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John McCain, Islamophobia and a sense of decency

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center

Last week Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the Senate floor to defend Huma Abedin — a Muslim American who serves as an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Although a small blip in the news cycle, McCain’s speech may ultimately prove to be a turning point in the struggle to combat Islamophobia in the United States.

Witch-hunts, history teaches, cease only when witch-hunters go too far — and some courageous soul dares to cry “enough.”

McCain was responding to accusations from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and four other members of Congress that Abedin has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and influences Clinton on its behalf.

“These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit,” said McCain. “And they need to stop now.”

Other voices joined in defending Abedin, including Bachmann’s former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, who described the charges as “wild and unsubstantiated” and called on Bachmann to apologize.

But it was John McCain — a leader of his party and a war hero — who may finally have done to the anti-Muslim crusade of the 2000s what Joseph Welch did to the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Recall that on June 9, 1954, during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused a junior attorney in Welch’s law firm of having communist ties. Welch, a lawyer for the U.S. Army, stood up to McCarthy, calling his tactics “reckless” and “cruel.”

Then Welch uttered the words that helped seal McCarthy’s fate in the court of public opinion:

“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Six months later, on Dec. 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for conduct unbecoming of a senator. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy.

Welch understood then, as McCain understands today, that America has real enemies that endanger our national security. Sixty years ago, the challenge was Soviet-style communism; today, the challenge is a network of extremists who promote terror and violence in the name of Islam.

But Welch also understood that McCarthy’s tactics of blacklists, guilt by association and intimidation did nothing to “fight communism” — they served only to undermine the very principles of freedom McCarthy claimed to defend.

Similarly, the anti-Muslim movement in America today does nothing to fight terrorism, but only serves to undermine the religious freedom of American Muslims. Anti-mosque protests, anti-Sharia laws and other efforts to demonize Muslims and Islam are the new McCarthyism.

Although Islamophobia has its critics, condemnation of the ideological bullies who attack American Muslims and Islam has been muted on the Right, especially among conservative Republicans on the Hill. But McCain’s defense of Abedin may now inspire others to speak out who have been afraid of being labeled “pro-Muslim.”

The ugly attack on Huma Abedin by five members of Congress — based on unsubstantiated allegations from an anti-Muslim group — may have been the step too far that finally exposes the anti-Muslim movement for what it is.

“Ultimately, what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person,” McCain said. “This is about who we are as a nation, and who we still aspire to be.

“When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

A sense of decency, at long last.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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