New Zealand Herald- February 28 2007
Liberty and xenophobia don't
make comfortable bedfellows. In a community consumed by grossly
irrational hatred - including racism and sectarianism - economic and
political freedom will never flourish.
This simple fact was taken for granted 140 years ago by American
anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips, who spoke the famous words that
are now part of political folklore of Western liberal democracies:
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States and much of
Western Europe, paranoid xenophobia has reared its ugly head at times.
Seventy years ago, mainstream newspapers in parts of Europe sought to
make Europe's small Jewish minority responsible for economic and
By 1945, Hitler's regime had massacred millions on the basis of ethnic
and religious identity.
Today, irrational hatred is again endangering our fragile liberal
democracies. The paranoid rants of Osama bin Laden and his ilk against
the Crusader West and against Jews and Hindus, have led to horrific
atrocities such as Americans saw on September 11 and that Iraqis see
Since September 11, Wendell Phillips' historic sentiments are fast being
abandoned by some so-called conservative Americans who pride themselves
as being guardians of liberty. Instead of distancing themselves from the
sectarian paranoia of al Qaeda, they mimic the hatred and direct it
towards anyone they consider to be associated with Islamist terrorists.
Two examples in US politics illustrate the growing environment of
American xenophobia. At the last congressional elections, the voters of
Minnesota sent America's first Muslim to Washington. Criminal defence
lawyer Keith Ellison easily beat his Republican opponent, academic Alan
Minnesota is a Democratic Party stronghold and Fine had little chance of
winning. This didn't stop Fine from playing the religion card. Before
polling day, he said: "I'm extremely concerned about Keith Ellison,
Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Ellison Muhammad ... I'm personally
offended, as a Jew, that we have a candidate like this running for
Ironically, Fine was condemned by his own brother, who defended Ellison.
Things didn't end there for Ellison, who made public his wish to place
his hand on the Koran at a swearing-in ceremony. A neo-conservative
talkback host from Philadelphia posed this offensive question to Ellison
on CNN: "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."
Writing on the conservative commentary website Townhall.com, Dick Prager
lamented that Ellison would not take his oath of office on the Bible,
but on the bible of Islam, the Koran. According to Prager, this act
undermines American civilisation.
Ellison did swear on the Koran , his critics silenced when it was
revealed that Ellison borrowed from the Library of Congress the Koran
that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States.
Another example concerns Barack Obama, the Democratic Party senator from
Chicago who hopes to be the first African-American to occupy the White
House. If his allegedly conservative opponents have their way,
Obama's mother's matrimonial choices may be used against him. Obama
regards himself as a Christian. He shares his Christian name with
millions of Muslims.
His father was a Kenyan of Muslim heritage and nominally of the Muslim
Obama's middle name is Hussein, but he rarely uses that name in public.
This doesn't stop the journalistic imbeciles at Fox News from repeating
he views of far-right magazines claiming that Obama is, in effect, a
Muslim posing as a Christian.
The tabloid TV network cited a story from Insight Magazine claiming that
for four years Obama was educated at a madrassah terrorist training
school in Indonesia, funded by Saudi Arabia and preaching Islamic
fundamentalist Wahabi doctrine.
Anyone familiar with Indonesian Islam knows that most Indonesian Muslim
religious schools (known as pesantran, not madrassah) are managed by
small communities under the auspices of large religious foundations such
as Nahdhatul Ulama, who are very hostile to Wahabi doctrine. Few receive
funds from the Indonesian Government, let alone the Saudis.
Later, CNN and Associated Press did some digging and discovered that
Obama never attended a pesantran. He attended a state-run school in
Jakarta, where most students were Muslim - as you would expect in the
world's largest Muslim-majority state.
With Keith Ellison, it was a case of having the wrong religion. But with
Barack Obama it was a case of having a mother who twice married men of
Yet, as the Washington Post says: "A President with an understanding of
Islam and the developing world would be welcomed by those who too often
feel misunderstood and slighted by the United States."
Thankfully, the xenophobia of Muslim-haters can only have so much
influence in the Land of the Free. However, the fact that sectarian and
racist rhetoric continue to be effective political tools is cause for
continuing concern. Effective vigilance must remain eternal if liberty
is to be protected.
* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney-based lawyer and
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