Islamophobia: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Breaking My Rule Just This Once)

Let me start with the obvious: social media and politics are a shitty combo. We all — with the exception of that one offensive relative — know this. I’ve been volunteering for political campaigns since I was an 8 year old roaming the streets of Philadelphia with a clipboard, but even I know that just one status or tweet can drag me down into the gloomy pit of humanity where trolls, 9/11 truthers, and the like reign.

And yet here we are. Gross, I know. But a news story I had originally scrolled past as run of the mill stuck with me throughout today, and made me think about breaking my rule of non-engagement just this once.

Maybe the most concerning thing about watching Ben Carson say, “I absolutely would not agree” with electing a Muslim as President is how unsurprising it is that he said it. The hateful rhetoric directed against women, immigrants, black Americans, and others this election cycle has certainly outraged many; but perhaps even more noteworthy is how much it has desensitized the general public to the effect of the words of our nation’s leaders.

It’s not so much the hypocrisy of someone who decries the so-called War on Religion declaring, well, war on another religion that upsets me. Neither is it the sheer stupidity of someone referring to a document — the United States Constitution — as incompatible with a particular religion when that document explicitly protects the free expression of religion. Rather, it’s the impact that this statement and others like it have on people around this country, especially the most young and impressionable among us.

Growing up in a household led by one Republican and one Democrat, I listened at the dinner table to passionate but respectful discourse on topics ranging from the Bush tax cuts to the Iraq War. As I became more informed and my interest in worldly topics piqued, my aspirations soared. All those times spent driving to Pennsylvania with my mom, getting chased out of malls for soliciting, and putting up yard signs around town (I repeat, putting up — definitely not taking any down …) were motivated by the idea that one day maybe I could run for office, make a difference, and become President of the United States.

It breaks my heart that there are kids out there today who are just like I was — who are learning about the world around them and want to improve their communities — who are told that their dream of becoming President is a dream that would undermine rather than serve their country, just because of how they were raised. Just because of what they believe. Just because of who they are.

This shouldn’t be and really isn’t a partisan issue. Republican Colin Powell gave a thorough rebuke against anti-Islam rhetoric during the 2008 election, and he is far from the only conservative who is against this type of hateful, divisive rhetoric. Ben Carson may be soft spoken and a nice guy. He may just be pandering to his Tea Party base. But even so: it makes me feel a deep sadness that kids growing up in this country will feel like their political activism is hurting rather than helping, that their ambitions aren’t worth pursuing, and that they are second-class Americans.

Fourteen year-old student Ahmed Mohamed came to the national forefront when he was punished rather than praised for taking the initiative to act on his ingenuity and passion for creating something. Prominent figures from Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama rallied to encourage Ahmed to keep up his good work and to follow his dreams.

Unlike in that case, there is no singular figure to rally around in the wake of Carson’s disparaging remarks. There are, however, thousands of kids from Muslim backgrounds around the country who will hear what he had to say and will no doubt feel discouraged that a large portion of the nation doesn’t want them involved in public affairs because of their cultural and religious background.

Citizens and public officials of all religions, ethnicities, and political parties should stand up to this type of deeply hurtful remark. There is no better way to contribute to one’s community and one’s country than through civic participation. We as a country must make it clear to Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, and every other type of child that their contributions matter, that everyone has a voice, and that anyone born in this nation can grow up to be President of the United States.

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