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It's a Gray Area: Muslims are the latest targets of discrimination

March 23, 2013|By James P. Gray

In so many ways, one of the biggest civil rights issues of our day is the way we treat Muslims in our country.

Yes, 9/11 was an act of war against the United States, and yes, it was carried out by radical Muslims. But it is our obligation to realize that it simply is not appropriate to stereotype classes of people, be they Muslims or anybody else.

Many Muslim traditions seem a bit strange to many of us, and thus it is natural to be somewhat fearful. But as I noted in a 2011 column, in more than half of the dialects of the world's languages there is no distinction between the word for "stranger" and the word for "enemy." As a result, in those places anyone who is a stranger is automatically an enemy. Imagine the violence, misery and lost opportunities that have resulted from this short-sighted approach.

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Throughout our history we have fallen into the trap of stereotyping groups of immigrants in our country, such as labeling Irish as drunks, Italians as mafia and Chinese as unscrupulous. And in one of our worst national civil rights blunders, we looked on the Japanese as potential spies and interned them in camps. So today it is the Muslims among us who are misguidedly being stereotyped as being terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

As an example, one of my best friends is Iranian (actually they call themselves Persian to distance themselves from Iran's current regime). He is now retired after being the chief engineer at one of the California State Universities, and is one of the finest and most able and caring people I know. But a few years after Congress passed the so-called Patriot Act in response to 9/11, he told me that because of his accent and Iranian name, he was generally being treated so poorly that he was thinking of changing his name. In response, I told him that if he did so I would never forgive him. But this is the atmosphere we have inflicted upon many Muslims in our country.

We are all Americans and should act accordingly, with compassion and tolerance. All people should be treated, and held accountable, as individuals and not as members of a group. In fact, typecasting is simply an excuse to be intellectually and morally lazy.

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