Posted on April 23, 2016 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby

Europe clearly has a problem with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and intolerance toward new immigrants. In an effort to examine this worrisome set of concerns, the commission on which I sit as a member—the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom—recently convened a discussion with European Muslims and Jews.  

I delivered closing remarks and used the opportunity to note that while the American experience could provide a helpful model, I did not see the exchange as a finger pointing exercise, since anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are not alien to the United States. FBI hate crime statistics establish that in the last reporting year, 58% of all religion-based hate crimes were directed against Jews, 17% were against Muslims. And according to a 2015 report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 34 anti-Muslim hate groups operating in the US, 10 Holocaust denial groups, and 19 anti-Semitic "Christian identity" organizations.

Most of these anti-Semitic groups—though dangerous—operate on the fringes of our society. They have been repudiated and find no place in our mainstream political discourse. Nevertheless, their impact is still felt in the hundreds of hate crimes they foment.

This has not been the case with anti-Muslim speech and behavior. While many of the Islamophobic groups also spew their hate in dark corners, anti-Muslim rhetoric has found its way into our mainstream political discourse creating a negative political climate for American Muslims.

In 2010, for example, there was the national campaign to block efforts to build a Muslim community center in southern Manhattan. In 2012, five presidential candidates declared that before they would allow any Muslim American to work in their administration, they would have to take a special loyalty oath. And in this year's presidential contest, major candidates have called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants to the US.

The anti-Muslim campaign made its way down to the state level. Since 2010, 36 state legislatures have either passed or are considering legislation designed to block the application of Sharia law—a gratuitous and bizarre effort, at best, since no one has ever proposed introducing Sharia law. The entire campaign has simply been one of fear-mongering using the Muslim community as a foil.

The impact of this incitement has been disastrous on public opinion.  In 2010, polls showed that the American public still had a net favorable attitude toward American Muslims—48% favorable to 33 unfavorable. By 2015, those numbers had dramatically shifted to 33% favorable vs. 37% unfavorable.

Not only has this campaign had an impact on attitudes toward Muslims, in general, it has influenced the public's attitudes toward welcoming new immigrants from Muslim countries. The result is that American attitudes have become almost identical to the intolerant views of some Europeans.

In a recent poll conducted by Zogby Research Services in six European countries and the US, we found that while in almost every country (except the UK) a majority or plurality would strongly support welcoming European immigrants into their communities, in every country a majority or plurality would strongly oppose welcoming Muslim immigrants.  

So we have a shared problem. Nevertheless, there are still lessons that can be learned from the American experience that can be helpful for Europeans to consider. Despite the current negative climate being created by bigots and Islamophobes, America has traversed the road to intolerance before and has always found a way to right itself. The solution can be found in the absorptive quality of the American identity.

Immigrants from all over the world have come here—faced hardships, at first—but then become "American". In the mid-19th century, Irish Catholic churches and the homes of Irish immigrants were burned to the ground. Eastern and Central Europeans were denounced as "lazy drunkards". Syrians were called "parasites" and "trash". Italians were lynched in the South in the early part of the 20th century or persecuted as potential anarchist saboteurs, and Jewish Americans were tormented as socialists or Communists. German, Italian, and Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated during World War II.

But that was never the end of the story, because despite the rantings of bigots, no ethnicity defines being American. It hasn't been easy and there have been those who resisted welcoming the newest group—but, in the end, the bigots always lost and the idea of becoming American has always won out.

Becoming American is like alchemy. It is transformative. And as successive waves of immigrants have become American, the idea of America, itself, has changed. Who can even begin to describe "American" culture, fashion, music, or cuisine, without seeing the impact of Irish, Polish, German, Italian, African, Hispanic, Jewish, and Arab.

This matter of an ever-expanding American identity and the absorptive and transformative capacity of America, defines the difference between the US and European experiences. And it is important—because it provides a light at the end of the tunnel for our diverse ethnic and religious communities.

I have experienced it in my own life and that of my community and I know that despite the current rantings of the likes of Trump, Gingrich, Cruz and company, within a generation, change will come. The problem is that this process of inclusion and transformation doesn't yet apply in Europe. After three generations of Pakistanis in the UK, North Africans in France, or Kurds in Germany, they are still seen as foreigners—Pakis, Arabs, or Turks.

This came through in a recent painful and poignant editorial in the New York Times written by Zia Haider Rahman. He writes of his frustration at still being referred to as a Bangladeshi despite the fact that "I hold a British passport and don't hold a Bangldeshi one...don't even speak Bengali...was educated in Britain, worked in Britain".

He concludes that "it is Britain's inherent cultural problem with otherness that makes it so difficult for the native to call me British". 

And so, despite our shared problem with Europe, this is the lesson America can teach. It may take us some time and, in every age, our bigots are still with us, but our immigrants and their children do become American and, in the process, we change the very meaning of being American. Ask Barack Hussein Obama, Bernie Sanders, Leon Panetta, or Norm Mineta. Or, you can ask me—the son of a Syrian/Lebanese illegal immigrant, who became an American.    


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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