December 15th, 2015 14:24

Fear. It causes the best of us to make problematic decisions and say regrettable things.  Historically, fear has been at the root of some of the worst examples of discrimination and oppression this country has seen.  Fear of an emancipated Black populace that started to achieve political power, caused this country to enact laws gave birth to Jim Crow segregation.  Fear caused the United States to close its borders to European Jews who were desperately trying to escape the Nazi menace.  A few years later, fear led us to imprison Japanese Americans and other immigrant groups in internment camps in response to the Pearl Harbor attack.  After 9/11, our Muslim American brothers and sisters faced violence and vitriol based on their appearance.  We are currently watching the extension of this with the Syrian refugee crisis and the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting.

I am a North Carolina native who has been a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination for my entire life.  I just happen to have a first name that has Arabic and African roots.  After September 11th, I can count at least 8 different instances where I was pulled out of airport security lines for “random searches.”  I have a vivid memory of a check-in worker at an airline that will remain nameless, who looked at my ID and back at me with a stare that screamed: “I’m about to call Security!”  Even though it got uncomfortable from time to time, I was never targeted for violence as actual Muslim Americans were.  As crazy as it may sound, only being a Black man (who just so happened to have a bald head and a full beard), was a positive to people who were anti-Muslim.  President George W. Bush even defended Islam as a peaceful religion that just happened to have extremists who were acting in contrast to their supposed beliefs.

Fast forward to present day, the fear of terrorism has people infringing on the rights of U.S. citizens again.  Presidential candidates are calling for travel bans for all Muslims trying to enter the country which would have an effect on family members who live here.  Teachers are stopping students at school and asking them if they have bombs in their book bags.  Elected officials are doing interviews where they openly wish they could go to Islamic countries and “shoot them all in the head.” A country that prides itself on “Religious Freedom” has elected officials and citizenry that want to close down Mosques and other places were Muslims “congregate.”    People who aren’t even Muslim are being attacked based on their appearance.    One of the most troubling things is the turning of our backs on Syrian refugees who are trying to escape the same terrorism that we are trying to fight. This appears to be an unfortunate repeat of the shame that happened before World War II with the scores of Jews who tried to escape Europe.  This is still the same America with a Statue of Liberty that implores the world to:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Does this message now come with a disclaimer for the “huddled masses” that come from Islamic countries….or even Central America…that states: “except YOU?” Many of you may say that I’m being idyllic or downright soft-headed for advocating that we receive people we may fear into our country.  If we had always let fear dictate our actions, we would never have become the country that we claim to be today. 

Here in 2015, the entire country appears to be engulfed in fear.  Not just the fear that has come along with the rise of ISIS and Islamic extremism, but also the fear of our neighbors, law enforcement, and people we don’t even know.   On any given day, you can find an instance of a simple dispute that turns into a gun-related assault or murder.  Black and Brown people are afraid that interactions with law enforcement officials will turn deadly.  Law enforcement officials who are doing the right thing are afraid of the reaction they may receive, based on the numerous instances of excessive force circulating the country. When does the fear of fear become too much for us to take?  Can we decide that this is no way to live in a free society? Can we begin to temper our fear-based reactions and start to work towards reasonable and morally sound solutions?

We can’t be scared to try.

Ahmad Ward is Vice President of Education and Exhibitions of BCRI