Anti-Muslim Paranoia in Wake of Chattanooga Shootings

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July 23, 2015; Raw Story

Regardless of what you might think of Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) politics, you have to respect his decision in a public forum to cut off a questioner at a public forum who suggested that Islam should be barred in the U.S., explaining, “You know what, I’m not your candidate. I don’t want you to vote for me. I couldn’t disagree with you more.” But the xenophobic reaction to Muslims in the wake of the Chattanooga killing of service members should be a concern to nonprofits that believe in an inclusive, diverse United States.

With many reports suggesting that anti-Islamic attacks have risen sharply since 9/11 and stayed consistently high in the years since, it’s hard to call the man who questioned Graham an aberration in American politics. For example, near rural Lupton, Michigan, Nayef (David) Salha, an American citizen who came to the U.S. from Lebanon at the age of eight, has wanted to build a 90-acre summer camp on his 148-acre property that would serve scout groups and other groups. Stunningly, he has been forced to confront accusations that his camp was really meant as a terrorist training center or to be put to some other nefarious end. The Ogemaw County Planning Commission voted 4-3 to turn down Salha’s request for a special use purpose permit amid questions from citizens like Bob Clark, who asked, “Is there anything written on paper that says this isn’t going to be turned into a terrorist training facility of some kind?” Another citizen, one Tim Reetz, doubled down on the paranoid fantasy of an ISIS training camp masquerading as a boy scout facility in the rural community:

“There are a lot of people here that are concerned about this could very easily be a training camp. A lot of people here want to (look into this) because that is a perfect location for a training cell—out of sight and out of everybody’s view and everything else. A hell of a lot can go on in a situation just like that, and it’s too suspicious for me. I think there should be some extensive background investigation into the owners of the property and the people that want to develop the property and their associates. The people that do that would be the FBI, and I think there should some contact made officially from the board to the FBI and the ATF.”

Salha may be amazed by the reactions of his neighbors in rural Michigan, but the reaction he encountered is unfortunately not unusual as anti-Muslim sentiment has been reported spreading through other cities and counties. For example, in Farmersville, Texas, the Islamic Association of Collin County is facing strident opposition to move a Muslim cemetery to an area that already contains a Buddhist center and a Mormon church. The opposition is religious.

“The concern for us is the radical element of Islam,” David J. Meeks, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church and an opponent of the Islamic Association plan, told the Dallas Morning News. “How can we stop a mosque or madrassa training center from going in there?” Pastor Meeks added in a comment to CNN that anytime “Islamic folks” move into a neighborhood, people could be less safe. The CNN report included comments from one resident suggesting that the community litter the site with pigs’ heads and other parts of pigs in order to make it unacceptable to Muslims. Another Farmersville citizen, Troy Gosnell, raised questions about Islamic burial practices—particularly their rejection of the use of caskets. “When somebody dies, they bury them at that time,” Gosnell told KTVT-TV. “You don’t know whether they were shot, diseased, or anything else. All they do is wrap them in a sheet, throw them in the grave and bury them.”

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a spokesman for the Islamic association, denied Gosnell’s contentions. According to the Associated Press, he said that “shrouded bodies would be placed in caskets and entombed in vaults underground, and that the plans for the cemetery have more to do with ‘human dignity’ than religion.”

Abdur-Rashid added, “Some thought it was a mosque going to be built, others thought it was a training ground…. We want to be very clear that this is a cemetery.”

The issue is bigger than just going after one alleged anti-Muslim hate crime perpetrator, like the man who killed three young Muslims in a Durham, North Carolina lot over some ostensible controversy about parking spaces. When anti-Muslim paranoia overwhelms fairness and good judgment, extrapolating from the Chattanooga killer to characterize all Muslims as questionable sorts whose religious beliefs inexorably drive them to violence, this dangerous proposition must be rejected—not only by national political candidates like Graham, but by politicians, community leaders, and nonprofits at the local level as well.—Rick Cohen