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April 20, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Islamophobia in word and deed

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In its never-ending effort to avoid misleading language in news coverage, the Associated Press Stylebook has decided to declare “Islamophobia,” “homophobia” and presumably other nonclinical uses of the word “phobia” to be a new taboo.

What’s the problem? “It’s just off the mark,” AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn explained to Politico. “It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”

Too bad. Words have power. Striking out such commonly used and unfortunately timely terms strikes me as a linguistic blow for blandness.

I hope this move only is applied to news reporters who are obligated — as I was in my earlier journalistic life — to sound detached, disinterested and objective. I became an opinion writer so I could call out knuckleheads as we see them.

Even so, I don’t want to overdo it. Terms like homophobia and Islamophobia are like “racist” or “sexist,” powerful invectives that get attention but also run the risk of turning off dialogue before it can be turned on.

But psychologist George Weinberg, who coined the word “homophobia” in his 1972 book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual,” disagreed with the AP’s decision, according to the Advocate, a leading gay-oriented magazine. The “hard-won word” was so politically potent that it “made all the difference to city councils and other people I spoke to,” Weinberg told interviewer Andy Humm. Whether homophobia is based on fear or “maybe envy in some cases,” it shouldn’t matter, he said: “We have no other word for what we’re talking about, and this one is well established.”

As for Islamophobia, I can think of no better word to describe some of the irrational fears I have seen on public display, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Yet, one expert, American Muslim author Eboo Patel, founding president of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural advisory council on faith-based initiatives, tried to give the argument a constructive spin:

“For me, the most important thing to highlight is not the particular name we give to the irrational fear of a particular identity group,” he told me. “It’s the fact that this fear not only marginalizes the group in question but violates the very idea of America. Our nation is based on welcoming the contributions of all communities ... and nurturing cooperation between them.”

That’s the central theme of “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America,” Patel’s new instructive and beautifully written memoir on how post-9/11 fears and suspicions affected him as a Muslim born in Mumbai, India, 37 years ago and raised in suburban Chicago.

The book recounts his personal journey through the often-boiling pot of America’s ethnic diversity, beginning with his shock and dismay over the backlash against Cordoba House in the summer of 2010. The proposed Muslim community center in Manhattan would have an interfaith theme, open to all.

But you may know it better as the “Victory Mosque at Ground Zero.” Although the site was two blocks from Ground Zero and not a mosque — although the facility, renamed Park51, includes a carpeted prayer room — the inflammatory label was posted by conservative firebrand blogger Pamela Geller and picked up by the New York Post, Fox News and other media as an insult to the site where 3,000 Americans were killed by Muslim fanatics.

Suddenly, the father of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Raul, a well-known proponent of better interfaith relations who had condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, was being smeared as a terrorist conspirator, especially on anti-Muslim websites.

And Patel even came across his own name described in the anti-Muslim blogosphere as a “Muslim terrorist.” A year earlier, he had been named by U.S. News and World Report as one of “America’s Best Leaders” for promoting interfaith cooperation. But all Muslims look alike to some knuckleheads. That’s how Islamophobia works. When the tag fits, wear it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.

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