Jim Driscoll is the quintessential all-American. He has a PhD from Cornell, was a star football player at Harvard, was awarded a Bronze Star for fighting in Vietnam, and was on staff as a teacher at MIT before quitting in 1982 to devote his time to working for social justice. Now, at 70 years old, Driscoll is working with Veterans For Peace, an organization of military veterans and allies who are working to help veterans, dismantle the war economy, and eventually end all wars, to fighting the United States’ rising Islamophobia — something he says “violates every value of the United States Constitution.”
Driscoll recently spoke to ThinkProgress by phone about what led him to take up the fight and how the public has received his actions.
ThinkProgress: How did you decide to take up fighting Islamophobia as an issue?Jim Driscoll: Last year, in December, Michael McPhearson, the Executive Director of Veterans For Peace, spoke about what everybody was talking about in the United States at that time, which was the incredible outbreak of hate speech that was all over the TV every time you turned it on. [It was] about Muslims and how Muslims needed to not be allowed in the country or a census taken of where they are. Even the possibility of internment camps was hinted at, so he talked about that and how as an African heritage U.S. citizen, it affected him directly, since a large number of Muslims in the U.S. are of African heritage. So, there’s a clear overlap of Islamophobia and other forms of racism, and I heard that and was impressed and moved and so we launched this campaign.
The campaign is broader than Veterans For Peace. Veterans For Peace has very rational positions on foreign policy issues, [though] not all are politically expedient. But our intent is to make the fight against Islamophobia involve veterans. Most veterans joined the military for complicated reasons, not because we hated Muslims by and large. The values of this country are equality, freedom, tolerance, respect, etc., and veterans have a particular credibility in our society. Many of us went to war or risked our lives and fought for the country. I felt, Michael felt, and we all feel now, there’s a need for a veteran’s voice in the fight against Islamophobia. It matters when vets speak up and say, ‘no, this is not what I fought for and these are not the values of the U.S. Stop it.’ So, that’s what we’ve begun to do, and it’s just getting started.
TP: How have American Muslims responded to your efforts?JD: We were invited by a group of Muslims in Arlington, Virginia to cosponsor an event held last Saturday [April 9] with the Muslim Americans of Northern Virginia. They reached out to us and found us through our website www.veteranschallengeislamophobia.org, where over 500 veterans and allies signed our statement [challenging Islamophobia]. The reception has been very positive.
TP: What other actions have you taken to try and fight Islamophobia?JD: We have encouraged veterans to go into the rallies of political figures around country and hold up banners [that say] ‘No, stop hate speech against Muslims’ at candidates from both Republican and Democratic parties. [These actions have been] covered well in the media. We’ve got mentions in the New York Times and the Washington Post and a lot of local TV in a number of cities across the country. And so [we are] making a visible statement and also the bulk of the [coming] work is going to be at [the] local level — supporting and building a coalition against Islamophobia with other Muslim Americans.
TP: How does fighting Islamophobia concern you in your role as a veteran?JD: Islamophobia violates every value [in] the United States constitution [and that] we learned about in military training and it is stupid [from] a military perspective. The enemy that most of us are concerned about this day is ISIL [also known as ISIS] in Syria and Iraq. Their main pitch is to say that the U.S. and the West hates all Muslims and are trying to destroy Muslims and therefore you should join ISIL, so what are we doing? Islamophobic speech plays right into that narrative. So people who are Islamphobic are visibly recruiting for ISIL, so it’s stupid.
If a general says [something], it matters. If a politician says that, it’s politics as usual. When a veteran says that, it’s not quite [at the level of] a general, but we have credibility. We don’t want wars. You don’t want more young American men and women dying in another war in the Middle East — we want to avoid that. And the other thing is, both in [a prior event in] Boston and here [in Arlington] we had the chief of police as a speaker on the panel. I was an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps at battalion level. If you have a few Muslims who are radicalized for one reason or another — and I hear increasingly people saying most typically they are marginalized figures to begin with and turn to radical Islamic behavior, rather than [the] other way around — if you were to find people like that, you need to have good relations with the Muslim American community. So from a national security and domestic security point of view, which veterans all had experience in, it’s just counterproductive, not only against our values, but it’s also stupid, strategically.
And so basically, it’s a call to public figures to stop hate speech against Muslims. We as veterans are saying don’t do that, it’s unacceptable, its un-American, dangerous, and the cheapest form of political expediency.
TP: Anything you’d like to add?JD: What we are trying to do is be very narrow born and say something is going on in society, and it’s not okay and vets can stand up against it. Please join us, and we will get in touch with you locally and get you into the anti-Islamophobia efforts that are ongoing or rapidly developing so we nip this in the bud. So, it’s a much broader appeal than a particular foreign policy recommendation or strategic position. Come on, we can all agree on this.
In the original story, Michael McPhearson’s name was incorrectly spelled McPherson. That mistake has been fixed in the current version of the story.