It's a Gray Area: Muslims are the latest targets of discrimination

In so many ways, one of the biggest civil rights issues of our day is the way we treat Muslims in our country.

Yes, 9/11 was an act of war against the United States, and yes, it was carried out by radical Muslims. But it is our obligation to realize that it simply is not appropriate to stereotype classes of people, be they Muslims or anybody else.

Many Muslim traditions seem a bit strange to many of us, and thus it is natural to be somewhat fearful. But as I noted in a 2011 column, in more than half of the dialects of the world's languages there is no distinction between the word for "stranger" and the word for "enemy." As a result, in those places anyone who is a stranger is automatically an enemy. Imagine the violence, misery and lost opportunities that have resulted from this short-sighted approach.

Throughout our history we have fallen into the trap of stereotyping groups of immigrants in our country, such as labeling Irish as drunks, Italians as mafia and Chinese as unscrupulous. And in one of our worst national civil rights blunders, we looked on the Japanese as potential spies and interned them in camps. So today it is the Muslims among us who are misguidedly being stereotyped as being terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

As an example, one of my best friends is Iranian (actually they call themselves Persian to distance themselves from Iran's current regime). He is now retired after being the chief engineer at one of the California State Universities, and is one of the finest and most able and caring people I know. But a few years after Congress passed the so-called Patriot Act in response to 9/11, he told me that because of his accent and Iranian name, he was generally being treated so poorly that he was thinking of changing his name. In response, I told him that if he did so I would never forgive him. But this is the atmosphere we have inflicted upon many Muslims in our country.

We are all Americans and should act accordingly, with compassion and tolerance. All people should be treated, and held accountable, as individuals and not as members of a group. In fact, typecasting is simply an excuse to be intellectually and morally lazy.

As a further thought, you may recall that at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency quite a few people were arguing or gossiping that he was really a Muslim. The best response to those comments came from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said so what if he is? That should have been the response from all of us.

It is long past time that we stop being fearful of or even concerned by another person's religious faith. Many people were worried when John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960 that, since he was Catholic, he would take his directions directly from the pope. To my knowledge, Catholics running for office no longer raise such concerns. The same acceptance should be granted those running for public office who happen to be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else.

My perception is that during the 2012 presidential election, Gov. Mitt Romney's being a Mormon was barely a factor in the race. To his credit, Obama did not make it an issue, and thus Romney did not feel it necessary to address it either. So we are progressing.

The same should be true for Muslims. In fact, we should all look forward to the day when no one votes against — or in favor of — any candidates simply because of their race, gender, national origin or religious faith. Those are true American values!

And for those people who have a special concern that Muslims are a special case because of various cited passages in the Koran, let us remember that for centuries many devout Christians around the world cited passages in the Old Testament of the Bible to support violence against and enslaving of people of "inferior races." But that fact does not provide a justification to be generally fearful or skeptical of Christians — then or now.

So what are the causes of the extremist actions of some Muslims around the world? They are the same now as they were throughout history: poverty, ignorance and manipulation of other people by some sociopaths and zealots. Let us never forget that those same factors brought into power tyrants like Hitler, Stalin and Idi Amin, and they are still at work today.

The antidotes to these conditions, in addition to having the best intelligence and military readiness that our government can provide, are free trade, the free-flow of people and ideas, and a genuine appreciation of other cultures. Throughout history it has been shown that peace is born of familiarity with and acceptance of other cultures, and further that people do not tend to shoot their trading partners.

Finally, we must understand that our military ventures in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been portrayed by those same zealots as attacks upon the Muslim faith. And that, in turn, has helped those zealots recruit large numbers of adherents and amass large amounts of money for their cause. So whether our actions in those places were appropriate or not, we must realize that those military actions have been a major factor in increasing the risk of terrorist attacks on us.

So what do any of these problems have to do with the Muslims in our country? Nothing whatsoever. As we have seen, fear is a great tool. But we are better than that because we are Americans. And that means that we put needless fear aside and treat people based on their own merits.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach.

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