GUEST COMMENTARY: Fear threatens the land of the free

Friday, September 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:16 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 3, 2010

The United States takes great pride in being called the “land of the free,” a reference mainly attributed to initial immigrants who fled religious and other forms of persecution in Europe.

To non-U.S. citizens like me, this impression is reinforced every time we watch a Hollywood-produced, cowboy-type movie, where the characters exult about the land of opportunities.

In many developing countries — like Kenya, where I’m from — U.S. envoys seize every opportunity to talk about the ethos of civil rights. They portray freedom as the foundation on which America is founded.

Yet the debate surrounding the construction of an Islamic community center and a mosque near ground zero, immigration and the relentless “speculation” about President Barack Obama’s religion does not paint the picture of a society living in freedom.

It speaks more of a nation that is in the tight grip of a nagging fear.

Every other month, the world reads updates of another poll showing an increase in the number of Americans who “believe” that Obama is Muslim, and that he was born in Kenya — despite credible information proving otherwise.

These polls only serve to taint America’s image as the first ever country with a white-majority population to overcome racial fear and elect a black president.

Conservatives say their opposition to the building of the Islamic center near the site where the World Trade Center towers in New York stood before the September 2001 attacks is a show of “sensitivity” to victims and their families. This, by implication, means Muslims are to blame for the 9/11 atrocity, and the seven million Americans who profess Islamic faith must pay for it by building their place of worship as far away from the hallowed ground as possible.

As Reza Aslan, the renowned author and scholar of religions, asked while making a presentation at Westin Crown Center on Aug. 17, “How far is far enough from ground zero to build a mosque?”

Conservatives are known for their zeal in calling for the “protection” of the Constitution, but it would seem the freedom of religion clause is, to them, debatable.

This is not the first time that fear has been used to bend the U.S. supreme law to serve selfish interests of a few.

For a long time after adoption of the document in 1787, only wealthy, white men enjoyed full rights.

Black people were viewed as lesser humans and only gained full voting rights in the 1960s. Even white women were denied the right to vote until the 1920s. There are some who argue that American Indians are still oppressed on what is their native land.

There is a striking semblance in the current opposition to the proposed community center and the wave of anti-Japanese prejudice that followed the Pearl Harbor attack during the World War II.

Suspicion that Japanese immigrants were spying for “the enemy” led to the imprisonment of thousands of people of Japanese descent at that time, the majority of whom were American citizens.

About four decades later, Congress passed a law that apologized and authorized payment of reparations to the victims.

As things stand now, the local Community Board’s Financial District Committee unanimously voted in support of the New York City project, and it is therefore not likely that we will be hearing of an apology and reparations in the future.

The opposing voices may in fact eventually go quiet and make this appear, in hindsight, like just another instance where Americans exercised their freedom of speech and expression.

During my stay here in the last five months, many Americans have asked me about my perceptions of their country.

I have repeatedly told them that theirs is a great nation that has the potential to become even greater.

But it could also turn into a radically divided nation — depending on how they handle issues such as the proposed building of an Islamic center in New York.

Washington Gikunju is a business reporter in Kenya, and is currently in the United States on an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. After working at the Missourian this summer, he reported for the Kansas City Star, which first published this column.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Ray Shapiro September 3, 2010 | 3:41 p.m.

It's America's anger, not fear, towards the progressives' inability or unwillingness to respond to the populace, (as demonstrated during Missouri town hall meetings on "ObamaCare" and the arrogance of many DC democrats which hampers their ability to be public servants,) which will reunite the citizens of America and put the brakes on this national and global sell-out.

Better to follow the AntiDefamation League's positions on the Cordoba Mosque, National Security Issues, (due to living in a country with unsecure borders and no consequences towards illegal aliens/tresspassers/invaders), our CURRENT civil rights issues and relationships and the president's "religious" ties with Rev. Wright, black liberation theology and the nation of Islam.
Our enemies are the likes of radical MAS supporters, devisive fanatics akin to AL Sharpton, one-sided out of touch members of the NAACP, foreigners infiltrating America with their own global agenda or allegiances elsewhere, and those who collude with Mexico and Iran...not any of our past mistakes which many of us have learned from.

(Report Comment)
Kyle Denlinger September 3, 2010 | 6:55 p.m.

The single greatest thing about this country is the freedom of speech guaranteed to its citizens under the Constitution. Unfortunately, Mr. Gikunju, this freedom also applies to politicians, pundits, and media personalities who recklessly take advantage of the misinformed or uneducated in order to advance their own political agendas.

I do not seek an argument, nor am I claiming that I am better informed than the gentleman who exercised his first amendment rights in the comment above. He is certainly entitled to his opinion. It seems sad, however, that his opinion reads like a cable news ticker. (And let us not forget that the first amendment protects the freedom to advertise, and the freedom to advertise created the freedom to earn ratings or sell papers. News sources, including this one, will forever remain biased so long as their pages are adorned with advertisements.)

Mr. Gikunju, there is a moderate majority in this country. There always has been, and there always will be. Do not let the shouting of radical minorities fool you into thinking the crowd is larger than it truly is. History will expose those who were scared into rallying around a xenophobic version of patriotism.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 3, 2010 | 7:37 p.m.

[History will expose those who were scared into rallying around a xenophobic version of patriotism.]

Is that anything like being overly possessed with saying the Constitution can only be interpreted one way and one way only when our fore fathers are not here today to tell us how they felt back then about the future of this country? There are those in politics at all levels who do that and try to do as you say ie: scare others to their side of the political realm claiming to be the saviors of the nation.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 3, 2010 | 11:26 p.m.

Like I say, better to find a friend like the AntiDefamation League than enemies of America...Everyone needs a mench once in awhile.

(Report Comment)
Kyle Denlinger September 4, 2010 | 12:03 a.m.

@Carlos - First, I understand that discourse over the web is difficult--subtleties such as tonality and facial expression are lost. That said, please read no sarcasm or passive-aggression in my previous comment or this one. I'm not out to start a flame war. Discourse is the goal, as it always should be.

I'm not entirely sure I understand the connection you're making between my comment about xenophobia and the idea that the Constitution is an inherently difficult beast to interpret. I agree with you in that those who adhere to rigid interpretations of the Constitution will likely find themselves in more feuds than friendships. And we agree on another point--that there are those on both sides and on all levels who feel entitled or empowered to use their clout to scare the misinformed one way or another. Such is the nature of a free press.

However, I don't think it's an issue of what the forefathers wanted. The Constitution is a governing document, not a will. Sure, if they were here today, the forefathers would certainly have an opinion (for better or worse). But if we are to observe the Enlightenment principles that inspired the document--the radical ideas that men are equal under God and that the power of government resides in the governed--the opinions of the forefathers shouldn't matter much more than yours or mine. I think Hamilton, Franklin, et al. would agree with me. Such is the nature of being equal under God.

Back to xenophobia. I stand by my comment. It is as simple as this: all of us--Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist, gay, straight, black, white, or purple--are equally blessed with the right to liberty. We are free to make money and babies. We are free to disagree with the government and with each other. We are free to write comments on newspaper columns, which are written without fear of being censored. I am just as free to build a Christian church near Ground Zero as my Muslim or Jewish brothers and sisters are free to build a mosque or a temple. This is not a first amendment issue. This is not a "sensitivity" issue or a "political correctness" issue. A fundamental right of ALL people is being denied to SOME people because of the way they choose to express their faith. We might not all agree on the proposed mosque being built so close to the wound in lower Manhattan, but by God, as Americans we ought to love the fact that they have a right to build it.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 4, 2010 | 12:23 a.m.

("We might not all agree on the proposed mosque being built so close to the wound in lower Manhattan, but by God, as Americans we ought to love the fact that they have a right to build it.")

Maybe we'd love "them" more if they chose to build it elsewhere.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 4, 2010 | 5:37 a.m.

@Kyle Denlinger I agree with you in that those who adhere to rigid interpretations of the Constitution will likely find themselves in more feuds than friendships. And we agree on another point--that there are those on both sides and on all levels who feel entitled or empowered to use their clout to scare the misinformed one way or another.

And those two things are my main point across the board. Ray Shapiro has it right.

Did you also know that one of the people who is financing that Mosque donated tons of money to Hamas a radical Islamic Terrorist group? Better do ya research on that one. This Mosque deal is bad news and rotten from the tip of the roots to Ground Zero and if allowed to grow will be just another thorn in the side of America. The question is when will America get tired of those kinds of thorny pricks in her side?

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.