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Opinion

'Muslim' shouldn't be a slur

Excuse me, but when did the words "Muslim" and "Arab" become acceptable epithets?

I'm not a Muslim, and perhaps I was slow to see this coming. Four months ago, I blithely advised a group at a local mosque not to obsess over the anti-Muslim undertones of the presidential campaign. At that point, Barack Obama was defending his Christian bona fides against "accusations" of "being a Muslim" (as if it had suddenly become a Class-D felony), but was doing so without condemning the implicit slurs against Islam, Muslims and Arabs.

In a "don't worry, be happy" tone, I breezily noted that although the stoking of racial fear and xenophobia was a cherished tradition of American politics, I really didn't think that this time around the candidates would permit the wholesale slander of Islam or Muslims.

Apparently, I was wrong. The undertones have become screaming overtones. And it is past time to object.

If it wasn't clear before, it became crystal clear last week in the aftermath of Republican rallies. Fomenting fear to shore up drooping support, Republicans sadly used heated demagoguery about "palling around with terrorists," about "Barack Hussein Obama" and about how Obama doesn't "see America like you and I," words that mixed subliminally to conflate "terror" with "Muslim" and to whip crowds into xenophobic anger. After his enraged supporters were recorded uttering death threats and racial slurs, McCain was forced on several occasions to try to tamp down the anger in the audience and to defend his opponent.

That was a good step one -- until McCain blew it. A woman stood up in the audience and said that she just couldn't trust Obama because, as she put it, "he's an Arab." McCain shook his head, took the microphone and said: "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."

So, what is he saying? Arabs aren't decent family men? They can't be citizens?

The fact is, neither McCain nor Obama -- who continues to combat absurd attacks on his Americanness -- has been willing to speak out against the implicit slurs against Arabs and Islam.

Is it really too difficult for Obama to respond: "For the hundredth time, I am a Christian, and if you are suggesting that there is something wrong with Islam or being a Muslim, you are wrong"?

Would it be so hard for McCain to say: "There is no room in my campaign or in America for religious or ethnic intolerance -- that's what we're fighting against"?

Maybe I missed the denunciations amid all the hoopla over field-dressing moose, but it looks like the next ice age will arrive before the NAACP, the National Conference of Christians and Jews or the Anti-Defamation League loudly objects to the implicit defamation of Muslims and Arabs that has seeped into this presidential campaign.

Women rightly protested gender bias during Hillary Clinton's run, but we failed to strongly challenge the earlier bias against Mormons during Mitt Romney's bid, and we are currently failing to refute the anti-Muslim bias embedded in the assaults on Obama.

It is a failure we need to correct now.

Constance L. Rice is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles.

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