A patriot is "one who loves, supports, and defends one's country." A bigot, on the other hand, is "one who is strongly partial to one's own group religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ," says the American Heritage dictionary. The difference between the two is obvious and enormous: Patriotism is borne out of love and generosity towards the country to which a person belongs, while bigotry is borne out of hate and a mean-spirited attitude towards those who are different.
The clear difference can be easily obscured when defending one's country includes fighting an enemy whose identity is broadly and loosely delineated, and when that identity is defined in religious and racial terms
9/11 attacks presented America with a real threat that required an appropriate response to defend the homeland against a ruthless enemy. The identity of the attackers was pined down, and the whole world learned that the terrorists who carried out the brutal attacks were Arabs and Muslims.
Armed with these facts, bigots sprang to work, hiding their hateful and mean-spirited design against Islam and Muslims under the garment of patriotism. Rather than calling for inter-religious and inter-racial unity against religious fanaticism, the bigots advocated hate, religious and racial discrimination, and the violation of the civil liberties of American Muslims. Never mind that none of the terrorists who carried 9/11 attacks were American, hate mongers insist on treating all Arab and Muslim Americans as potential terrorists. The bigots turned the war on terror into a war on Islam. Islam has to be fought on the pretense that it forms the ground of the terrorist impulse, and on the false claim that the Quran is the source of violence and hate.
The line between patriotism and bigotry has been crossed, in the last two years, too frequently and at all levels of the American society.
When Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, tells church gatherings in reference to a Muslim militant leader in Somalia "I knew that my God was bigger than his; I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol," and is allowed to keep his job, the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and we end up with Abu Ghuraib scandal.
When John Ashcroft, US attorney General, contends that "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him," while "Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you," the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and we end up with massive detention and deportation of thousands of innocent Muslim immigrants.
When Washington Times, a leading newspaper, publishes an article by Sam Harris, entitled "Mired in a Religious War," that declares Islam the enemy, and openly advocates an all-out war on Islam and Muslims, the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and bigotry and intolerance are elevated into an acceptable national discourse.
When reputed evangelist leaders such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and John Vine describe Islam as "wicked, violent and not of the same god," and call the Prophet of Islam a "terrorist " and "Pedophile," and are allowed to get away with it, the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and America is degraded.
When sweeping laws designed to undermine constitutional protections are enacted without congressional debate, given the title of "Patriot Act," and used to smear main stream American Muslim organizations and law-abiding Muslim individuals and leaders, the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and we end up alienating a community crucial for the success of the war on terrorism.
When the military accuses Capt. James Yee, a dedicated Muslim Chaplain and West View graduate, of spying, and orders his incarceration in a maximum security facility, but fail to provide any evidence to back up these serious charges, the line between patriotism and bigotry is crossed, and the trust in the military's commitment to diversity and due process is undermined.
Defending one's country is not about protecting a piece of real estate, but protecting the values upon which the country is found, and protecting the people who espouse and perpetuate those values. True and genuine patriotism requires that one defend the freedom and dignity of one's fellow citizens regardless of their racial and religious affiliation. Those who limit their sense of patriotism to defending the freedom of specific religious and racial groups, while attacking the civil liberties and questioning the patriotism of those who do not share their religion, race, or political orientation are undoubtedly the real bigots.
Dr. Louay M. Safi is Executive Director of ISNA Leadership Development Center (ILDC), Plainfield, Indiana. He also serves on the board of several leading Muslim organizations, including the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), the Islamic Horizons, and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS).