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American
Hysteria

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MASSACRE OF MORMONS AT HAUN’S HILL

On Oct 27 1838, Missouri Governor Boggs authorizing the state militia to drive all Mormons from Missouri, 1873 illustration

When will learn that fear and panic and over-reaction will most certainly erode this way of life we so cherish. After all it wasn’t a liberal who said ‘Our freedoms are never more than one generation away’*

By Andrew Burt

Meet Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine and current Pheonix, Arizona resident who just might be the key to understanding the most important political movement you’ve probably never heard of.

Ritzheimer gained national media attention in May when he donned a T-shirt labeled “F**k Islam” and, along with 250 other activists, took to the streets surrounding the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, aiming to demonize the world’s second largest religion. “I’m trying to achieve exposing Islam,” Ritzheimer would tell CNN’s Anderson Cooper while enjoying the national spotlight. “True Islam,” he added, “is terrorism.”

Ritzheimer quickly faded out of the limelight, his protest widely viewed as a blend of xenophobia and senselessness. And yet to dismiss Ritzheimer and his ilk as simply “crazy”—as many of us are inclined to do—would be misguided, if not for the fact that the movement he represents is far more accomplished than most of us are aware (and also because he’s planning another, larger protest, likely to draw even more media attention next time).

Indeed, today’s Anti-Islamic movement, widely known as the Anti-Sharia movement, is far more powerful than I first imagined when I began researching periods of extremism in American history four years ago, and which led to my book, American Hysteria, being published in May. The movement has succeeded in banning Islamic law, or Sharia, from courtrooms in nearly one in five states in the union, with Alabama becoming the latest in November of last year. Such measures have flourished despite the protestations of organizations like the American Bar Association, the most respected legal organization in the country, which has explicitly condemned the bans as both unnecessary and unconstitutional.

The goals of these bans, however, are about more than mere legal concerns: The aim is to send the message that Islam has no place on American shores, and to equate Islamic extremists overseas with Muslims in the United States. As explained by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, “the bans spring from a movement whose goal” is nothing less than “the demonization of the Islamic faith.”

And yet, talk to supporters of the Anti-Sharia movement and they’ll tell you that isolating Muslims is that last thing they want. They might tell you that their movement is simply seeking to protect American ideals from foreign, dangerous influences, to insulate our society against exactly the type of evils we see in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. They might even, in some instances, seem reasonable.

And that is exactly the danger.

For the fact is that there is a lot about modern day Islam that makes Americans nervous, from issues ranging from women’s rights to free speech. And so, too, with the connection between Islam and violence, routinely made by Islamic extremists after more than a decade of war in the Middle East. It is these apprehensions that the Anti-Sharia movement capitalizes upon, turning legitimate worries into exaggerated fears, and threatening, ever so subtlety, to equate the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims with Islamic fundamentalists in the process.

And this move—turning legitimate worries into outsized fears—is the trick at the heart of the Anti-Sharia movement, and movements like it throughout our history. Indeed, what we are witnessing in the Anti-Sharia movement today is merely the latest incarnation of a phenomenon with deep roots in American history. From the Anti-Illuminati movement of the 1790’s to the anti-communist red scares of the 20th century, each of these movements operates on the same logical fallacies, conflating real threats to our country with symbolic, exaggerated fears.

During McCarthyism, for example, the United States confronted real threats in the Soviet Union and its well-trained, well-funded spies. To millions of Americans, however—over 13 million of whom took loyalty oaths during this period—the symbolic threat became the family living next door, or the schoolteacher down the street. In overreacting to our fears, these movements cause us to lose sight of the real threats to our country, jeopardizing the rights of untold persons in the process. The Anti-Sharia movement poses the same dangers today.

But there’s more than a combination of fear and flawed logic behind the Anti-Sharia movement. That’s because the movement wields an appeal that transcends fears of Islam—while the movement may be directed at Islam, its power is really about something much more profound. To the most ardent supporters of the movement, theirs is a fight against an establishment blind to their troubles, blind to the way that this country is changing economically, racially and religiously. Perhaps no figure symbolizes these changes more than President Barack Obama—despised by the movement’s supporters—whose foreign-sounding middle name and skin color are merely one among many signs that America’s future will, quite literally, not resemble its past.

So how should we react to the Anti-Sharia movement, and the dangers it poses, both to American Muslims and to our core ideals of freedom and equality?

The answer is that there’s a lot we can—and must—do. We can begin by understanding the power the Anti-Sharia movement wields, and by correcting false and exaggerated assertions about Islam each time they are made. The danger posed by violent Muslims extremists should never be equated with the world’s Muslims as a whole. The Muslim community itself may seek to raise the profile of their efforts to dispel myths about their religion, ensuring that well-intentioned Americans don’t fall prey to exaggerations and distortions about Islam.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we can remind the movement’s supporters just what is at stake when overreacting to the dangers posed by Islamic extremists. None other than George Washington explained it best when writing to another religious minority, American Jews, at the time of our founding. The United States, our first president declared, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” so that here, in this country, every American may “possess alike liberty of conscience.”

To ban Sharia, or to demonize religious communities in any form, is to undermine the very liberties we all seek to protect—the supporters of the Anti-Sharia movement, presumably, included.

*Andrew Burt is a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project and the author of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States.