The blow-up over the Burlington Coat Factory Islamic Center is quite possibly the most impressive display of American ignorance in my lifetime. From the inability to comprehend the actual purpose and location of the project to the completely inaccurate characterizations of the folks behind it, a majority of Americans are now opposing something that just about none of them seem to understand. After years of demanding that moderate Muslims speak out against terrorism, we encounter a moderate Muslim who’s spoken out against terrorism, and promptly call him a terrorist and tell him his religious freedom is conditional. We’ve become a nation that doesn’t deserve the great legacy of religious tolerance we’ve inherited from those before us.
If there’s one underlying truth to this sad episode, it’s that Americans don’t see a distinction between moderate and radical Islam. And I think one of the reasons that many Americans don’t make this distinction relates back to how Islam has grown as a faith in this country. African Americans often converted to the religion in what was seen as an act of defiance against a nation that long didn’t consider them equals. It was the religion of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Throughout the years, Islam has become synonymous with black radicalism. Wealthy and moderate immigrants from places like Jordan, Iran, and Egypt – who co-exist happily with America’s cosmopolitan elite – don’t fit into that stereotype.
Obviously, 9/11 did much more to cement this view in the minds of Americans and broaden it to include more than just black Americans, but also those in the Middle East. And far too many now imagine that Islam is a religion premised upon a defiance of American values. The reality of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf would thoroughly shatter that illusion, so instead Americans end up believing that he’s someone he’s not (with a big assist from media personalities who are trained to never shatter the illusions of those whose comfortable loyalty comprise their ever-precious ratings).
And it’s this phenomenon that explains why a growing number of Americans claim to believe that the President himself is a Muslim. It’s rather obvious that Obama isn’t a Muslim. He doesn’t worship at a mosque or pray to Mecca five times a day. He drinks beer, he eats pork, and he’s certainly not fasting for Ramadan right now. Not to mention that he attended a Christian church in Chicago for most of his adult life. But when you internalize the belief that Islam is a religion based upon rejecting American values, another person’s religion isn’t about what they actually do, it’s about how you perceive their background and their motivations.
UDPATE: Another bizarre perspective on this topic comes from Franklin Graham:
“I think the president’s problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name,” Graham told John King. “Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That’s what he says he has done, I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”
“Well, you know, you can be born a Muslim, you can be born a Jew, but you can’t be born a Christian,” said Graham.
All day, I’ve been wondering if people with a Jewish father and a Muslim mother are like seedless grapes. And what’s even sadder is that it appears that Franklin Graham believes that you can be born Muslim, but being gay is a choice.