The Breakdown of Civility and Confronting Anti-Muslim Bigotry
Address by Abraham H. Foxman, National Director,
ADL Annual Meeting
October 7, 2010, Boston, MA
One of my favorite axioms is the law of unintended consequences. I've been thinking a lot about this in recent months as we watch our society devolve into one more and more characterized by polarization, rage, stridency and partisanship.
I recall in the early days of the new media and new technology the hopes surrounding these breakthroughs, not merely hopes about extraordinary access to information which have largely been realized, but hopes as well that the public, now having access to more diverse viewpoints than ever, will become more open, more tolerant, more willing to engage in civil discourse.
That old law of unintended consequences rose up, however, and dealt these aspirations a mighty blow. Instead of people taking advantage of the new ability to be exposed to diverse thinking, so many went the other way. They now only went to the cable TV news station that confirmed and reinforced their own particular ideology, whether on the left or on the right.
They only went to websites and blogs that reinforced their views and shared e-mails from those who were 100% in their camp. And I emphasize the term 100%, because any deviation, any disagreement no matter the motivation, put you in the enemy camp. Stalin himself couldn't have demanded a stricter adherence to such a narrow creed.
So we find ourselves in a time where people are put to loyalty tests, where one’s motivation in disagreeing is interpreted in the most cynical way no matter the record of the individual. And it opens one up to hyperbolic charges of one kind of another. People can’t just have different legitimate opinions anymore – they are charged with being guilty of betrayals, of conspiracies, of abandonment of principles, of endangering all our values.
One example of all this is the way the Holocaust is exploited to attack someone or something not liked. Of course, the most cynical use of this method is that used against the people who were the actual victims of the Nazi tyranny, we Jews.
I'm talking about the despicable accusation by too many in the world--including in our own country as we saw during the war in Gaza-- that Israel is a Nazi state or that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians resembles that of the Nazis toward the Jews. We know what that's about. It's about efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, to justify Israel's disappearance and destruction. And it's an attempt to minimize the Holocaust: Europe had its Nazis, but that is cancelled by the fact that the Jews have their Nazis
Also distressing is the way public figures try to silence all discussion on controversial subjects by labeling those with whom they disagree as fascists or Nazis. Some who opposed the war in Iraq called President George W. Bush a fascist. A Colorado state representative speaking about the troubling Arizona law dealing with illegal immigrants, said that it was "reminiscent of the second class status of Jews in Germany prior to World War II." President Obama's health care plan has been compared in some circles to Nazi policies.
Most symptomatic is the tendency to exploit issues associated with an ethnic, racial or religious group by reviving or updating stereotypes about a particular community.
Unfortunately, this is not new to America. The classic case study is the treatment of African-Americans.
As American Jews we have been subjected to virulent anti-Semitism, often with the acquiescence of government or its apathy. Catholics too were victims of religious prejudice. As recent as 50 years ago some questioned whether a Catholic should be president; would John F. Kennedy be directed by the Pope, rather than the American people. Mormons continue to be ridiculed for their religious beliefs.
One stark example surrounds the immigration issue. It is a complex subject that requires legislation that will normalize immigration flow, particularly from Latin America, but which will also secure our borders from illegal immigrants. It is not a slam dunk. Differences of opinion are appropriate.
However, the way the debate has too often evolved reflects the decline of civil society. It is hardly surprising, though abhorrent, that extremist and racist groups have exploited the issue to stereotype Latinos. Crude stereotypes depicting Latinos as criminals, as violent, as disease-carriers, and as un-American have proliferated in the guise of opposition to illegal immigration.
Unfortunately, as ADL has documented, this exploitation of the issue has not been limited to extremist groups. Mainstream figures have engaged in similar anti-Hispanic bashing and find significant support from many who are put out over illegal immigration. In such an atmosphere, it's difficult to have a civil conversation about a prime issue facing the nation.
Now, as a result of the debate surrounding the mosque near Ground Zero, we are witnessing a surge in anti-Muslim bigotry. It is particularly relevant to my remarks that this surge is taking place with greater force now than at a time when one might have expected it, immediately after 9/11. At that time we were worried about an explosion of hatred against American Muslims, particularly after there were a few serious incidents following the terrorist tragedy. We, the ADL, took out ads in The New York Times and other newspapers with the message to Americans “Let Us Not Fight Hatred with Hatred.” As things turned out, anti-Muslim bigotry did not explode. Yes, there were incidents, and even one is too many, but dire predictions did not materialize.
But now, nine years later, we are seeing a surge of incidents. And I say to you that I believe it is related to the broader trends I've been speaking about, the lack of civility, the tendency to see enemies all around, the reinforcement of prejudicial views rather than diverse views.
Islam is one of the world’s great religions. But, like Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism and others, if it isn’t your religion you most likely have little knowledge, if any, of it, its beliefs and practices. Ignorance has always been one of the common denominators of those who are bigoted against “the others.” And ignorance can breed fear which too easily can become hatred. We must differentiate between extreme theology and ideology in Islam and condemn it and challenge it, while at the same time define and separate it from the non-extremist ideology and theology. We must condemn the brand of Islam that venerates violence and intolerance. And welcome into the modern world the rest of Islam that rejects violence and intolerance. And at the same time keep it in perspective.
The Muslim community in America is being confronted by ugly in-your-face religious bigotry and we must speak out against it, educate against it and label it anti-American.
Allow me a historical reference. During World War II, David Ben Gurion recognizing the inherent conflict between British restrictions on Jewish immigration and settlement and the fact that Britain was fighting Nazi Germany, said in statement that Zionists "would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war."
Despite the fact that there is a serious enmity between the Children of Ishmael and the Children of Isaac, when religious bigotry rears its ugly head against Muslims we must speak out.
Despite the fact that the greatest conveyer belt for anti-Semitic incitement in the world today comes from the Muslim world – in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Europe, and even in Latin America – when religious bigotry rears its ugly head against Muslims, we must speak out.
Despite the fact that Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and Ahmadinejad and his Iranian regime, purport to speak in the name of Islam, and commit to end Israel’s existence and to the destruction of the Jewish people, when religious bigotry rears its ugly head against Muslims, we must speak out.
Despite the fact of recent history and current concerns, we must speak out.
- We must speak out when there are threats to burn the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
ADL condemned the threat to burn the Koran on “Burn a Koran Day” in Gainesville, Florida and spearheaded a coalition of interfaith leaders to speak out with the message of “We Will Not Remain Silent in the Face of Religious Intolerance.”
- We must speak out when Muslims face opposition to the legal building, expansion or relocation of their houses of worship – their mosques, which is why we established an interfaith task force.
- We must speak out when Muslims are denied religious accommodation.
When a Muslim woman was barred from wearing a religious facial garment in an Ohio court, ADL defended her right to do so.
When the first Muslim member of Congress was criticized for taking the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible, ADL stood with him.
We believe you fight hatred -- be it because of one’s religion, race, ethnicity – with legitimate action and civil discourse. By standing up, speaking out, saying no to religious bigotry, gaining understanding and respect through education and working together, we can -- to borrow an ADL phrase -- make a world of difference and at the same time strengthen the fabric of our democratic and diverse society. We can do no less. We can help restore respect and civility.