Kenney takes a stand against Arab bigotry and Islamophobia in Philadelphia

Posted by Joan Hanna on July 31, 2015 in Blog

KENNEY.pngOn July 17, former member of the Philadelphia City Council and current Mayoral candidate, Jim Kenney, publicly signed AAI’s “Pledge to Combat Bigotry.” The pledge commits its signatories to support civil discourse, to refrain from participating in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speech or actions and to stand up to those who do. Kenney signed the pledge during Eid al-Fitr, a celebration marking the end of Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia.

This pledge is part of a broad initiative to begin a meaningful and important conversation about anti-Arab bigotry and Islamophobic rhetoric from elected officials – especially during major election cycles.

Kenney remarked that he “hoped the visit would reinforce the need for respect among religions and different communities in the city, while letting those at the mosque know they are welcomed here.” His ancestor’s experienced similar animosity and injustice in the mid-nineteenth century when they came to the U.S. from Ireland with their churches being burned down. Kenney wants Philadelphia residents to show “respect [to] everyone who wants to live in this city.”

In the past few years, there has been a rise in hateful sentiment towards Arab Americans and American Muslims within state legislatures, which is based on anti-Arab xenophobia. For instance, anti-Sharia legislation has surfaced and passed in states like Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has not been immune to these and other types of bigoted and unnecessary bills being proposed in its state legislature. Just last month, HB 1288 was introduced striving to outlaw the “application of foreign law which would impair constitutional rights.” Lawmakers used the phrase “foreign law” to circumvent using “Sharia law.” Consequently, this wording implicates all foreign religious laws and customs, including Catholic canon laws and Jewish laws, to varying degrees of incompatibility with the states that pass this type of legislation. These bills are not only unnecessary because sharia law only governs private and personal affairs, but they also undermine the validity of personal and family law decisions that were administered with certain international or religious laws in mind, such as preceding wills, international adoptions and custody agreements.

Leading up to election years, the frequency of these types of bills are even more pronounced. The Pennsylvania legislature saw a spike in anti-foreign law bills being introduced in 2011 and 2014. In both cases, former state Representative RoseMarie Swanger was the primary sponsor, with these bills resembling similar language to last month’s bill. HB 2029 was introduced in November 2011, but was not put on the agenda for any hearings until the following October, which were canceled due to the upcoming election as well as other scheduling conflicts. Roughly seven months before the midterm general election in 2014, HB 2168 was introduced under the same guise as HB 2029. Critics of the bill rallied, putting intense pressure on those who co-sponsored HB 2168, and ultimately the bill failed to gain any traction. The Arab American Institute calls on all elected officials to make the pledge so that equality is felt by all Americans, regardless of ethnicity or religion. 

It is crucial that community leaders, candidates, and elected officials speak out against the insidious fear mongering that damages the Arab American and American Muslim community – as well as the vibrancy of civil society across the country. By signing the “Pledge to Combat Bigotry,” Jim Kenney took an important step in standing up for the civil rights and dignity of not only Arab American and American Muslim Philadelphians, but all Pennsylvanians.