There are times in the history of every nation when its people risk turning down a dark road from which there is no easy return. The United States stands at such a crossroads.

Five years after Sept. 11, 2001, Arab Americans and Muslims – and others mistaken for them – are subjected to discrimination based on their religion, names, skin color, clothing or language. Bias takes the form of ethnic profiling, verbal harassment, mosque desecration and physical violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently reported that anti-Muslim bias rose by 30 percent from 2004 to 2005 to a 12-year high. The group recorded almost 2,000 incidents last year of anti-Muslim discrimination, harassment and violence. The District of Columbia and nine states, including Illinois, accounted for almost 79 percent of the civil rights complaints.

In a USA Today/Gallup Poll released in August, 39 percent of Americans polled reported feeling prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage said Muslims, including those who are U.S. citizens, should be required to carry a special identification card “as a means of preventing terrorism in the United States.” Twenty-two percent of those polled said they would not want Muslims as neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that while the worst wave of violence against Muslims and Arabs subsided three months after 9/11, there has been a persistent pattern of hate crimes at rates higher than those prior to 9/11.

For the estimated 60,000 Muslims who live in the St. Louis area, those numbers take on real-life meaning. Two weeks ago, a Pakistani-American man living in St. Peters awoke to find anti-Muslim graffiti spray-painted on the family’s garage door.

Unfortunately, The Rev. David Clippard chose to fan the flames of intolerance and fear at an annual conference last week of the Missouri Baptist Convention, held in Cape Girardeau. Mr. Clippard is executive director of the state convention, a fellowship of 2,000 Baptist congregations.

“Today, Islam has a strategic plan to defeat and occupy America,” Mr. Clippard told the 1,200 convention delegates. “They are after your sons and daughters . . . Your freedom is on the floor with their foot on it, with their sword raised, and if you don’t convert, your head comes off,” he said to cheers.

Those remarks, and delegates’ reaction to them, devastated Gulten Ilhan, a Muslim who has dedicated her life to promoting religious tolerance and understanding. She is vice president of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a professor of religion and philosophy at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

“I believe in freedom of expression, but with freedom comes responsibility,” Ms. Ilhan said. “Right now, Muslims are fair game. People can say anything.”


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