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The angry eruption several months ago over a Muslim community center in New York soon spread to Central Illinois. Before summer was over, call-ins to local radio stations and letters to the editor, not to mention ooze from the Internet — all were lashing the Muslims.

And similar comments echoed along the streets of Bloomington and Normal. Muslims are terrorists. Unpatriotic and unAmerican. A Pantagraph letter instructed us that in Islam, unbelievers are “either to be eliminated or subdued.”

However, many in the community rejected these attacks which were also directed at Muslim friends, fellow-workers and neighbors. Some of those opposing these anti-Muslim slurs were already meeting regularly as the Interfaith Social Justice Network, drawn from social justice or similar committees in a number of local Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious bodies.

In August, members decided they could no longer accept these attacks “questioning the patriotism and basic legitimacy of our fellow citizens.” They drew up “A Statement Concerning Resurging Religious Prejudices” and took it back to their congregations. 

Wherever it was put forward, people read the statement and eagerly signed their support. Within a short time, more than 300 persons from at least eight congregations had indicated their agreement that “people of the Islamic faith who dwell with us” are “fully and integrally a valued part of our community.”

Their vow: “This fundamental unity we share as human beings and as those who dwell together on this small patch of God’s great Earth shall not be diminished or destroyed by our differences of race, religion, color or any other superficial factors that too often set neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation.” To the signers, “our very diversity” is a source of “community strength and honor.”

These citizens refused to accept the “guilt by association” argument that since Muslim terrorists slay non-believers, therefore — the argument runs — all Muslims must be terrorists. But if the “guilt by association” crowd were consistent, then all Christians would stand condemned because the Ku Klux Klan always displays a cross at its lynchings;  a “white Christian America” remains its goal.

But Americans today know too many Christians who reject the KKK; it would simply be too ridiculous to tar all Christians with the Klan’s brush. Similarly, attacks on Islam as a terrorist religion would stand little chance if American Christians and Jews had a long history of knowing Muslims as friends and neighbors.

This transformation has worked before. Catholics and Jews in their march across American history frequently faced fanatics bent on their destruction.

Often during the 19th century, Catholic churches were attacked by Protestant mobs (and even earlier: a priest in New York recently noted that when St. Peter’s Catholic parish was built in 1785, officials tried to have it removed because it had some foreign financing and anyway, Catholicism did not seem to conform to democratic principles).

Similarly, synagogues have been bombed up to recent times and Jews have been blocked from buying homes in many areas — in a 1940 national survey, 17 percent thought Jews were a “menace to America.” 

There’s nothing new in the arguments against Muslims today. Through the decades and centuries, it’s been said that newcomers who are different, “foreign” or strange cannot be real Americans. 

But many in Bloomington and Normal have challenged this, pledging that “With open arms we continue to welcome people of all faiths, including Islamic faith, to live with us together in peace and to join hands with us in making our community a place in which all people feel safe, appreciated and want to raise a family.”  

Mark Wyman is a retired Illinois State University historian.

You can see the full “Statement Concerning Resurging Religious Prejudices” online at websites of Moses Montefiore Temple — www.mosesmontefiorecongregation.org/religious_prejudice.htm  — and New Covenant Community — www.nccnormal.org/statement.htm.

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