security adviser, Mike Flynn, tweeted that "fear of Muslims is RATIONAL". Further, his deputy national security adviser, KT McFarland, stressed that not all Muslims are radical, "not by a long shot", but that "even if just 10 percent of 1 percent are radicalised, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying Western civilisation and the values we hold dear".

Many groups began to immediately speak out in defence of the Muslim communities and others around the country

Given this kind of rhetoric, it is no surprise that the Muslim community finds itself on high alert. They are joined by the LGBTQ community and, of course, all people of colour.

Many groups began to immediately speak out in defence of the Muslim communities and others around the country. We saw solidarity calls from moderate Christians and even atheists to declare themselves Muslims if Trump's administration ever tried to carry out such a mass registry.

Secular organisations saw it as their duty to speak up, and speak out against such clear violations of the US Constitution.

"Our commitment to secularism means we are dedicated to fighting for the freedom of all Americans to live with, or without, religion. We strongly condemned the reprehensible rhetoric that Donald Trump employed on the campaign trail to marginalise Muslims and will continue to hold him to the highest standards as President of the United States," said Larry Decker, executive director of The Secular Coalition for America.

"Any policy pursued by the incoming administration that infringes on the rights of Muslim Americans to practice their faith freely betrays the First Amendment of the Constitution that President Trump will have sworn to preserve and protect. Americans of every faith and none who are committed to true religious freedom must be ready to stand together in defence of this principle."

While atheists and secular groups such as the Secular Coalition may not agree with the fundamental principles of the Islamic religion, they by-and-large agree that Muslims and any other religious group have every right to worship freely.

The nonreligious community as a whole even has a responsibility to join this resistance. The principle of freedom of religion also encompasses that of freedom from religion. The old adage, "first they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist", applies here.

Muslims in the US make up approximately one percent of the population, yet according to Pew Research, the nonreligious, which they term "nones", make up nearly 25 percent.

If "nones" refuse to stand up for the minority groups such as Muslims, or African-Americans, who only make up roughly 13 percent of the population, who is going to be there to defend them when the administration comes for them?

Defence aside, there is a moral obligation to defend all groups who are coming under attack by the administration. For secular groups, they feel as the Richard Dawkins Foundation noted on the day after the election that "secular rights are human rights."

The resistance cannot be fought alone by individual groups, people, or organisations. It is one that everyone must fight together, and as we have seen so far no time has been wasted.

On December 16, more than 200 protesters rallied in Washington, DC. urging President Obama to dismantle the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a George W Bush programme that was created in the wake of 9/11. The programme is reflective of the type of larger national registry Trump has implied implementing. Obama shut the programme down in 2011, but the data still exists for a Trump campaign to pick up and dust off.

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organisation, stated the importance of shutting such a programme down: "We have very specific things we need to do right now to dismantle [NSEERS] and prevent it from being amped up."

The programme was seen as ineffective and used only as a tool for harassment. Of the 93,000 cases that the project filed, not one lead to a terrorist conviction

Move On Campaign Manager Iram Ali added: "It's so important for President Obama to shut [NSEERS] down now because it will give us an upper hand going into the next administration."

NSEERS was used to target Arabs and Muslims coming to the US for surveillance or detention. However, the programme was seen as ineffective and used only as a tool for harassment. Of the 93,000 cases that the project filed, not one lead to a terrorist conviction.

Anti-Trump rallies in Los Angeles reached nearly 10,000 people. Protests in Portland, Oregon, reached into the thousands and lasted weeks. These protests are not organising to protect or voice dissent over a single issue, they are opposing any fascist or discriminatory measure that will cause harm to even a single person.

Around the US, other organisations are forming in response to Trump. ANTIFA, a long-standing anti-fascist group, is organising protests and calling for direct action against those posing threats to minority communities, whether those threats come from individuals or the government itself.

The Democratic Socialists of America quickly formed an Anti-Racism Working Group which included a specific Anti-Islamophobia and Police Brutality Committee that will work with Muslims and other groups to oppose any actions against them.

While many actions must be taken to oppose and stop such actions as Muslim registries before they happen, the response to such events after they happen will be vital. This will be a multi-coalition effort in which all groups, even some in moral disagreements will need to be united against Trump.

Women are going to face an uphill battle over personal health and access to abortions. The LGBTQ community is going to face workplace discrimination, possibly even the loss of marriage rights, and a loss of basic civil liberties. Atheists and the nonreligious, even moderate Christians, may find their beliefs put under pressure as the Trump administration's ultra-conservative movement, led by Mike Pence, continues to grow.

These groups may disagree with each other's religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or even the morality of one's right to an abortion. However, each group must realise that any loss of religious or personal freedom is an injury to each of these groups, not only as a whole but individually.

To borrow from the Industrial Workers of the World, an injury to one is an injury to all. Religious freedom and civil liberties depend solely on those willing to stand up and resist. Calling people together, organising protests, writing articles, we must speak to our communities and we must all answer the call.

Dan Arel is a political activist, award-winning journalist and the author of The Secular Activist; and Parenting Without God.

Follow him on Twitter: @danarel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.