Responding to Hate Speech: A Citizen's Guide

American Muslims should be on the alert for two kinds of hate speech. The first is directed against Muslims, the second is spoken by Muslims.

In American society, especially after September 11, there is an undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment. Without being paranoid, we should be prepared to respond to anti-Muslim rhetoric when we encounter it. And we should remember that most Muslim Americans have experienced no such problems, but rather enormous support from friends and neighbors.

At the same time, within the Muslim community, hate speech often goes on unadressed. Whether in conversations, sermons, or articles, American Muslims frequently encounter derogatory comments directed against Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Americans in general. Many of us have dismissed these as mere rhetoric, but - especially after September 11 - we cannot sit by quietly.

Responding to hate speech of any kind is difficult. It is much easier to stay silent, or to simply walk away. Sometimes this is the wisest choice. But you should feel empowered to confront hate speech directly: to tell people that their language is inappropriate and unacceptable.

Our brief citizen's guide is designed to help individual American Muslims take a stand. It describes how to identify hate speech, considers common reactions to hate speech, and offers suggestions for appropriate responses. Above all, we hope this guide inspires American Muslims to speak out and contribute to a positive, tolerant climate in their own community.

What is hate speech?
One of the greatest liberties Americans enjoy is the right to free speech. But this does not mean that people can say whatever they want. Some offensive and racist comments are constitutionally protected. But speech that advocates direct, immediate violence against specific groups of people is illegal.

We take language seriously because hate speech can easily lead to violence. From the Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan to Al-Qaeda, history is filled with examples of groups whose hateful rhetoric quickly led to bloodshed. Whether or not you think specific comments will cause violence, you should care about hate speech because its consequences can be deadly - and, moreover, because it contributes to a social climate of antagonism and misunderstanding.

Contexts in which you encounter hate speech

  • Conversations between you and someone else
  • Casual group discussions
  • Public speeches: at community centers, in mosques, before political groups
  • The media: on the radio, on television, on websites, in newspapers and pamphlets

How to identify hate speech
We hesitate to offer examples of hate speech, because we do not want to inadvertently deepen its impact. But sometimes the best way to learn about intolerance is to face it directly. So we reluctantly offer some examples, both directed against Muslims and spoken by Muslims. To understand just how awful these phrases are, just replace "Muslim" or "Arab" with "Jew" or "Christian" - and vice versa.

  • Religious distinctions: "Judgment day will not occur until all the Jews are killed." "The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith. It is a different God, and it is a very evil religion."
  • Everyday speech: "Don't be too friendly with him, he's a Hindu."
  • Political problems that need diplomatic solutions are recast as religious confrontations: "Kill the Jews and the Americans wherever you find them." "Death to Arabs."
  • Fears about unfamiliar groups: "We're so sorry you are moving to New York. There are so many Jews there." "I would never hire a guy with a towel on his head."
  • Antagonism to different kinds of Muslims: "Shi'ites have tails."
  • Disagreement expressed through violent language: "Death to America."

Ways most people react
The most common reaction is to stay silent. Why speak out and make a fuss? It seems easiest to ignore the comment. Why be difficult? Move on and pretend nothing offensive was said. What difference does it make anyway?

How you can respond
First, take a minute and think about the specific reason the person's speech was hateful. How were their comments derogatory? If you replaced one ethnic or religious group with another (say the group the speaker belongs to), would they be happy? The clearer you are in your mind about how their speech was wrong, the clearer you will be in responding.

Then, there are several options for action:

Talk to the person. Try to make them understand why what they said was wrong. Show them how by making the same comment, but with one ethnic or religious group replaced with the one the speaker belongs to.

Or you can wait until afterwards and write a letter. Perhaps you feel better expressing your thoughts carefully in writing. If you are afraid about signing your name, send the letter anonymously - but the letter will be more powerful if you aren't shy. Be polite, but clear. And suggest that the speaker apologize and retract their comments.

If you are at a public event, stand up and ask a question. Tell the speaker that you disagree with their language. Or, afterwards, talk to the people around you. Find someone else, or even better a group of people, who were bothered by the speaker's comments. Approach the speaker together after the talk and voice your concerns.

If you repeatedly encounter incidents of hate speech at a community center or congregation, you can always leave. Or you can find others members who share your concern, and together initiate an open and public discussion at the center or mosque about the rhetoric people are using. Your community center can adopt our Statement of Principles or a pro-tolerance speech code. Also, cities and towns often have human rights commissions. Officials from these commissions can be invited to discuss ways to combat hate speech.

If you see or hear hate speech in the media, there are many ways to make your outrage known. You can write a letter to the editor, you can call into a radio show, or you can contact the station manager. You can organize a group of people who share your disgust and publicly lobby the newspaper or radio station to make changes.

The bottom line

Above all, the best way you can respond to hate speech is not to think "There's nothing I can do," but to think: "There's so much I can do." Be creative, be persistent, and be confident. And please email us any suggestions or ideas you have for other ways to take action.

One of the only positive things about hate speech is that it can bring out the best in those people who speak out against it. If you feel bad about doing nothing in response to hate speech, just imagine how good you will feel if you stand up and make a difference!

For more information on teaching tolerance and responding to hate speech, see the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Atlanta-based organization that has been fighting racial and religious hatred in the United States for over 30 years.