BY DAWUD WALID
The First Amendment is one of the most cherished hallmarks of America. There is no other nation on earth that has such a robust right for citizens to articulate their thoughts – including scientific discourse, the ability to challenge the government, and even expressions of hatred and bigotry.
Eastern Michigan University recently hosted a debate on Islam in which an anti-Muslim critic named Robert Spencer was the key participant. People ranging from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to prominent rabbis have criticized anti-Muslim intolerance spewed by Spencer and his affiliate organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
I believe that Spencer has the fundamental right to speak hatefully about fellow Americans. I also know that people of goodwill have the right not to engage him in his rhetoric. Moreover, we have the right to challenge his bigotry by not granting him dignified platforms.
Passivity in the face of hate speech has cumulative consequences. Words matter, and discrimination is inspired by those who have loud voices that repeat sweeping false generalizations and stereotypes.
Spencer – and peers like Pam Geller, Pastor Terry Jones et al who seek attention and revenue from their exploits – come to our region to prove a point about Michigan Muslims that denigrates Muslims who have been here over a century. The oldest mosque in America was established in Highland Park in 1921, and the oldest socio-political expression of American Muslims comes from Detroit. America’s first Muslim judge, Adam Shakoor, hails from Detroit, and America’s first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, is a Detroit native and Wayne State graduate.
Muslims guided by faith have been overwhelmingly law-abiding, peaceful and productive citizens of Michigan and America in general – counter to Spencer’s narrative.
We don’t have control over the United Kingdom barring Spencer from speaking there, nor do we have influence over other governments and people to force them to live according to American standards. We do, however, have the ability to influence civility. This includes pushing back against those who foment ethnic and religious intolerance such as Spencer and his acolytes. I encourage government officials and interfaith leaders to use their freedom of speech to drown out the speech of Spencer, Westboro Baptist Church and other merchants of vitriol who seek to prosper off of the backs of Michiganians.