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Muslims Are Just The Latest In History Of Scapegoats, Author Says


The holy month of Ramadan is about to begin. That's the period of fasting, introspection and prayer observed by Muslims around the world, including here in the U.S. We wanted to spend a few minutes reflecting on what it's like to be a Muslim in America. And for this, we turn to a familiar voice on this program. Arsalan Iftikhar is a human rights lawyer, a writer and an activist.

Over the years, he's become a go-to voice in American media, playing a variety of roles - explaining Islam, decrying Islamic extremism and also what he sees as rising islamophobia. It is that last which concerns him in a new book, and the title sums up its mission. It's called "Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies And Threatens Our Freedoms." And I began our conversation by asking him to talk about the word islamophobia.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Generally speaking, islamophobia has come to mean a hatred of anything related to Islam and Muslims. And it's important to keep in mind that if you look at the civil rights history of the United States, every minority group in America has been scapegoats. And tomorrow, it'll be somebody else. And so that's the key thing here, is that, you know, when you look at the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, it's not only the Muslim ban that he's called for. He's called for building a wall against Latinos and said disparaging remarks against African-Americans.

The point here is that we as Americans need to focus on the things that bring us together as Americans and not things that separate us. And I feel like - as though we have always had scapegoats in the past. We have scapegoats currently. And I believe that Islam and Muslims are the current scapegoats in America today.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, in the book you write about Germans during World War I who were targets of harassment. You said at the time that they were actually the largest minority group in the United States - that German-language newspapers were shut down, German-American religious services were disrupted. You write that a German immigrant in Illinois was actually lynched after having been accused of stealing dynamite. And then of course, during World War II, the internment of the Japanese, which is something that a lot of people are familiar with. Why do you think that is?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that as an American society, we've always needed a proverbial bogeyman. I think politicians have used bogeymen to further their own political agendas, whether it's Catholics that were coming across the pond at the turn of the 20th century to German-Americans to Japanese-Americans to anti-Semitism to Jim Crow and African-American - the African-American civil rights movement. And I think that now, in the post-9/11 civil rights era that we live in, I believe that Islam and Muslims are being used as a scapegoat. And I think that many politicians are trying to score cheap political points, and I think that Donald Trump is a perfect example of that.

MARTIN: Now I want to talk about the second part of the title of the book, though, which is that it helps our enemies and threatens our freedoms. That's what you say islamophobia does. I mean, the premise of your book is that there is a broader, corrosive effect on the society if that mentality is maintained. Tell me why you think that.

IFTIKHAR: Well, because as I look at American history, right? Because even though the fill-in-the-blanks is Muslims today, tomorrow it could be anyone else. I mean, when the USA Patriot Act came out in 2001, you know, this was a 348-page document that trumped 50 federal laws. And it wasn't just targeted at brown Muslims who were suspected of terrorism. This allows the federal government to come in and, without a warrant, get all of your information without even notifying you, going to college registrars, getting all their information. I mean, it affects everybody.

You know, political rhetoric leads to laws. And that's important to keep in mind, is that again, you know, the internment camps of World War II didn't come out of a vacuum. You had people - President Roosevelt's general, who was the head of Pacific Command, James DeWitt, was quoted in Congress as saying once a Jap, always a Jap. I mean, this sort of anti-Japanese rhetoric was actually what led to the internment camps.

And that's the thing, is that, you know, we can't just see this as, you know, ha ha, this is just kind of silly political rhetoric that's coming out. This could - you know, if somebody - if Donald Trump comes out tomorrow and says, you know, we should put Muslims in internment camps - well, you know, we've had them in the past. Who's to say that we can't have them again in the future?

MARTIN: Do things like the recent election of Sadiq Khan as London's mayor, the first Muslim to lead a major Western capital - does that give you any sense of hope?

IFTIKHAR: Yes, it absolutely does. I mean, the election of Sadiq Khan by the people of London is a great sign not only for multiculturalism in the United Kingdom and in London in particular, but again, it's a gut-punch to people who might pander in these homophobic memes and to the extremists themselves. I mean, you know, here you have a man who was the son of a bus driver who had emigrated from Pakistan over 50 years ago. He worked his way up, became a human rights lawyer and now is the mayor of one of the largest cities in the world.

And he's a practicing Muslim who's said that he's going to be a feminist mayor, that he's going to speak out against anti-Semitism, that he's going to, you know, be a mayor for all Londoners. And that's the thing, is that, you know, we Muslims are just trying to contribute to our respective societies in whatever ways that we can.

And I think that as long as people understand that we are as diverse and we're not a monolith, just like no other group wants to be seen as a monolith, I think that we can begin to have that humanizing conversation in order to move our societies forward.

MARTIN: That's Arsalan Iftikhar. He's an international human rights lawyer. He's a regular commentator in the media. And his new book is called "Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies And Threatens Our Freedoms," and it's out now. And he was with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Arsalan Iftikhar, thank you so much for speaking with us.

IFTIKHAR: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.