Tag Archives: islam

The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.

Religion in the News

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The biggest religion news stories in 2011 involved tensions with Islam, followed by faith in presidential politics, a new Pew report reveals. Some of the key findings in the study, “Religion in the News,” include:

  • Religion coverage made up just 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011, down from two percent in 2010
  • Religion received as much attention as race, gender and LGBT issues
  • Islam made up nearly one-third of all religion news stories last year
  • The top religion stories of the year included: religion in the election, Peter King’s “Radical Islam” congressional hearings, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, the Westboro Church protests, religion in September 11th commemorations, the Catholic priest abuse scandal and Terry Jones’s Quran burning

For more on religion coverage in the mainstream media, Moment speaks with Jesse Holcomb, a research associate with Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and one of the authors of the study.

MM: Your report says that religion accounted for only 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011. Why do you think religion gets so little attention?

JH: First of all, we’re talking about a fairly big news hole, and by that I mean a large space for a whole variety of topics. There are a lot of topics that get just a small share of that total pie, and religion is one of them. Part of it may be because other topics tend to get a lot of attention—politics, government, in this past year, foreign affairs, economics—and can crowd out the other subjects.

Another potential reason is methodological. In our daily analysis of the mainstream news media, we don’t study every story that appears in every newspaper, and we don’t study the entire hour of a news broadcast, or all 24 hours of a cable channel. We use a sample, so we look at the first half hour of news shows, and with newspapers, it’s the front page as well as the homepage of news websites. So what we’re really looking at is the stories and subjects that get the most attention, that get the most priority by news organizations. These would also presumably be the stories that people see most often. So it is possible that religion might appear inside the newspaper, but what we’re talking about is the top of the newscast. For those reasons—and a combination of other reasons—religion is just not one of those top subjects. However, it does appear as a thread in many other stories, especially politics.

MM: Why does Islam dominate religion news coverage, and what kinds of stories do we see about it?

JH: Muslims represent a numerical minority in the United States, so it is quite striking to see how many of the major religion stories of the year were focused on Islam. Lots of these stories revolve around some sort of conflict or tension. Those are traditionally the kinds of themes that can generate lots of attention. You won’t see as many stories in the top of the news cast that say, “everyone’s getting along.” These conflicts and tensions tend to drive the news agenda, so there may also be something in the zeitgeist of news room culture or perceived public opinion that is concerned about the issue of Islam.

MM: According to the report, the other big religion stories involved faith in politics. Has religion in the presidential race always been such a big story, or has it received more attention this year because of Mitt Romney and Mormonism?

JH: No, religion and politics tends to be a perennial theme in religion coverage in the mainstream news media. It was certainly a big aspect of religion coverage in 2007 and 2008. In fact, even though we have at least two major candidates for whom faith is an important part of their biography, the attention to religion and the campaign this year as a percentage of the whole, is less than it was in 2007, the last time we had a primary. So in fact it has gone down, if you look at those two years side by side.

MM: Do you think this news coverage of Mormonism is helping Americans understand the religion better? One Pew poll found that 62 percent of Mormons in the United States think that Americans know nothing or not too much about their religion, and another said 49 percent of white evangelicals don’t consider Mormonism to be Christianity.

JH: That’s a really good question, but it’s not a question I can answer definitively with our research. I do know that there have been complaints from the Mormon community about the way their faith has been portrayed in the news media, a common one being that Mormons have not been given the opportunity to define themselves in the press, that Mormons are often defined by people of other faiths, or characterized in a certain way by reporters. We can expect that Americans are getting a lot of their information about the Mormon faith through the media, but whether there’s a cause and effect between the kind of coverage there is and their attitudes, I can’t say.

A large portion of the attention to the Mormon faith in political coverage in the past year was focused on one incident, which was when an evangelical pastor who had endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry came out on the record and suggested that the Mormon faith is a cult. It got a lot of attention, and created some waves. No one in the mainstream media were condoning that kind of speech on the part of that pastor, yet it was a story that got a lot of play. And you could argue, for better or for worse, that it defined that faith in the context of the campaign throughout the year.

MM: Judaism was not mentioned at all in the report. What kind of religion news coverage have Jews seen in 2011?

JH: That’s right. One way that we broke down the media coverage was by looking at which religious faiths got the most attention, and which ones didn’t. So along that spectrum, Judaism was not one of the major faiths that was featured. Although we don’t break it out in the published report, I can tell you that the Jewish faith accounted for about four percent of all religion coverage over the past year. So it’s a small percent—it’s certainly more than Buddhism or Scientology, but it’s significantly less than the attention paid to Islam, Christianity. In the big stories over the year that involved Judaism, there wasn’t necessarily one theme. There were stories about a congressional race in New York involving a Jewish candidate, and stories about archaeologists in Israel digging up the ancient city, and so on—a of collection of stories that didn’t necessarily fall along one special theme.

Election News Roundup

By Monika Wysocki

Here’s a look at a few religion and politics highlights from this week…

The newest front-runner in the wildly unpredictable GOP primary, former Senator Rick Santorum, has dominated the media cycle with his provocative remarks about President Obama—accusing the President of governing based on “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” and accusing him of orchestrating an “assault on all religion in America.” On Monday, Santorum’s spokeswoman mentioned President Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” in an interview on MSNBC—only to call the show after the interview to say she misspoke.

In the midst of the religious attacks, Santorum is surging in national polls and attracting larger crowds at public events, putting him on the stage as a serious contender for the nomination. Despite widespread disapproval and calls from 15 religious organizations for presidential candidates to refrain from using religion as a “political wedge issue,” Santorum’s remarks are likely to raise his profile and appeal to the surprising number of Americans who are unsure about President Obama’s faith. Which is no small matter—the latest research by the Pew Forum found that “beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance…” If Santorum succeeds in re-invigorating false claims that President Obama is a Muslim, the president’s approval ratings will likely suffer—despite his candid remarks on his personal religious beliefs.

Santorum is not the only candidate that has doubts about the sincerity of President Obama’s faith. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has also accused the President of “an assault on religion,” while Gingrich today called the president “the most dangerous president in modern American history,” arguing that the Obama administration has failed to address the problem of radical Islamists. Franklin Graham expressed similar notions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying that “Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

Santorum’s controversial remarks might win him support from evangelical Christians that are alarmed over the recent contraceptives debate, but in the long run the religion-based rhetoric could also alienate women and independent voters. Dick Polman points out that the largest Catholic college in America routinely offers birth-control coverage in its employee benefits and that the majority of Catholics support a federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control. In the end, Santorum’s attempts to brand himself as the most conservative of the GOP candidates and President Obama as an anti-Catholic may do the GOP more harm than good in November.

A Moment With…Omar Sacirbey

By Sarah Breger

A June 2011 Pew poll found that 76 percent of Muslim Americans approved of President Obama’s performance in the White House—a figure far above the national average. The Muslim American community also voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in 2004 and in 2008, a major shift from 2000, when more than three-quarters voted for Republican George W. Bush. Despite these numbers, many Muslims are disillusioned with the president and the changes they believe he promised but hasn’t delivered. While the Muslim electorate is far from monolithic, and its numbers make up just a small fraction of the country’s population, Muslim voting power may prove significant in a close election.

Moment’s managing editor Sarah Breger speaks with Omar Sacirbey, a Boston-based correspondent for the Religion News Service and other publications, on this often-overlooked portion of the electorate.

MM: You recently wrote an article on presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s support in the Muslim community. Is there a “Muslim vote” in America? What are some factors that contribute to the Muslim vote?

OB: There’s more diversity in the Muslim vote this time around than in past elections. There’s a number of reasons for that. The community is becoming more diverse in terms of immigrants and American-born Muslims, and Muslims who came here when they were very young. Regarding Ron Paul, there is a mix of factors as to why this is happening. One is disappointment in Obama. When Obama won the 2008 election Muslims were hopeful, but those hopes have been somewhat tempered. Now, three years into his administration, many Muslims are disappointed that he hasn’t gotten the United States out of Afghanistan; they’re disappointed that he hasn’t done more, in their view, for the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and they’re disappointed in regards to civil rights issues, such as the Patriot Act and policies on indefinite detention, and so on. When they hear Ron Paul, they’re turned on by his statements on getting the United States out of Afghanistan and out of foreign engagements altogether; his desire to cut aid to Israel, indeed, to cut all foreign aid in general but again that he is including Israel; as well as his strong opposition to the Patriot Act and what a lot of Muslims—and others—see as draconian civil rights policies.

MM: Do Muslim Americans align with his social policies?

OB: There’s a mix. A lot of people are willing to overlook disagreements on these social issues in favor of these broader issues. Just like maybe some “values voters” might be willing to overlook Newt Gingrich’s divorces in favor of his conservative agenda.

MM: And are there areas where winning the Muslim vote is vital? 

OB: It’s hard to imagine the Muslim vote being a “make or break” kind of a vote, but it could make the difference in some states where there is a fairly large Muslim population, such as Michigan or Ohio, which are swing states. Possibly even Pennsylvania, where the Muslim population is probably smaller than in Michigan or in Ohio, but perhaps still big enough that in a state that’s going to be closely contested it could make a difference. There’s also a fairly significant Muslim population in smaller states, like Iowa. Again, it’s hard to see them making a huge difference, but if it’s going to be a closely contested election, every vote really will count.

MM: Are there candidates who are actively courting the Muslim vote?

OB: In this field—no. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum are viewed by Muslims as pretty much anti-Muslim candidates. I think you’d be hard pressed to find Muslims who support these guys. We will likely see similar behavior from Obama as in the past election, where a lot of Muslims were disappointed that when opponents would say, “Oh, he’s a Muslim,” or has Muslim sympathies, he wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not a Muslim, but what’s wrong with being a Muslim?” like Colin Powell did. A lot of Muslims were disappointed in that, but others understood it and are willing this time around to forgive him for that

MM: Will the recently proposed anti-sharia legislation and surrounding discussions factor into voting decisions or serve to galvanize the Muslim vote in any way?

OB: It wouldn’t surprise me, because it has become such a prevalent issue since the whole process was initiated in Oklahoma—a lot of Muslims really are upset by this. They consider sharia to be personal and private and don’t want any kind of mixing between religion and government. They’re really offended by these types of actions, and scared by what they consider to be ignorance and hatred of their faith by these people who are in government. The anti-sharia movement has been a catalyst for many Muslims to become more active, even just getting out more in their communities. If you have a kid in your local elementary school, you’re maybe that much more likely to go to a PTA meeting, to go to a school board meeting, just getting out there and being visible. I think if that’s been the case, then it stands to reason that there could be a backlash against this anti-sharia movement, and a desire by Muslims to stand up and vote against people that are advocating these kinds of laws could be a factor that gets them out to the polls in November.

Pay No Attention to the Jew Behind the Curtain

By Steven Philp

Over the past year, more than half of all state legislatures have considered proposals that would prevent judges from consulting faith-based or foreign legal codes. Tennessee and Louisiana have successfully adopted such measures, while Oklahoma recently became the battleground for a bill that identifies what many believe is the true target of this growing movement: a prohibition against the application of Sharia, an Islamic legal code derived from scripture, tradition, and centuries of interpretation. According to a recent article from Crown Heights News, the anti-Sharia movement has gained remarkable appeal as near-identical proposals are replicated in state legislatures across the country. Republican State Representative Sally Kern, a sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, explained, “It’s always helpful when you can say to your colleagues: this piece of legislation is practically identical to about 20 other states.” An article in the New York Times points out that the anti-Sharia movement finds its potency in the meeting of several factors, including the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center near the rising World Trade Center in New York, paranoia concerning domestic terrorism fueled by events such as the tragedy in Norway, and the advent of the Tea Party. Yet the similarity of over two-dozen proposals cannot be attributed to coincidence alone. Rather, the anti-Sharia movement reflects the efforts of a relatively unknown lawyer from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It is time to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

David Yerushalmi—a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew, and the father of the American anti-Sharia movement—is not adverse to controversy; in an essay published in 2006, Yerushalmi offered an interpretation of race that came uncomfortably close to the tenets of eugenics, stating: “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic.” He continued, asking why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” Accordingly, Yerushalmi has endeavored to prove that Islam lies in opposition to the political and economic freedom of the West—and that Sharia may be one of the greatest threats to American society since the Red Scare gripped our country. According to the New York Times, over the past five years he has worked with conservative public policy groups and former intelligence officials to draft reports, file lawsuits, and craft the legislation that has taken the country by storm. And his audience is not limited to ultra-conservative fringe groups, but has been taken up by prominent politicians such as Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachmann. The latter two recently signed a pledge authored by the Family Leader that included an injunction against “Sharia Islam.”

Born in South Florida, Yerushalmi became interested in Sharia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time he was living in Ma’ale Adumim—a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—working on commercial litigation, while offering his services to a conservative research institute dedicated to the promotion of free market reform in Israel. After returning to the United States, he began his study of Islam under two Islamic scholars, both of whom he refused to name. He told the New York Times that his research led him to the conclusion that militant groups—such as those that perpetrated 9/11—had not “perverted” Islam, but were reflective of a tradition that seeks global hegemony. In January 2006, Yerushalmi started the Society of Americans for National Existence, an organization to promote legislation that demanded punishment for individuals caught observing Sharia, while raising funds for a project called Mapping Sharia, which seeks to establish a link between American mosques and jihadist groups. This led Yerushalmi to a partnership with conservative policy analyst Frank Gaffney – as president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, Gaffney has been able to secure meetings with prominent neoconservative and Tea Party leaders. The results have been mixed. On one hand, there has been the successful integration of an anti-Sharia polemic into conservative rhetoric. Yet bills proposing a ban on Islamic law have failed to pass constitutional muster; the controversial measure in Oklahoma was blocked by a federal judge, after the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, claimed the law was an infringement on religious freedom.

To what end is a movement against Sharia necessary? Speaking to the New York Times, Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, explained that these efforts are embedded in gross misperceptions of Islam: “The fact is there is no Shariah takeover in America.” He continued, “It’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.” Andrew F. March, an associate professor studying Islamic law at Yale University, lends credence to this line of thinking, explaining that the perception of Sharia as a unified, authoritative source is misleading. “Even in Muslim-majority countries, there is a huge debate about what it means to apply Islamic law in the modern world,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. Yet however incongruent Yerushalmi’s arguments may be with reality, his stance on Islam has finally pushed this small-time lawyer in to the national spotlight—with some, not so favorably. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have condemned him for his bigoted polemics. However, this is good enough for him; Yerushalmi explains that his cause hinges less on personal success, and more on public awareness. “The purpose was heuristic,” he said. “To get people asking this question: What is Shariah?”

Hate Speech in the Netherlands

by Symi Rom-Rymer

Last week, popular far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of all charges of inciting hatred against Muslims.  The allegations made against him were based on his provocative statements that likened the Koran to Mein Kampf and called Islam a fascist religion.  The judges, after just 20 minutes of deliberation, threw out the case.  According to the BBC, “although the [judges] found [Wilders'] warning of a ‘tsunami’ of immigrants to be on the border of what is permissible, they said he had stayed within the bounds of the law.  [The] judges called some of Mr. Wilders’ comments ‘crude and denigrating,’ but not illegal.”  Buoyed by his success, Wilders gave a victory speech following the verdict in which he did nothing to tamp down the controversy surrounding him.  Instead, he declared that his win was a slap in the face to the Islamiziation of Europe.

Wilders is infamous in the Netherlands for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.  He has written inflammatory pieces in the Dutch media about Muslims and other non-Western immigrants and in 2008, made a film, Fitna, that depicted Islam as inherently violent.  His involvement in anti-Muslim speech does not stop at the Dutch borders.  Last year, he brought his act to the United States.  During the debate over Park51, the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, he joined Newt Gingrich at a rally to oppose the building of the mosque.

It is deeply disheartening that in the Netherlands, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust and where there are strict laws on hate speech, language clearly used to denigrate the Muslim minority population was deemed permissible. During the Second Intifada in Israel, a French journalist commented that his country’s government only recognizes anti-Semitism if it’s goose-stepping down the Champs Elyseé in jackboots.  It appears that the Dutch courts are similarly limited in their perceptions of hate speech.

Given its history and the laws in other EU countries, it is understandable why Holocaust denial, and by extension attacks on Dutch Jews, is considered a crime in the Netherlands.  However, protection from vile and ignorant language in the public sphere should not only apply to those in the Jewish community.  Other minority groups, too, should be able expect legal protection from hate speech.  While the Holocaust is an extreme example, it is worth remembering that the deep-seated hatred and rage that helped fuel it was not created in a vacuum.  It was in part the product of centuries of accepted discrimination and hate speech left unchecked.  Based on the right-wing response to the ruling, there is now a sense that a taboo has been lifted and the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric have widened.  The hate-filled rhetoric aimed at Muslims and other non-Western minorities is spewed by those who now, more than ever, feel a freedom to feed the existing atmosphere of anger and suspicion in the Netherlands.  As John Tyler, political editor at Radio Netherlands told the BBC, “This is a precedent-setting case that now allows people to feel like they can say more than they felt they could say before.”

According to the State Department website, in December 2009, Dutch politician and former EU commissioner Frits Bolkstein suggested that Dutch Jews should emigrate because of rising incidences of anti-Semitism, a statement that he later denied amid criticism.  If Wilders and his supporters continue their rhetoric against Muslims and other non-Western immigrants living in the Netherlands, perhaps other Dutch politicians will suggest that Muslims, too, should leave the country.  If they do, will anybody care?

Like a Yellow Star On Our Food

By Steven Philp

Kosher products are a common sight in most American stores; it is an industry that is recognized outside the Jewish community, employing both Jews and non-Jews in its processing and distribution. Americans are less familiar with halal products, even though they are consumed by almost 1.5 billion people. Yet people are starting to pay attention.

This week thousands of businessmen and women will congregate in Kuala Lumpur for the largest annual exhibition of halal products in the world. For seven years the Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) has served as a lynchpin for the growing industry as it seeks to meet the demand of Muslims’ dietary laws. A press release from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, which hosts MIHAS, stated that last year’s event attracted “over 32,000 trade visitors from 81 countries.” With Muslim spending power increasing as their constituent nations emerge from the recession, this year’s conference is expected to exceed those numbers.

Yet the reception of halal products in countries with Muslim minorities has been tentative.  This past week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative Minister for the European Parliament, added an amendment to a food bill that would have food labels read: “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the shechita method.”  The main bill, proposed by Jim Paice, the Food and Farming Minister to the European Parliament, seeks to label meat based on whether the animal was stunned before killing. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph, Paice is responding to demands from veterinarians and animal welfare activists who claim that the failure to stun an animal before its throat is slit causes “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain.” Currently, the failure to stun is legal under laws protecting religious freedom; in both halal and shechita, the animal is slaughtered while still conscious.

Although Paice believes that consumers should be informed which foods have been killed using the stun method and which have not, he has expressed resistance to Stevenson’s idea that they carry explicit religious labels. He is joined by the British Jewish interest group Shechita UK in opposition to the amendment. Their representative, Simon Cohen, explained that the proposal is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”

Cohen is right, insofar that the requirement to label food with an explicit reference to their intended consumer is based in latent phobias. Only two months ago, American pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries—a Messianic Christian congregation in Bonney Lake, WA—posted a sermon online advocating for an increased awareness of “backdoor Sharia” vis-à-vis the prevalence of halal products in the United States. He cites the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols, explaining, “You could be eating beef, chicken… offered up to Allah and not even know it. I can just imagine at a Passover Seder the caterer unbeknownst to anyone is serving halal meat!” He then outlines methods by which one can ascertain what stores and restaurants to avoid for their provision of halal products. With its genesis in bigotry and misunderstanding, Biltz parallels arguments made almost a decade ago by white supremacist groups that kashrut was the façade for a special “Jewish tax.” Briefly outlined by an article posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy surmounted that if a food company did not pay the “tax”—and consequently did not receive the heksher—its products would be boycotted.

Halal and kosher products tend to occupy a shared space in a number of American stores intended for the general public, making access to them a mutual concern of the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we see in Europe, their similarities can cause them to be lumped together when considered from an outside perspective. We are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of kosher products in the United States.  In response to the high demand from the Jewish community, as well as other groups including Seventh Day Adventists, many non-Jewish stores stock their shelves with kosher goods. Even for many American Muslims, kosher products—subject to more stringent regulations than other foods—are a good alternative for the time being.  It is ultimately in our best interest to advocate for the availability of specialty products, and speak out against laws that restrict our freedom to consume food aligned with our religious values.  Kashrut and halal are not always the same, but they are not that different either.