AS I WAS LEAVING my neighborhood en route to Tarawih prayers last night, a car ran through a stop sign and nearly crashed into my vehicle. Fortunately, I was able to swerve and avoid any contact. Reverting back to some pre-Islamic ghetto instincts, I immediately reversed, and sped up the street behind the reckless perpetrator. I caught up with the car about half a mile up the road and shouted at the driver, “Why don’t you learn how to drive!” The driver, a female, shouted back, “f ___ you! Terrorist!” Apparently my Kufi, and my wife’s Hijab were sufficient evidence to indicate that we were Muslim. The word “terrorist,” dripping with deep contempt and hatred, based on a prejudiced view of two total strangers, sounded eerily like another word that symbolizes the worst sort of prejudicial hatred this country has known, namely, “nigger.”
Something foul is happening in this country as we move deeper into this post 9/1 1 world. The growing racist hatred and denigration currently directed at Muslims is indicative of a deep sickness. The most disturbing aspect of this malady is that it is being deliberately induced. The strategists behind the campaign may be motivated by their selfish service to a foreign power, they may be motivated by an attempt to justify massive security budgets, they may be motivated by a deep hatred of Islam. Whatever their motivation, they know that the climate they are creating is one that is often characterized by pogroms, and sometimes by genocidal slaughter.
This climate is fueled by fictitious e-mails speaking of fictitious diatribes uttered by fictitious Imams urging the Muslim faithful to indiscrimi- nately kill the “infidels.” It is fueled by the reckless jingoism of hatemon- gering radio personalities. It is fueled by government misinformation campaigns that create a public perception of imminent danger to the people of this country from a technologically backward, politically divided, socially truncated Middle East. It is also fueled by the ill-conceived, strategically counterproductive actions of a handful of misguided Muslims who call themselves Mujahideen.
If the current climate deepens and manifests in concerted campaigns of violence against the Muslims of this country it will not be an anomalous situation. The genocide that destroyed the Indian nations that once occupied this land took place in a similar climate. In the 1 880s, Chinese immigrants were shot in the streets of some western cities and hamlets like stray, rabid dogs. Those pogroms could only take place because a climate of hatred and bigotry had been created. The internment of the Japanese during World War II took place in a climate of hate that was cultivated throughout the 1930s. Finally, it was in a climate of bigotry and hatred that dehumanizing violence was visited upon successive generations of African Americans.
During such times, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to resist and demand that the country live up to the meaning of those lofty words that accompanied her inception, “We hold these words to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This week, one of the giants who dared to make such a demand has passed on. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made the fateful decision refusing to stand to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. For that decision, she will forever stand in our memories. Many Muslims, especially those who are new to this country, may ask, “What do we find to honor in this non-Muslim lady? She did not do anything big.” Let us be explicit in answering that query. In the climate of hatred that provided the context for Rosa Parks’ simple act of defiance, many people were being brutally murdered for far less. In that climate, what she did was monumental, and she suffered because of it. She and her family were harassed relentlessly in the aftermath of her arrest. The pressure became so great that in 1957 her husband, Raymond Parks, suffered a nervous breakdown. That same year she left the south to reside in Detroit, Michigan.
That said, her act of defiance in and of itself could be considered small. It was not even the first incident of its kind in Montgomery. However, God decreed that on that day, Rosa Parks would sit. And because she sat, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up; because she sat, the city of Montgomery, Alabama stood up; because she sat, the South stood up; because she sat, a nation’s conscience was roused.
In the ensuing agitation, civil and voting rights legislation was passed, affirmative action legislation was passed, a black man ascended to the bench of the Supreme Court, and most significantly, for most of those reading this message, immigration laws were amended allowing a flood of Muslim immigrants to enter this land. Now the political winds are changing and the current mood is a harbinger of a struggle ahead for American Muslims. We may well face the kind of climate faced by Rosa Parks deep down in Dixie. That climate will challenge us in ways that it challenged Mrs. Parks.
History remembers Rosa Parks favorably, just as it remembers the legions that preceded her in demanding a dignified existence for African Americans in this country. As we embark on our struggle to maintain our dignified existence here, we should ask ourselves, “How will history remember us?” The answer to that question lies in how we respond to another question, the simple question that was presented to Rosa Parks, “Will we stand or will we sit?”
Article first published in www.zaytuna.org