Don't turn blind eye to intolerance

Fareed's Take: Anti-Muslim rhetoric
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Story highlights

  • Ehsan Zaffar: Americans should vote for inclusiveness over intolerance
  • Now not time for those who sense intolerance and negativity to withdraw from public debate

Ehsan Zaffar is an adjunct professor at George Washington University, John Marshall Law School and American University's Washington College of Law, where he teaches courses on national security and civil rights law. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The American people are being bombarded with messages suggesting this country is under siege -- whether it is from immigrants and refugees, or American Muslims or some other segment of the U.S. population. Many have weighed in attempting to address the ignorance that underpins much of the fear and hate being expressed.

Indeed, there are no shortage of facts underscoring how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's repulsive actions do not represent Islam, or why Hispanic-Americans are some of the most law-abiding and productive citizens in this country.
Yet the drums of intolerance beat on, unrelenting.
Ehsan Zaffar
There are, for example, cases of American Sikhs being singled out or discriminated against for their religious garb. There are also some troubling statistics on how Hispanic-Americans avoid social services like health care for fear it will place them in the crosshairs of vague but threatening immigration proposals.
And there are groups delivering guidance to American Muslim women on how to remain safe amid an anti-Islamic atmosphere, including swapping the entirely benign hijab for a hooded sweatshirt.
There is a particular madness to the idea that we have reached the point where a head scarf, a full beard or even a family name engenders so much animosity -- animosity that is leading to hate crimes and anti-religious and ethnic violence. Most troubling is that the volume and frequency of these incidents seems to be increasing. I mapped out reports of discrimination, violence or threats of violence against Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities for last November and December, and found incidents across the country.
As an educator, I regularly see the consequences of this growing intolerance on young Americans.
Many of my students were barely walking on September 11, 2001, yet they have grown up as American Muslims feeling their identity is under attack. Likewise, a recent study found that U.S.-born Latinos who experienced discrimination encountered more anxiety and depression than those who immigrated to the United States.
Clearly, many young Americans are struggling and suffering. In their most formative years, they are being forced to sort through the titanic forces of identity, politics, belief and citizenship while under the angry stare of an uninformed public. We need not -- and should not -- sit by and allow this to continue because how communities and young people respond to some of the ugly rhetoric we are hearing will have a cascading effect for generations to come.
So, what can Americans do?

Speak out

Now is not the time for those who sense intolerance and negativity to withdraw from the public debate. Sharing personal experiences with the wider public is critical. We are a rational citizenry when we have the knowledge and opportunity to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, and there is no more effective way to achieve this than by taking to the public square.
True, it can be challenging to do so when you are under threat, if you are facing discrimination or violence. But it is important to ask for help and not stay in the shadows -- you are an American, too. And even if you are not directly targeted, it's critical for you to call out bigotry and come to the defense of a fellow American. You can also stand beside those already speaking out, such as by supporting the local businesses that make a point of countering bias, through a variety of initiatives.

Seek allies

We are all in this together. Even as there are individuals and groups spreading a negative, divisive message, there are millions more Americans who reject it. Our collective will can beat back the ideas that pit Americans against each other.
That said, we must also be sensitive to our allies' wishes. In November, a small group of armed individuals rallied outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, to deliver an anti-Islamic message. In response, hundreds of local residents marched to the Islamic center in support of tolerance and reason -- during afternoon prayer. No one asked the leaders of the Islamic center nor its congregants whether this was something they wanted. In fact, they reportedly didn't want it. The sentiment and motivation, however, is important.
In practical terms, you could volunteer your professional skills, knowledge and good intentions. For example, if you are an educator, teach young people about other cultures and traditions to undercut false messages. If you are a lawyer, offer pro bono legal support, particularly to ensure instances of threats and violence are being investigated. There are also organizations combating intolerance, and they all need more volunteers with various skill sets.

Summon responsible leadership

Hate speech can spread like wildfire so long as leaders do nothing. Real leadership is taking a stand for what is right, especially when it is unpopular. In the past, some U.S. elected leaders have bowed to an irrational and misleading minority that uses fear as a motivating factor for political action, be it the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the creation of "China Towns" to segregate Chinese-Americans, or the McCarthy trials of the Cold War era. Today, there is another wave of support for would-be leaders who champion exclusion and suspicion.
But there is one way all Americans can take part in stopping this trend: vote for inclusiveness over intolerance.
Those just joining this country, as well as those whose families have been part of it for generations, should encounter open arms, not an accusatory finger. We must hold fast to American ideals and exercise the power of the people to help put the national discussion back on a productive path. Ultimately, that means treating one another with the respect and understanding that every American citizen deserves.