Fundamental rights

Threats to Muslim rights endanger Bill of Rights, speaker says

Institutionalized profiling of Muslims is undermining American democracy, a leader of Cleveland’s Islamic community said at Bluffton University Nov. 5.

Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cleveland Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Ohio, cited a 2004 Cornell University study in which 44 percent of respondents indicated acceptance of curbing the civil rights of American Muslims. But in the United States, she argued, if you curb one group’s rights, “you destroy the fabric of the Bill of Rights for everyone else.”

Shearson urged her listeners in a Bluffton Forum to help Muslims counteract “Islamophobia” in various ways, including educating themselves about it, questioning stereotypes, standing up against anti-Muslim bigotry and getting to know their Muslim neighbors.

Raised a Catholic, Shearson noted that among her mother’s ancestors were the Winslows whose names appear on the Mayflower Compact. She explored different religions while traveling as a high school and college student. Backpacking with her mother in the Middle East in 1993, she heard an Islamic call to prayer while standing on a balcony in a Syrian city, “and I said, ‘I believe in my heart this is true,’” she recalled.

She began studying Islam but, after 9/11, “things became more complicated, and I had a lot of questions.” In 2002, though, she made the profession of faith at Cleveland’s Grand Mosque before Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. She thought her long faith journey was over, Shearson said, but she was only beginning her work as an activist for social justice in her new faith community.

“The moment I put this piece of cloth on my head,” she said, referring to her hijab, “I became a second-class citizen in my own country.” The scarf “covers the head but not the brain,” she added, pointing out that her commitment neither to her country nor her neighbors had changed.

She had thought conditions for “persecuted” Muslims would improve as the United States became further removed time-wise from the 2001 terrorist attacks, Shearson said. Instead, she continued, “I think we have thrown off some of the fundamental rights” that all Americans should have.

The threat of terrorism is real, she acknowledged. However, she said, the danger has been “blown out of proportion,” and the acts of the 19 terrorists on 9/11 became a “broad brush” with which to paint the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who want to live in peace.

Because of her dress, people often think she’s an immigrant who doesn’t speak English, said Shearson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and master’s degrees in Middle East studies and linguistics from Harvard and Ohio universities, respectively. But “I am an American,” as are other U.S. Muslims, she stressed. “I just look a little different, and America is a very diverse place.”

The country’s Muslim population is estimated at anywhere from 7 million to 13 million, she said, explaining that a firmer number is difficult to know because the U.S. census doesn’t ask about religion. Roughly one-third of that Muslim population is from south Asia—also home to the most Muslims worldwide—while 30 percent are African-Americans and about 25 percent are Arabs, she noted.

“We, as Muslims, see ourselves as part of the Abrahamic family of faith,” Shearson said, listing what she said are common beliefs in prayer, angels and a day of judgment, among others. “We want to be part of the Judeo-Christian community” but have been “pushed to the margins” due to 9/11.

The 12 years since then—a “complicated period of military clashing,” in her words—and the time of the Crusades have been the only points in history when Islam and Christendom have not benefitted each other, she said. She listed the alphabet, numeric system, social studies, architecture and the arts as among the areas of mutual benefit.

But since 9/11, Islamophobia has become more extreme, promoting violence against, and marginalization of, the Muslim community, Shearson said. Among the leaders of the “Islamophobia industry,” she noted, are “bashing and cashing” authors of biased books, as well as religious leaders, media pundits and politicians.

There has also been a movement addressing sharia—Islamic law. She called it “a fear campaign” that says Muslims must be stopped so they can’t impose their religious practices on others. She added that legislation banning the “nonexistent threat” of sharia law has been proposed in more than 20 states where few, if any, Muslims even live.

Islamophobia creates an “echo chamber” where people are taught to hate, said Shearson. And the consequences in America have been attacks on Muslim people and property, including the September 2012 arson fire at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, 50 miles north of Bluffton. “These incidents have pretty much become weekly occurrences,” she said, acknowledging that Muslims can’t solve the problem alone and asking non-Muslims for their help.