By Cameron Rasmusson
Last week, the Sandpoint City Council considered a resolution they characterized as a declaration of human rights and tolerance. A statement welcoming properly vetted refugees into Sandpoint, the resolution was a reaction to the Bonner County commissioners and Sheriff Daryl Wheeler voicing opposition to refugee resettlement programs.
The result was a council meeting as tense as it was disorderly. Opponents, most of whom lived outside the city and some outside the county entirely, did not hold back in their attacks. Some were downright enraged. The blow-back was so extreme that council members decided to table the measure until Jan. 20.
In one respect, these actions by the sheriff, commissioners, council, protesters and counter-protesters are sound and fury signifying nothing. There are no plans to resettle refugees in North Idaho. Even if there were, these local measures would have little impact on the federally managed program.
In another respect, the disconnect is evidence of a problem shared by right- and left-wing groups alike: Both have trouble talking about Islam. Liberals tend to deflect the conversation from radical Islamic violence, while conservatives often focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.
If it’s true both liberals and conservatives share a common belief in equality and fundamental human rights, neither can ignore incidents that undermine those basic values. This includes the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, Germany, when women filed more than 120 criminal complaints of robbery or sexual assault by hundreds of men described as Arab or North African. According to Maajid Nawaz, a progressive Muslim and co-founder of anti-extremism think tank Quilliam, this kind of violence was inevitable.
“Recent mass migration patterns across Europe have meant that misogyny has finally come head to head with anti-racism, multiculturalism is facing off against feminism, and progressive values are wrestling with cultural tolerance,” he wrote in a Jan. 8 article for the The Daily Beast.
Nawaz argues that, in fearing the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment, the left has avoided the subject of conflicting values, effectively handing the conversation to demagogues. German news media outlets were accused of covering up the New Year’s Eve assaults, fueling the anti-migrant rhetoric of Europe’s populist right-wing rabble-rousers.
“Yes, it is racist to suspect that all brown men who look like me are rapists,” Nawaz writes. “It is bigoted to presume that all Muslim men who share my faith advocate religiously justified rape. It is xenophobic to assume that all male refugees are sexual predators awaiting their chance to rape. But let me be absolutely clear: What will feed this racism, bigotry, and xenophobia even more is deliberately failing to report the facts as they stand. Doing so only encourages the populist right’s rallying cry against ‘the establishment.’”
The same rallying cry that mobilized Europe’s anti-immigration partisans has echoed all the way to North Idaho. Anti-refugee testimony given at recent public meetings largely relied on generalizations and demonization. There were many variations of “the only true Muslim is a radical Muslim,” an assertion that would distress Nawaz and millions of law-abiding American Muslims. Other comments furthered outright falsehoods, like the adoption of Shariah Law in Dearborn, Mich.
By presenting Islam as an existential threat to the West, these right-wing talking points justify all manner of outrages as defensive action. And they have already damaged Idaho. Setting aside the spread of fear and hatred, paranoia over Shariah Law prompted legislators to endanger Idaho’s child support system last year. This decision required a costly and embarrassing special legislative session to reverse.
Then there’s the controversy over refugees and the ocean of misinformation surrounding them. The saddest thing is that these are the people most injured by the mindless violence of theocratic despotism. Perhaps more than any other group, refugees are primed to appreciate a society that aspires to protect human rights regardless of race, class or religion. With more than half of American governors opposing their resettlement, however, refugees may find their new country less generous than the values to which it aspires.
Make no mistake: We cannot ignore the threat that religious extremism poses to human rights. When atrocities occur, we need to be frank about the beliefs that motivated them. But going on to demonize an entire religion is a step in precisely the wrong direction. The venom directed at Muslims in the past several weeks is a far more insidious and immediate threat to human rights in North Idaho than any terrorist group.