Anti-Muslim Rhetoric: Free Speech or Hate Speech?

Faith coalition calls on DOJ to take public stance against anti-Muslim rhetoric.

August 30, 2010, 10:39 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2010— -- A coalition of faith groups met with Justice Department officials Monday to encourage the Obama administration to take a more public stance against anti-Muslim hate speech and hate crimes.

Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates, said the community leaders requested the meeting due to an "alarming rise in anti-Muslim hate" that has become commonplace as the debate over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City continues.

"Unfortunately, this very escalating trend of hate speech in the country has now transformed into actual acts of violence and the attorney general, as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, has an obligation to really enforce the laws, including the hate crime laws and holding those that engage in hate crimes responsible," Khera said.

Last week in New York City, a taxi cab driver was repeatedly stabbed allegedly by a passenger who asked him, "Are you a Muslim?" before the attack.

On Saturday, a fire was discovered at the construction site for a mosque and community center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., that has been a topic of controversy in the city. Police said the fire is being investigated as a possible arson and hate crime.

And a church in Gainesville, Fla., has announced it plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, to mark the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.

"We are a thriving democracy, we appreciate free speech, but when it crosses the line into violence, that's against the law," she said. "And the [Justice] Department, the federal government, the nation's chief law enforcement officer is going to prosecute and hold them responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

She said the groups asked the Justice Department officials to hold people who engage in hate crimes accountable, and "send a message that hate and criminal activity and attacks on houses of worship is un-American."

"Our concern is that we believe that there needs to be more attention, more resources put into investigating and prosecuting these cases as well as a higher level of attention to whatever efforts the department may be undertaking as well," she said.

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, the president of Interfaith Alliance, called on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to better inform the public on the administration's efforts to quell hate violence.

"It is a time when people would be comforted to know what the federal government is doing in assuring rights and in prosecuting people who are trying to deny other people their rights," Gaddy said. "The religious community is looking to government to do what government ought to do and that we're trying to do everything we can to do what the religious community ought to do in a very tense situation."

The faith leaders and advocates said they came away from the meeting without any commitments from the Justice Department and called on the administration to make a strong public statement before the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Time is of the essence," Khera said. "The end of Ramadan is about a week and a half away, Sept. 11 anniversary is also a week and a half away. I think the Department understands the urgency and the need to act in an urgent way."

Nevertheless, the leaders said they were encouraged by DOJ's willingness to meet and the department's eagerness to hear the group's concerns.

"It was a very heartening conversation, they were very responsive, they took it to heart, they realize that much of what they have been doing so well the nation doesn't know about, and that this is a moment that requires more intensity on their part, as well as on ours, so we found it to be a very productive meeting," said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, the leaders admit that combating the spate of hate starts at the local level and is not the sole responsibility of the Obama administration.

"The Justice Department, local law enforcement officials can address the crimes of hate violence, hate crimes, but it's up to local citizens like us, and local community leaders like us to see that we begin to tone down the rhetoric and speak to each other with civility and mutual respect, or we're going to see some already sick minds made even more sick and a level of violence that we can't clean up after it's done," Gaddy said.

The Justice Department has not yet responded to an ABC News request seeking comment.

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