In recent weeks and months, the news has been filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The frequency and tenor of these comments has been alarming, as some have called into question the patriotism of Muslim Americans. While the voices of hate, ignorance and bigotry have become more prominent of late, Minnesotans are trying to make sense of all the noise.
As the chief federal law enforcement officer for our state, and as the official charged with protecting the civil rights of all Minnesotans, including the rights of free speech and freedom of religion, I feel compelled to speak my mind on this topic.
There are 93 U.S. attorneys across the country. Part of our mandate is to engage with our communities to prevent crime and to serve the interests of justice. It is a part of the job that I find particularly rewarding. Over the past year, I have developed close relationships with many members of Minnesota’s Muslim community, including imams, professionals and volunteers. We meet regularly to discuss a broad range of issues and work together to solve problems.
Our discussions are candid and forthright. We don’t always see issues the same way. But on one point, we agree completely: Religious discrimination has no place in our country or our state.
I know a little bit about religious bigotry. I grew up in a small town with very few Jewish families. My religious school taught me about the history of anti-Semitism, and I learned to take pride in my heritage.
But it was a different story at school. As a young boy, in class and on the playground, I heard all of the standard anti-Semitic slurs of the day. I tried to ignore them. Then, one day, they were directed squarely at me. I felt singled out and excluded simply because of my faith. It was the 1970s. The solution then was simple, and not particularly appropriate. I told my father about the taunting I received at school. He was from another era. He took me to the basement and taught me how to fight. He then told me to challenge the strongest of the bigots at school and to knock him down. I did. And no one taunted me again.
For good reason, we no longer teach our children this approach to solving problems. Today, we need to engage all citizens in a dialogue about the perils of religious bigotry and discrimination. In a country that values human and civil rights, we need to challenge every instance of Islamophobia with a cogent and persuasive argument. The verbal bullies who seek to ostracize an entire sector of our community must be met head-on. Minnesotans have a long history of leading in the fight for tolerance, open-mindedness and the acceptance of different cultures and heritages. We must draw on that history now.
There is much that each of us can do. Given my role in the enforcement of civil-rights laws, I have two means of addressing Islamophobia. First, my office can bring civil-rights lawsuits when any group — including Muslims — is the victim of discrimination. These suits both address a wrong and can be a means for bringing people together. The suit my office brought against the city of St. Anthony for denying the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center the right to open a mosque both fixed a wrong and allowed the participants to heal. When we announced the settlement of the case, city officials and the imams from Abu-Huraira stood together on the steps of the center. As they overcame their differences and agreed to move forward, the mayor welcomed the Islamic Center to St. Anthony. It was a powerful moment of reconciliation. A picture of the mayor and imam shaking hands in front of the Islamic Center hangs with pride on the walls of our office.
Second, I can speak out at community events and in private meetings. In these settings, some make it clear that they hold biased views toward Muslims. I do all I can to change their minds. My work has brought me close to Muslim religious and community leaders, and I have a deep appreciation for their heritage and faith and for their commitment to American values of freedom and justice.
Each Minnesotan can reject religious discrimination in his or her own way. Regardless of your background, politics or faith, we need to challenge those who use bigotry to capitalize on fear and frustration. Religious bigotry eats away at our social fabric by calling into question our commitment to our own Constitution, laws and values.
The current wave of Islamophobia needs to be stopped in its tracks. Minnesota has a thriving, patriotic and entrepreneurial Muslim population. By collectively rejecting attacks on Muslim Minnesotans, we can set an example for the rest of the nation.
Andrew Luger is U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota.