Chicago Tribune: Valid criticism or vicious stereotypes?

Comments on this blog regularly reveal some persistent and false stereotypes about Islam. Monday’s arrest of seven suspected terrorists in North Carolina allegedly plotting violent jihad is sure to spark more. Earlier this month in Chicago, some of the same stereotypes surfaced at an annual librarians’ conference, outside a suburban hotel and in a federal courtroom. But when does valid criticism of extreme religious beliefs turn into branding an entire faith community unfairly?

That was one of the questions scholars and writers on a panel about stereotypes hoped to tackle during the American Library Association’s annual meeting in Chicago earlier this month. But the event was called off when all but one panelist withdrew because they opposed the last panelist standing. Organizers said a panel of one did not offer the diversity of perspectives they were seeking.

The controversial panelist, Robert Spencer, an author of books and articles about Islam’s violent teachings, blamed the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for pressuring the American Library Association to silence his point of view. He believes that CAIR has ties to the terrorist organization of Hamas.

"CAIR, of course, would have you believe that they, and all American Muslims, abhor terrorism, reject Islamic supremacism, and fully accept Constitutional pluralism and the non-establishment of religion," Spencer said, implying that the group believes nothing of the sort.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR’s Chicago chapter, said it’s that very attitude that made Spencer’s participation on the panel inappropriate.

"I was hoping the event would take place as advertised, which is having an informed discussion about dispelling stereotypes," Rehab said. "It was sabotaged when they invited a discredited bigot."

Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, a program of the conservative David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the author of eight books on Islam and jihad, including two best sellers "The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion" and "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam." His exegesis of the Quran highlights verses in Islam’s Holy Scripture that condone violence. Some scholars call his method proof-texting, adding the same could be said of the Bible.

"They characterize me in very negative terms but never actually complain substantively," Spencer said. "They can never come up with ’Spencer says X but the reality says Y because the Quran says this or that’ ... I know I’m fighting for the principles of Western civilization ... These things mean a lot to me, and I’m willing to go out and fight and be defamed for them."

Spencer called attention to another event earlier this month in Oak Lawn. Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international movement seeking to re-establish an international Islamic state, held a conference titled "The Fall of Capitalism and the Rise of Islam" in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel. About 300 people attended the conference, which was labeled by critics as a drive to recruit Americans for the cause. Nearly 100 protesters demonstrated outside the hotel, asking that the group be given the boot.

Rehab said he was not opposed to the group’s right to peacefully assemble, but he does not agree with the group’s ideology or its members’ perspective that capitalism and Islam are mutually exclusive.

"Islam is a faith. It can take place in any type of nation-state," Rehab said. "Their interpretation of Islam is not one I share. It has to take place in a political matter and one that they define."

But that doesn’t mean CAIR or any American Muslims should condemn them, Rehab added. They just don’t join them.

"It’s a controversial group because of their narrow interpretation of Islam and how it relates to politics," Rehab said. "I can not claim that there is any danger to the group. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a non-violent group. That’s the litmus test of whether we should issue something. Much like the American Library Association shouldn’t associate with Spencer, we wouldn’t align ourselves with Hizb ut-Tahrir."

CAIR did align itself with a Cook County correctional officer awarded $200,000 last week by a federal jury based on his claims that he was harassed by colleagues because of his Arab ancestry. CAIR’s Chicago chapter filed the lawsuit in 2007 on his behalf.

Officer Abraham Yasin said the Cook County sheriff’s office failed to stop his comrades from slapping him with slurs such as "camel jockey," "bin Laden," and "shoe bomber."

The sheriff’s department said it resolved four of Yasin’s seven harassment claims. It also implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward racism.

But CAIR and Yasin said that wasn’t enough.

"I served my country in uniform with dignity and honor and felt betrayed that my service would be met by some of my fellows with racial slurs, harassment and ridicule," Yasin said in a statement on Friday after the verdict in his favor. "This is not what our country is about."

What do you think? Were the three examples a case of stereotypes gone wrong? Or are some of them valid criticisms?

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