In Bay Area, leaders of many faiths condemn Islamophobia

SAN FRANCISCO – In a series of actions, more than 1,000 in the San Francisco Bay area demonstrated their solidarity with Muslims embattled by xenophobia and politically motivated fear-mongering in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in Southern California.

A crowd of around 300 people of varied faiths gathered at a mosque in Santa Clara on Dec. 16 to join with the Muslim community in solidarity with the families of the 14 victims of the San Bernardino shooting. The attack was carried out by a couple apparently inspired by the so-called Islamic State terrorist group. The president of the mosque read a statement condemning the attacks and affirming respect for the sanctity of life, moderation, and inclusiveness as fundamental to Islam. Other local religious leaders, including a representative of the synagogue Shir Hadash, a Unitarian and United Church of Christ pastor, and the director of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, addressed the crowd. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo gave a hard-hitting speech. He disputed Islamophobic claims that Islam does not share the values of the “Judaeo-Christian” tradition. Instead, he pointed out, “We all believe in a loving God.” Expressing solidarity with Muslims under attack, he declared, “If any mother has to fear for her child going to school, our community has failed.”

Other political leaders addressing the group included San Jose City Councilperson Rose Herrera, a representative of Rep. Mike Honda, and state Assembly member Kansen Chu. Ro Khanna, former Commerce Department official in the Obama administration, denounced anti-Muslim rhetoric by politicians.

On the following day in Berkeley, around 100 on-site participants and 700 online joined in panel discussions and an interfaith vigil at the Pacific School of Religion, an interdenominational Protestant theological seminary, and Zaytuna College, the first Muslim four-year college in the U.S.

At the Pacific School of Religion, leaders and scholars of Baptist, Jewish and other faiths expressed their solidarity with the Muslim community. Imam Zaid Shakir, co-founder of Zaytuna College together with his colleague Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, invoked the example and principles of Martin Luther King, declaring with the Qur’an the importance of recognizing that “all lives are sacred.” Those include, he said, the many civilians lost to Pakistani and U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist individuals or sites. He noted that in some neighborhoods of Chicago young African Americans have a greater chance of being murdered than an American soldier at the height of the Iraq invasion.

At Zaytuna College, Imam Shakir pointed out that “Muslims have been in America since before America was America,” since at least 20 percent of the African slaves imported into America from 1619 on were Muslims. Speaking of the Syrian refugees that Republican politicians have denounced as a security threat, he said, “This current wave of Islamophobic vitriol reminds us what these refugees are fleeing from” as they seek freedom in Europe and the United States. “Now we see that that freedom is challenged; for us who were here, it reminds us of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow,” Shakir said. Sounding a hopeful note, however, he declared, “America is about working to make the challenging times a little less daunting; America is an evolving project.”

Imam Shakir pointed out the connection between anti-Muslim bigotry and three socio-economic realities. One, he said, is an “economic transition” eviscerating the middle class, in which the U.S. manufacturing base is being shipped overseas by the same people who support anti-Muslim demagogues. The second is a demographic change leading to the prospect of a U.S. with a non-white majority. And the third, he noted, is the decline in American imperial power.

Demagogues play on the fears created by these developments, he declared, but “we cannot allow hatred and demagoguery to make us withdraw our hand or fog our mind.” Recalling that at this time of year Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus while Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad, he said that these holy days “provide us the spiritual energy” to do everything in our power to bring into being a new society like that which existed historically in Andalusia, Damascus, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere, “where Muslims and Christians and Jews lived in peace and harmony.”

Shakir pointed to the Muslim tradition of embracing religious pluralism that is rooted in the Qur’an. Referring to the “Islamic State’s” destruction of churches, he noted that the churches were “still there to be blown up” after 1,400 years of Muslim rule. He concluded by reminding the audience, “There is beauty in the diversity of our religions; there is beauty in the diversity of races.”

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, recalled the example of Edith Stein, a Catholic saint, mystic, and philosopher, by birth a Jew, whose doctoral dissertation was titled “On the Problem of Empathy,” written in response to the horrors she saw as a nurse in World War I. Stein was murdered by the Nazis. How did it happen, Yusuf asked, that “so many people were silent” as the Nazis’ racist mythology got stronger and stronger? “That it can’t happen here is a myth”, he declared, pointing to genocide of Native Americans and African Americans.. “As long as there are people like you in sufficient numbers,” he challenged the audience, “it won’t happen here.”

Sheikh Hamza said, “America needs to take a look in the mirror.” He acknowledged horrors perpetrated by the U.S. government, in particular the massive killings of civilians in various wars in the Middle East. At the same time, he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism.” For example, he said, many countries have modeled their constitutions on the U.S. Constitution, and the anti-discrimination laws now in place in the U.S. – the fruit of long and intense struggle by the American people – are ahead of what exists in most of the world. “The best of this country is extraordinary, and we have to remind America of the best in America. We have to remind people not to fall into the trap of becoming something they aren’t.”

Photo: Zaytuna College Facebook.



Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.