*Participant quotes are taken from memory and are paraphrased.
On May 10, we held an event in Longmeadow, Massachusetts with Critical Connections, as part of our jointly organized Muslims in America: Dialogues Across Divides series. It was a public dialogue called "American Heretics: the History of Religious Intolerance in America," with two experts adding substance to the discussion: Peter Gottschalk, a scholar of religion and religious intolerance at Wesleyan, and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a nationally recognized attorney and civil rights advocate who currently legally represents the hamlet of Islamberg, New York. We named the event after Gottschalk's book, American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance.
Two days before our event, we became aware of negative comments appearing in response to a local newspaper article that advertised it online, and related our planned event to ongoing issues of hate speech against the local Muslim community. “I'm not going in support!! I'm going to protest!!” one person wrote in the comments section. “Muslims do not belong on USA soil. They all support terrorists!!” But despite the possibility of disruptions or threats, we decided to go ahead with the event—and what resulted was deeply meaningful.
Islamberg and the American imagination
Before this event was planned, many of us had never heard of Islamberg—a small community of mostly African-American Muslims living on communally owned land in upstate New York. It was founded in the late 1980s, populated by families looking to raise their children away from the problems they were witnessing in New York’s inner city. Last spring, Islamberg was the target of a frightening inter-state plot led by a former political candidate from Tennessee named Robert Doggart and ten alleged accomplices.
The FBI arrested Robert Doggart before they could carry out their plan, which was to burn down the community’s mosque, cafeteria, school, and use assault rifles and machetes against residents. Doggart was released on bond under house arrest last year, and now awaits trial on additional charges; the one named accomplice (William Tint) was sentenced to probation in June 2016. Nine more alleged accomplices have remained unidentified and at large.
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud volunteers as legal counsel to Islamberg. She explained to the participants gathered for our May 10 dialogue that for years before the foiled attack plot, she had been warning that the rise of hate speech and the easy spread of unfounded rumors about Muslim communities could escalate into acts of anti-Muslim violence.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened: Doggart has claimed he was inspired to organize the attack after watching a Fox News interview about Islamberg, showcasing false rumors about it being a cover community for a terrorist training camp.
Given the gravity of the accusations against Robert Doggart, many of us found ourselves wondering: Why didn’t we hear about the plot against Islamberg a year ago, when it happened? Why haven’t the perpetrators been charged with terrorism, or a hate crime? How have nine accomplices not been identified and apprehended?
Current prejudices in historical perspective
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud put it simply: American society holds a double standard. When Muslims threaten or commit mass violence, this is widely perceived as terrorism. But when non-Muslims such as Robert Doggart threaten mass violence, it is more often treated as an isolated criminal incident. In this context, hate crimes against Muslims are increasing: according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes against Muslims have been increasing while other hate crime rates go down (note: that analysis has not been updated since the June 12 attack on LGBTQ people in Orlando). In fact, the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement surveys have named the rise of radical right-wing organizations as the #1 domestic terrorism threat.
Scholar Peter Gottschalk compared present-day American attitudes toward Muslims with historical persecution of Catholics and Jews. The influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany in the mid-1800s was met by rising fear that new immigrants would destroy the culture of the United States, and that the international papist “conspiracy” directly threatened American democracy.
By the 1930s, anti-Jewish sentiment and fear of the so-called “international Jewry,” popularized by Henry Ford, was so strong that polls showed one in 10 Americans believed that Jews should be deported, and—shamefully—most Americans favored a ban on admitting Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
Nowadays, most of us would consider these conspiracy theories against Jews or Catholics to be ludicrous. Gottschalk predicted that we will one day see present-day attitudes toward Muslims the same way. Across many examples of religious persecution, he explained, there are common themes: fear of secrecy when religious communities appear insular; fear of social disorder brought by the immigration of new religious groups; and fear that women, children, or other members of our society seen as vulnerable may be mistreated.
Common American prejudices toward Muslims, based in fear or ignorance, lead us to generalize: From a distance, we may see the rise of violent political movements in Muslim-majority countries as “Muslim problems.” In reality, these societies—and the conflicts, political movements, and religious trends within them—are every bit as complex as the Christian-majority societies of Europe or North America.
Dialogue: talking through difference
As small-group dialogues began at our event, the sun set, and several men quietly left discussions to face Mecca and pray.
A few of the declared opponents from online had decided to come to the event—and one was participating in the dialogues alongside Muslims from the local area. When it came time to report back to the larger group, dialogue facilitator (and Karuna Center director) Olivia Dreier handed him the microphone.
“I come from a military family, and I am sick of my sons, my grandsons, being sent to fight wars in the Middle East because of Islamic terrorism. I don’t have Islamophobia, I’m not afraid—but I can’t even look at Muslims walking down the street anymore without feeling sick thinking of the attacks on this country. I’d like to get to a point where I can see people as individuals again,” he explained. He spoke to the violent conflicts fracturing Muslim communities, and then directly addressed the Muslims in the group. “I want to know: what are you doing to stop this? Are you going to teach your children not to go on jihadi Twitter?”
One young woman in the group took the mic and responded. “These acts of terrorism are committed by people with hate in their hearts,” she said, her voice calm and measured but full of emotion. “I do not raise my children to have that kind of hate because I am a practicing Muslim and my religion is a religion of peace. I do not have to sit my children down each day and say 'don't be a terrorist,' because I am not raising them that way.”
As the whole-group discussion evolved, the struggles of Muslim parents and youth came to the fore. One mother said that she responds to extremist violence by reading her children proclamations of support for Muslim communities from various towns and organizations, to help them focus on all the allies they have across religious lines. She fought back tears when she recalled how her seven-year-old son asked, “Mom, where are we going to hide you if Donald Trump becomes president?”
Part of the problem is that, according to a Pew Research poll, 6 out of 10 Americans do not know a Muslim—or, more accurately, do not know that they do. Since one in 20 American medical doctors are Muslim, for example, more people may know a Muslim than they think.
During the discussion in my small group, I was surprised to find myself sitting with someone who was born and raised in Islamberg. I confessed how difficult it was to navigate the internet rumors about her hometown without absorbing misinformation. Every internet search leads straight to frightening conspiracy theories, hosted on radical right-wing websites, about the small hamlet’s supposed role in potential Islamic terrorist activity. She warned me: “Going on the internet for information about Islam is like looking up a medical condition. Fifteen minutes into your search you become convinced you're going to die.”
“And you run to your doctor—and your doctor is a Muslim,” we laughed.
Despite our joke about Muslim doctors, the truth is that only about 1% of people in Western Massachusetts follow Islam. Within that 1% is wide diversity in cultural background and religious practice. Yet many, it seems, have been thrust into a role of ambassador for all Muslims, striving to demystify their religious faith for others, or to reassure a broader public that they do not pose a threat. Though each Muslim person at our event handled this issue with uncommon generosity of spirit, it seems like much too large a burden for any minority community to be expected to carry alone and every day.
The man who had earlier protested our event and said he was “feeling sick” about Islam stayed past the end—continuing to speak and to listen, impressing me with his ability to expose his own views and allow them to be examined by others. Some other group members personally invited him to break bread at a local mosque during Ramadan. Perhaps he found himself in an interesting moment: on the verge of becoming part of that minority of Americans, who can say they know at least one Muslim person. We hope to continue the conversation, person-to-person and faith-to-faith, until the next dialogue event in our series.