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Honor Freedom Riders by Opposing Islamophobia

April 6, 2011
Los Angeles, CA

There were about 15 of us; pro-justice activists, including members of CODEPINK, Jewish Voice for Peace-Los Angeles, BDS-LA for Justice in Palestine, LA Jews for Peace, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and IJAN, gathered out the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” in Los Angeles this morning, April 6th.

The MoT is engaged in several acts of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, which we called on it to change.

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders, a group of black and white women and men who had been trained in non-violence, went to the Deep South to challenge Jim Crow laws and end segregation in interstate public transportation facilities. Met with violence by mobs in South Carolina and Alabama, they were arrested and jailed for 40 days in Mississippi. As a direct result, the Federal government issued an order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities based on “race, color or creed.”

Fifty years later, we live in a time of widespread Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

On April 6, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” is honoring the Freedom Riders and asking them to speak to high school students in a videoconference. But it has failed to be a voice for justice for the Muslim community. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has opposed the building of the Park51 Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan and is building a new “Museum of Tolerance” on the site of a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, over strong opposition from relatives of those buried there and others.

Today we celebrated the courage and strength of the Freedom Riders in taking a stand for justice for all people. As Freedom Rider Joan Pleune, who is today being honored at the Museum of Tolerance says, “My fight for justice began in the early 1960s and continues to this day. Over the years, I have come to realize that the Freedom Rides addressed only one aspect of the fight for freedom and economic security for all peoples. For me, that fight me has continued on many fronts. I implore the Museum of Tolerance not to denigrate the legacy of the Freedom Riders by continuing its own policy of hostility towards Muslims, but instead to honor the achievements of the civil rights movement by embracing peoples of all races, religions, sexes, and creeds.”

We honored the Freedom Riders by opposing the targeting of Muslim and Arab communities and the use of Islamophobia to influence U.S. foreign policies and public opinion.

We called upon the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” to honor the Freedom Riders by joining us in opposing Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. A true Museum of Tolerance would NOT oppose Muslims’ right to build houses of worship and other facilities, as it has done with Park51; would NOT build the Jerusalem “Museum of Tolerance” on Mamilla cemetery, as it is doing; and would SPEAK OUT against any attempt to stereotype, demonize, or take rights away from Muslims or any other group.

Alan Levine, a civil rights lawyer who worked in Mississippi in 1964 and 1965, “Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders embarked upon their courageous journey to bring an end to racial discrimination. The Museum of Tolerance dishonors their legacy and their cause by engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry that is no less destructive than that against which the Freedom Riders protested. Racism is racism, whenever and wherever it is found.”

Dinu Ahmed of Women Against Islamophobia and Racism (WAIR): "The incongruence of lauding the courageous Freedom Riders who stood up against institutionalized racism decades ago, while actively taking a stance against the Muslim community's right to worship in Lower Manhattan today, and mockingly building a Museum of ‘Tolerance’ upon the remains of Muslims in Jerusalem is truly an insult to what fighting in the name of civil rights mean. Communities that are marginalized may change over time, but in the end our struggle is one and the same - the Museum of Tolerance, if it is to live up to its name, should recognize this."