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A manufactured panic

Last modified: 5/4/2012 12:00:00 AM
I recently received one of those chain emails that pleads, 'If you agree, please SEND THIS ON and ON, to as many people as you know.' The message said, 'Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia.' It went on to claim that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a speech, 'IMMIGRANTS, NOT AUSTRALIANS, MUST ADAPT. . . . Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture.'

According to snopes.com, which bills itself as 'the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation,' Gillard never made such a speech. It was penned by an American in 2001 and has been distributed periodically ever since, always attributed - for reasons I won't speculate upon - to an Australian. Geographic curiousities aside, the message reflects a worrying trend among Americans.

In Oklahoma, the legislature and courts have been debating a bill to ban Shari'a, the Islamic religious law. Other states, along with some presidential candidates, are wasting time on the same non-problem. Assuming incorrectly that all U.S. Muslims are immigrants, they suggest that if we allow these outsiders to follow their traditions, we'll soon find ourselves ruled by the Taliban. Municipal zoning board meeting rooms, meanwhile, are filled to capacity as soon as anyone proposes building a mosque - on sites that wouldn't raise one eyebrow if the project were a church.

Often proponents of these bills repeat the old saw about how the United States started as a 'Christian nation.' Granted, most colonists were some species of Christian. They were Europeans. In many cases, their brand of Christianity was a legally persecuted minority back home. That's why English Catholics came to Maryland, English Quakers to Pennsylvania, and English Puritans to Massachusetts. And it's why the new nation was founded not on the civic enshrinement of any one religion but on the principle of religious freedom.

Our actions haven't always matched this ideal. We've had periods of irrational xenophobia and fanatical intolerance. But let's try to be rational about this Shari'a thing.

Would we deny our Jewish neighbors their right to keep a Kosher kitchen and follow the Law of Moses? What sane person among us would tell them to take off their yarmulkes and show up for work on Saturday?

What about the Amish? They wear strange clothes. They don't participate in the draft. They speak German, live 'off the grid,' and are exempt from traffic laws. Do we see them as a threat to our way of life? No, if anything we insult them by finding them cute.

When I'm thinking clearly, I understand that following the rules of my religion, however eccentric they may appear to you, does not make me a terrorist. There are criminals and fanatics mixed in among the regular folks of all religions. Look at Norway if you don't believe me. Yes, among the regular folks who practice Islam are some bad apples who orchestrated a staggering tragedy on our soil. Yes, their action left us deeply frightened. Some of us even found our heart rates increasing if we merely met a woman wearing a head scarf.

Perhaps this is only human. Had it been crazed Hindus who had brought down the Twin Towers, perhaps seeing a red dot on a woman's forehead would make our palms sweat. We'd try to deny building permits for their temples. We might seek other ways to inhibit their right to the free exercise of religion. It might be human, but it would still be unconstitutional.

If I'm free to display a creche in my yard, read the Bible aloud on the State House lawn and serve Communion wine to minors, my Muslim neighbor should be free to wear her hijab, eat Halal and unroll her prayer rug next to my Bible tent. Let her start reciting the Qur'an while I read. And then get that guitar-wielding cantor from Temple Beth Jacob to sing some Hebrew toe-tappers while Buddhist monks meditate alongside Gregorian-chanting Franciscans. Hey, this is America.

(Cherie K. Greene of Concord is studying for a master's of fine arts in fiction writing at Southern New Hampshire University.)


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