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Bigots shield behind conservative facade

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Monday, 12 March 2007

Liberty and xenophobia don't make comfortable bedfellows. In a community consumed by grossly irrational hatred - including racism and sectarianism - economic and political freedom will never flourish.

This simple fact was taken for granted 140 years ago by American anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips, who spoke the famous words that are now part of political folklore of Western liberal democracies: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States and much of Western Europe, paranoid xenophobia has reared its ugly head at times.


Seventy years ago, mainstream newspapers in parts of Europe sought to make Europe's small Jewish minority responsible for economic and political woes.

By 1945, Hitler's regime had massacred millions on the basis of ethnic and religious identity.

Today, irrational hatred is again endangering our fragile liberal democracies. The paranoid rants of Osama bin Laden and his ilk against the Crusader West and against Jews and Hindus, have led to horrific atrocities such as Americans saw on September 11 and that Iraqis see every day.

Since September 11, Wendell Phillips' historic sentiments are fast being abandoned by some so-called conservative Americans who pride themselves as being guardians of liberty. Instead of distancing themselves from the sectarian paranoia of al-Qaida, they mimic the hatred and direct it towards anyone they consider to be associated with Islamist terrorists.

Two examples in US politics illustrate the growing environment of American xenophobia. At the last congressional elections, the voters of Minnesota sent America's first Muslim to Washington. Criminal defence lawyer Keith Ellison easily beat his Republican opponent, academic Alan Fine.

Minnesota is a Democratic Party stronghold and Fine had little chance of winning. This didn't stop Fine from playing the religion card. Before polling day, he said: "I'm extremely concerned about Keith Ellison, Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Ellison Muhammad ... I'm personally offended, as a Jew, that we have a candidate like this running for Congress."


Ironically, Fine was condemned by his own brother, who defended Ellison. Things didn't end there for Ellison, who made public his wish to place his hand on the Koran at a swearing-in ceremony. A neo-conservative talkback host from Philadelphia posed this offensive question to Ellison on CNN: "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."

Writing on the conservative commentary website, Dick Prager lamented that Ellison would not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran. According to Prager, this act undermines American civilisation.

Ellison did swear on the Koran , his critics silenced when it was revealed that Ellison borrowed from the Library of Congress the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States.

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First published in The New Zealand Herald on February 28, 2007.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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