When Guns Threaten Religious Liberty

On 29 May 2016, an armed group of bikers descended on the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, supposedly to hold a contest to draw the Prophet Mohammad, similar to Pam Geller’s ill advised event in Garfield, Texas. This harrowing confrontation was accurately described by Imraan Siddiqui, the Arizona representative of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), as the “intersection of Islamophobia and [the] gun culture.”

Luckily, no one was hurt, unlike the Garfield event, where two people were killed. But the rhetoric of the bikers was so violent that it seemed that anything could happen. Furthermore, during the previous week persons unknown had sent letters to the Phoenix Islamic Center, threatening to kill individuals worshiping there. And the bikers were adamant that their followers should be armed [“Bring Your Guns!”], and were primed for trouble and ready to rumble.

As a result, Muslim leaders ended up advising people – their own congregants and as well as the general public – to stay completely away from that area in downtown Phoenix.

The obscene and hateful bikers were not a “well-regulated militia,” as the Constitution specifies, not a well-regulated anything. [They wore T-shirts that read “F—K Islam,” among other childish articles of apparel.] But TV watchers were treated to an endless barrage of arguments concerning their right to bear arms, the defenders of which seemed invariably to forget about religious liberty, and the First Amendment guarantee of the “free exercise thereof.”

It was precisely the free exercise of religion that was prohibited in Phoenix. Muslims were kept from exercising their right to worship freely by fear of an armed attack of ignorant, angry white men who had made it abundantly clear that they were [1] well-armed, [2] hated Muslims, and [3] were spoiling for a fight.

It was not the first time that Muslim-haters in Arizona have carried and displayed weapons. But on May 29, their weapons, when combined with their violent and hateful rhetoric, were capable of generating enough fear that Muslim families in Phoenix were prevented from the “free exercise” of their First Amendment rights.

This is something the “open-carry” boys in the gun culture don’t like to hear. People who carry weapons may feel powerful and free in so doing, but they generate fear and intimidation in the general public, because people – especially whose with children – have no way of knowing what the arms-bearing individuals are going to do with the weapons they are carrying.

The right to create fear and to intimidate people with weapons is not guaranteed by the Constitution, and the courts have an overwhelming interest in saying so.

I bring this up because I am afraid that openly carrying weapons may become a fashion in the mid-South – Tennessee and Oklahoma in particular – among those in the extreme right of the Republican base who might wish to intimidate those they dislike.

I consider this a symptom of neo-fascism, and a recipe for tragedy.

We know who the Islamophobes are. First are the right-wing evangelicals, many of whom believe that religious war against Muslims will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Then there are people who are passionate about Israel, and think they’re helping Israel by spreading religious bigotry, when actually they are harming the cause of peace in the Middle East. Third, there are sadists and mentally unstable types that get off on terrorizing vulnerable minorities. Fourth, there are the cynical, ambitious politicians, who are only out for themselves, and couldn’t care less about the people that get hurt in the process.

What is new are the billionaires who are bankrolling a substantial part of this violent hate-mongering. The billionaires find it easy to win recruits as long as the money is forthcoming.

This reminds me of the way the corporate upper classes in Europe supported the anti-Semites a century ago. In the beginning, people dismissed the anti-Semitic propaganda as “just rhetoric.” But it wasn’t just rhetoric. Before it was all over, six million died in the Nazi death camps, and Europe was reduced to rubble.

What bothers me is the way people do not see how quickly religious hated can get out of hand.

There’s also a new factor on the international scene. Is it not painfully clear that the unthinkably brutal and very public acts of terrorism carried out by ISIS are calculated to inspire fear and hatred of Islam?

The reason for this is clear in their propaganda. They want to turn non-Muslims in the west against their Muslim friends and neighbors, so it can be used for propaganda. That was the strategy of Al Qaeda, and it is now the strategy of its offshoot ISIS/ISIL – to create divisions in the West that are likely to lead to violence against Muslims, so those incidents can be used for propaganda.

And all too often, it works. It works, I believe, because of a very destructive psychological dynamic I call the “near/far fallacy.” This refers to the tendency of people to hold an entire group responsible for the actions of a relatively small group a long ways away.

Because of this fallacy, a man may fling insults at his Muslim taxi-driver in Oklahoma City, because of something done by a terrorist in Iraq. There’s no connection between the Iraqi terrorist and the taxi-driver in Oklahoma City, you understand. But the aggressor makes that connection because he wants – or needs – someone to hate. It’s a particularly irrational form of guilt by association.

Yes, there are people who want a worldwide religious war. Some of them are Christians living in Oklahoma and Tennessee, and some are Muslims in Syria and Iraq. Our struggle is to work within our different religious traditions against these accelerating and very dangerous currents.

A particularly honorable and needed example of this was the recent “listening panels” held by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches at Norman, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

But I’d like to see a more aggressive emphasis on the First Amendment right of people to worship when, where and how they please.

It’s not because of charity, Christian or otherwise, that we insist on the right of Oklahoma’s Muslim families to worship. It’s because that right is ensconced in America’s most important legal document: the US Constitution as amended by the Bill of Rights.

It’s their right – yesterday, today, forever.

Anyone who seeks to abridge that right is working to undermine the Constitution—and that’s nothing less than a hate crime against America.

Lawrence Swaim
This was originally published by the digital version of the Oklahoma Observer and republished by the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

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