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COMMENTARY: Critical discussion on religion starts with listening

On Feb. 22, Bemidji State University hosted a campus visit by Jaylani Hussein, executive director for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is a civil rights organization for Muslims in America, comparable to the Anti-Defamation League or NAACP.

During Hussein's visit, he met with several classes to discuss CAIR's work and the experience of American Muslims in greater Minnesota. Without taking offense, he gave students an opportunity to ask hard questions about Islam and civil rights, such as freedom of speech and religion. Hussein also presented an evening lecture as part of BSU's observance of African-American History Month. He directly addressed misconceptions about Americans who are Muslim and immigrants, emphasizing that diversity is a strength as long as we have considerate and critical conversations.

On March 4, the Pioneer published a letter from a community member who attended the lecture, titled "Information from critical study of Islam must be shared." The "critical study" referenced in the letter is not grounded in any journalistic or scholarly research, but rather refers to inflammatory and unsubstantiated claims against Hussein and CAIR, which it labels a "Hamas entity." I am surprised the Pioneer ran this letter, even on the opinion page. Unfounded accusations that a civil rights organization is a secret front for terrorism demand fact-checking.

It's hard to know where to begin when addressing this letter because most of its assertions were without evidence or explanation. Still, the letter invites us to examine the issue and reach an informed conclusion, so here it is: CAIR does not support Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood or any other terrorist organization. Here's my evidence:

• CAIR could not legally operate in the U.S. if it were a front for terrorism. Given the scrutiny of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, it defies credulity that a prominent American civil rights organization could successfully hide ties with these groups.

• CAIR has repeatedly and publicly denounced terrorism by Hamas and by any other religious or non-religious group.

• The March 4 letter makes a vague reference to the 2008 federal trial of the Holy Land Foundation for providing aid to Hamas and other terrorist organizations. CAIR was listed along with 245 other organizations as an "unindicted co-conspirator." That listing was a legal maneuver meant to produce evidence, and the claim was not substantiated. In fact, an appeals court criticized a federal judge for irresponsibly publicizing the listing. The Washington Post's reporting on the case concluded, "The repeated references to CAIR being an 'unindicted co-conspirator' is one of those true facts that ultimately gives a false impression."

Islam does merit the same critical study as any religion. But "critical study" is hard work. Being critical means going beyond one or two websites that confirm our worst fears. It means providing sources for controversial claims and doing our neighbors the simple courtesy of listening and responding to their defense of themselves.

Critical study is not Islamophobic. But repeating dangerous accusations is not critical. In philosophy we call this a "straw man" argument, because it substitutes a fake opponent for a real one that is capable of speaking up for itself.

Every American generation has had one or more religious or racial groups that were safe to scapegoat. Between building factories, Henry Ford ranted about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. During World War II, Japanese Americans became victims of a scare about Axis operatives and were held in internment camps. During the same war, Jewish German immigrants were often turned away from the United States because of fears that fascist spies were disguising themselves as immigrants. During the McCarthy era, intellectuals and labor activists became scapegoats for fear of the Red Menace. Today, we shake our heads and wonder at the harm done when fear overwhelmed common sense.

Now that Muslim immigrants have become scapegoats for some Americans' fear of terrorism, we have an opportunity to do better. We can start by ignoring straw man arguments and listening to each other instead.