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opinion | John Robbins

Don’t let hatred divide us

Fajila Khalifa, a member of the Islamic Center of Burlington, and Michael O’Brien, interim pastor at Presbyterian Church in Burlington, wrote positive messages on the mosque’s wall after it was vandalized a few weeks ago.
Fajila Khalifa, a member of the Islamic Center of Burlington, and Michael O’Brien, interim pastor at Presbyterian Church in Burlington, wrote positive messages on the mosque’s wall after it was vandalized a few weeks ago.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Muslims have once again been placed in the spotlight after Monday’s proposal by presidential candidate Donald Trump of banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Its breathtaking offensiveness and discriminatory fervor have seized public attention, and it has attracted mainstream condemnation from a broad coalition of Republicans, Democrats, civil rights groups, and faith leaders.

However, American Muslims have recently become numbed to this kind of bigotry. Despite vocal condemnations of such violent acts by every mainstream Muslim leader and the general Muslim population, we have nevertheless been both explicitly and implicitly held accountable for these egregious acts done in the name of our faith.

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Recent days and weeks have witnessed an enormous spike in hate crimes targeting Muslims. To take just a few examples: An Ethiopian Christian man in South Carolina was beaten nearly to death after being mistaken for a Muslim; a pregnant Muslim woman in San Diego was assaulted on the street because of her religious dress; and countless mosques have been threatened with violence toward worshipers. We had hoped that such acts, like signs reading “Irish Need Not Apply” and “No Blacks” in years past, were a dark part of our history whose legacy we had learned from, and moved beyond.

But these terrible acts have taken place here in Massachusetts as well. Just a few weeks ago, the Islamic Center of Burlington was vandalized, with “USA!” spraypainted across the sides of the building. Earlier, a woman in Methuen was harassed by a postal employee because of her religious attire. And local Muslim civil rights groups have been working around the clock to address exclusionary treatment at the workplace, bullying at school, and death threats. While Islamophobic sentiments, like anti-Semitic and other racist ideologies, have always existed at the margins of society, their espousal by prominent public figures legitimizes them and moves them into the mainstream. We are concerned about such rhetoric inciting further violence against Muslims living peacefully in our country, and in our state.

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Moreover, Islamophobia is not simply a problem for American Muslims. If we allow one minority group to be discriminated against freely, without repercussions, what is to prevent the same treatment toward African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Latino-Americans, or Native Americans? If rights only exist for some, they don’t exist at all.

However, bigotry is a long-range weapon; it loses its efficacy up close. It’s consistently been shown that those who express the most hateful views toward Muslims are those who claim never to have met one. Once they have a sustained interaction with even one Muslim, their perception of Muslims in general improves dramatically. That’s why peace lies not in exclusion, marginalization, and disenfranchisement, but in increased engagement, dialogue, and exposure. We encourage people of all faiths to reach out to your Muslim neighbors, and to talk with them about their beliefs, backgrounds, and aspirations.

To those who say that Muslims have no place in American society, we counter that America is made great because of its pluralism, and our refusal to be divided. In the face of the attacks on our city that threatened to pit us against one another, Boston residents from all backgrounds came together and declared that we — Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths — are all Boston Strong. Our city can serve as a model for our country, and show that American Muslims have a vital role to play in the evolving project of shaping our nation, now and in the future.

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John Robbins is executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations