The rising bigotry against Muslims in the US threatens not only the community, but the nation's cherished value of tolerance.
Anti-Muslim bigotry in the US violates the nation's principles
The matter of bigotry against Muslims in America has been with us for quite some time now. In the past week, there were multiple incidents that served to catapult this problem to the forefront of national attention.
After deadly protests in Afghanistan at the weekend, international attention has focused on the burning of a Quran at a church in Florida on March 20. The pastor who oversaw the act, Terry Jones, has undeservedly occupied the public spotlight since he made similar threats last year over the Park51 community centre in New York.
As recent events have shown, Mr Jones's irresponsible provocations have very real consequences, but his bizarre behaviour often seems to come from the farthest reaches of the lunatic fringe. Unfortunately, in mainstream society we are seeing the same examples of religious bigotry.
Last Sunday, CNN broadcast Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door, a remarkable documentary produced by Soledad O'Brien, that tells the story of the conflict in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, over whether or not the town's Muslim community should be allowed to build a new mosque.
Murfreesboro, its residents say, prides itself on being a welcoming community. But in this documentary we see another side of some residents: angry, spewing hate and striking out at their Muslim neighbours. The programme highlights a failed, but still hurtful, effort to have a Tennessee court rule that Islam is not a religion and is, therefore, not protected by the Bill of Rights. The portrait that is painted by the antagonists' own words and behaviour is both disturbing and frightening.
Two days later, the Democratic senator Richard Durbin, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Sub-Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, convened a hearing to examine "The Civil Rights of American Muslims". The bipartisan panel of witnesses made a compelling case, pointing to a dramatic increase in hate crimes, and incidents like last summer's uproar over Park51 and the protests against the Murfreesboro mosque as evidence that discrimination is real and endangering the constitutionally protected rights of America Muslims.
Republican senators on the subcommittee echoed the line of right-wing commentators. They criticised the entire hearing as a distraction from more urgent efforts to expose and defeat Muslim radicalisation. The Republican senator Jon Kyl, for example, said: "I'm a bit perplexed about the motives for today's hearing. The only way to stop terrorists is to recognise where they're coming from." As if that observation justified the behaviour of people who would deny Muslims the right to build mosques or practise their faith, which is protected by the US Bill of Rights.
While this was going on, Republican presidential aspirants, courting the party's religious fundamentalist base, were making outrageous comments about Islam and Muslims. Speaking before thousands of followers of John Hagee (the founder of Christians United for Israel), Newt Gingrich expressed the bizarre conviction that "if we do not win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [his grandchildren] are my age, they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists".
Herman Cain, at best a long-shot for the Republican nomination, joined the fray. When asked if he would consider appointing a Muslim American to his cabinet or as a federal judge, Mr Cain responded: "No, I will not, and here's why: there is this creeping attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government."
Another presidential contender, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, boasted how he had disbanded a programme in his state that had provided home buyers the opportunity to secure Islam-compliant mortgages. Mr Pawlenty asserted that he did so because "the United States should be governed by the US constitution, not religious laws".
These were just a few manifestations of the anti-Sharia fervour that began last year after Oklahoma voters passed a referendum banning the application of Sharia law in their state - without actually knowing what Sharia is. This movement has continued to grow. In the past week, two more states announced that they were following Oklahoma's lead in proposing legislation to outlaw Sharia, bringing to 15 the number of states who have caught the anti-Sharia bug.
While many Republicans have not jumped on this bandwagon, within the last month the former senator Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, the former governor Mike Huckabee and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made known their ugly, ill-informed views about Islam and Muslims.
Whether coming from Quran-burning provocateurs in Florida, anti-mosque mobs in Murfreesboro, proposed anti-Sharia legislation or hurtful comments by candidates for higher office, this growing tide of intolerance is dangerous. Republicans who are courting extremism are stirring a potentially lethal brew. Mr Durbin was right to sound the alarm.
What is at stake here is much more than a test of the nation's commitment to the Bill of Rights. How all this is resolved could end up defining the very soul and future of America. It will also shape how the country will relate not only to Muslim Americans, but to a significant part of the world.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute