Race, Religion and their Influence on American Political Culture
By: Elias Khoury and Salah Dean Elayoubi, ADC Summer 2019 Interns
Lady Liberty — an Arab, Muslim woman proudly stationed on Liberty Island in New York Harbor — is a constant reminder of America’s strong commitment to racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural pluralism. However, in contemporary American society, we are seeing a small-but-vocal minority question the commitment as they attempt to deny immigrants the opportunity to join in on the American project. Attacks that seek to demonize others based on race and/or religion — in lieu of participating in a free and open exchange of ideas — erode our political culture and poison the well of civic life.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These were the first words that greeted immigrants as they docked at Ellis Island in search of a better life. However, Lady Liberty’s once powerful and awe-inspiring message has now been tainted by the current political climate that has engulfed the United States. Intolerant comments and statements are regularly spoken, written and tweeted by federal, state and local lawmakers all over the country. This is unacceptable.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) fights for and protects the civil rights and liberties of all persons regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Ignorance, intolerance, and hate are not a partisan problem. It is neither Democratic nor Republican, but one of humanity. Race and religion should not be the basis of why people vote and have no place influencing politics.
Before we begin, it is important that we define a few key terms: race, religion, and political culture. Having a clear understanding of race and religion is necessary so that we can better and more easily identify identity-based attacks when we see them. Race is defined by the Census Bureau as “as a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups”. Though the Supreme Court has, in the past, attempted to construct standards for what constitutes religious belief, a formal definition of religion has yet to be articulated. In the United States, you have the right to worship — or, alternatively, not worship — however you see fit.
Political culture is defined as “widely shared beliefs, values, and norms that define the relationship between citizens and government, and citizens to one another”. It is necessary to have a robust understanding of what “political culture” is so that we are clear on what it is that is being unraveled and destroyed as a result of identity-based attacks. Having laid the foundation, we can now begin making connections between race, religion, and their collective impact on our political culture. Allow me to direct your attention to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). This elected member of the United States House of Representatives has recently been distributing.
Islamophobic propaganda to voters — insinuating that his primary opponent in his congressional race is unfit for office on account of his ethnic heritage — as he vies for reelection in his Southern California District. The six-term congressman — who has been indicted on multiple felony charges, including wire fraud and violating campaign finance law — is attempting to smear his Democratic opponent with the label of “terrorist” based on the alleged bad acts of his grandfather.
It is worth noting that “terrorism”— and, therefore, “terrorist”— does not have an internationally-recognized definition. Many a bad actor have attempted to fill this definitional void by using “terrorist” as a throwaway slur for Arab and Muslim people. Given the questionable foundation upon which his claim lies upon, it seems as though Representative Hunter should be afforded little— if any— plausible deniability on this one.
Hunter has also slandered that same opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as being funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. What makes this allegation all the more ridiculous— in addition, of course, to the fact that it is an outright lie — is that Campa-Najjar is a Christian. It is clear that Duncan Hunter is attempting to conflate being Arab — as Campa Najjar is of partial Arab descent — with being Muslim — an ignorant misrepresentation. Not only are most Arab-Americans non-Muslims, but, broadly speaking, most Muslims are not Arab. This just goes to show that some hateful voices will go to any and all lengths to target folks based on their race and/or religion, rather than — as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called for — assessing them based on the content of their character.
Unfortunately, the identity-based agenda does not end with Representative Hunter. In late July of this year, it was revealed that Jerry Scanlan, chairman of the Sussex County (New Jersey) Republican Committee, had been personally running a Facebook page littered with bigoted posts. For example, Scanlan referred to Muslim congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) as “radical terrorists”, and emphatically called for their faith — which the Facebook page labelled “…a death cult” — to be “ from every town, city, county and state’’ in America. One can only imagine what such “eradication” would entail. Needless to say, singling out a specific religious group for eradication harkens back to some very dark periods of history.
We cannot allow this sort of sick, twisted vision to persist. We as a nation should not seek to eradicate religious minorities. Rather, we should open our arms, and seek to uplift them. On the issue of the soul of America, we should refer to the positive message of Lady Liberty, and not the scorn and derision of Duncan Hunter and Jerry Scanlan.
Where this type of divisive rhetoric they spew finds a home, any and all rational discourse is cast off. When we are separated by immutable characteristics such as ethnicity, we lose sight of that which we have in common; what holds us together as a nation. Values, customs, morals, and beliefs become less important than skin color, origin, and who people pray to.
When we lose sight of what unites us, relationships between citizens quickly dissipate. We become a loosely affiliated collection of individuals, rather than a great melting pot. Rather than a unified front, we become increasingly atomized and disparate a model that simply cannot, and should not, be sustained going forward.. In short, where the identity-based agenda flourishes, political culture dies.
If we allow the preachers of hate to win, we run the risk of America devolving into an entity unrecognizable to the nation which so many have come to love, appreciate, and revere. It is therefore incumbent upon all those who seek to foster a culture of tolerance and inclusivity to push back against, and resist, this rising tide of extremism.
We at the ADC have made this our mission over the nearly four decades our organization has been in operation. Over this time period, it has been our sincerest honor and pleasure to stick up for the beleaguered and discriminated against. While the specific work we do varies, our efforts are all in the service of promoting mutual understanding between presently fractured communities. We humbly ask that you join us in this mission, as we work towards building a country and a future that we can all be proud of.