The Muslim community in the US is living on the edge. Targets of “growing tide of fear and intolerance”, as the Islamic Society of North America puts it, Muslims are at a loss to deal with the outburst of hostility they now experience in their daily lives.
It all started with the opposition to Cordoba House, a $100 million community center to be built in Lower Manhattan and house facilities such as auditorium, gym, performing arts center, food court, day care center, a prayer room and an interfaith center. The project, sponsored by a moderate New York cleric, is meant to be a high profile showplace of the mainstream, moderate Islam that promotes pluralism and open minded approach to religion and provides a platform for amplifying the voice of the silent majority of Muslims who shun the warped, radical, fundamentalist ideology.
Right-wing zealots, conservative politicians, Far Right Christian groups, bloggers and the Tea Party movement members ganged up to use this Center as a punching bag to bring down their new enemy – Islam. Like the proverbial lamb in the nursery fable “The Lamb and The Wolf” which the wolf blamed for defiling his water, Cordoba Center was blamed for being close to Ground Zero, as the World Trade Center site is now called, where the Bush coterie had orchestrated the 9/11 hits and blamed them on Al Qaeda.
A halo was immediately created around Ground Zero, site of a new commercial complex, in the memory of the victims of September 11, 2001. ‘It would be sacrilegious’, the gang declared, ‘to allow construction of a mosque in its vicinity’. Their reason: The sight of Muslims praying in this mosque would hurt the sentiments of the near and dear ones of those who perished when the terrorist Muslims (allegedly) flew their hijacked planes into the towers killing 3000 people, never mind if there were 300 Muslims among those who died, who were as good Americans as the others.
Labeling the community center as the ‘Mosque at Ground Zero’ to conjure up mental images of soaring minarets and the ‘Jihadists’ who caused 9/11, the gang unleashed a crusade against Islam, employing demagoguery and using demonstrably false but alarmist phrases over and over again to incite adverse public response. Islam was on trial in the United States.
The debate that ensued and the venomous discourse that dominated the national scene, exposed the agenda of right-wing politicians and the Religious Right – they were utilizing this long awaited opportunity to demonize Islam, interpret it as a religion that promotes terrorism and present it as an enemy in order to exploit the nation’s worst xenophobic instincts - all for political gains.
Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Tennessee suggested that Muslims shouldn’t be accorded the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it," he said.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich compared the organizers of the project with the Nazis. "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization," he claimed. Bryan Fischer, a prominent figure within the religious Right, argued against granting any more permits to build mosques in the US because these are dedicated to the overthrow of the American government. The right-wing talk-radio host Michael Berry told his audience, “I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up.”
These incessant smears showed in a poll commissioned by Time magazine: 1 in 3 Americans believes that Muslims should be barred from running for president; a similar number said they’d oppose the construction of a mosque in their own neighborhood, and almost 3 in 10 said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court.
Americans were led into believing that Islam will soon take over the country, with Shariah law not far behind. Christian Right pundits and Republican politicians went to the extent of insisting that Islam is not a religion but a political cult, that Muslims cannot be good Americans and that mosques are only a front for extremists. Unsure of themselves and generally unaware of the world outside their counties, the American people found this discourse too complicated and hence easier to accept it.
In all of this, the mainstream media played the devil. To serve its ends, it pushed the mosque story 24/7, from the perspective of both the left and the right, manufacturing a controversy in the process and playing on the fear of Islam that has been cooking up for nine years, thanks to the likes of Dick Cheney, using phony “Muslim” terror plots” and “al Qaeda” threats.
The connection that the Far Right press helped to create between the Cordoba Center, Islam, the 9/11 event, 19 radical Muslims supposedly controlled by few mullahs in Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan and who were able to fly hijacked commercial airliners with great precision into WTC, did the trick for the Republicans, the Tea Party movement and the Christian Right, the lead role played by Fox News.
The Republican rhetoric created such rampant anti-Muslim sentiment that it placed American Muslims in a precarious situation. This year the 9/11 anniversary, another legacy of the dark days of Bush, coincided with Eid-ul-Azha. To avoid being misunderstood, Muslims in many places opted not to celebrate the day and instead participated in 9/11 commemoration events. The bigotry they have experienced reminded many of them of the treatment meted out to other scapegoats in American history – Native Americans, Irish Roman Catholics, Blacks and Japanese, among others.
“Some of what people are saying in this controversy is very similar to what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s,” said a doctor in Maryland. “It’s really scary.” Daniel Luban writing in Tablet magazine astutely calls this dark spread of Islamophobia “the new Anti-Semitism.”
“The younger generation of American Muslims, who are far better assimilated in the American society, are also at a loss in trying to figure out their place in mainstream America and their goals in life”, said Imam Abdullah T. Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University. “There is hopelessness, helplessness and real grief.”
After 9/11, most American Muslims had woken up to the realization that they needed to make concerted efforts to build relationships with other fellow Americans, publicly reject terrorism, educate non-Muslims about Islam and participate in interfaith activities. Most Muslim communities did successfully move towards greater integration and understanding with other communities. But lately, their successes seem to be all but vanishing into thin air, with Islamophobia manifesting itself in many forms.
The communities across the US have been subjected to vandalism and harassment. A mosque in Miami, Florida, was sprayed with gunfire last year, mosques were vandalized or set aflame in Brownstown, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Arlington, Texas; Taylor, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; and in Northern and Southern California. A mosque in a suburb of Chicago was vandalized four times in recent years. A plastic pig with graffiti was thrown into a mosque in Madera, California; teenagers disrupted prayers in a mosque in upstate New York during Ramadan.
In May, an Arab was brutally beaten in New York by four young men who also used abusive language. A Muslim woman in Chicago was assaulted by another woman who took offense at her headscarf. In San Diego, a man assaulted an American of Afghan descent while he was praying and screamed “You idiot, you mother f**ker, go back to where you came from."
The perpetrators of these hate crimes are clearly unhinged, but they are being whipped into a frenzy by cynical Right wing fear-mongers. “Victims are reluctant to go public with these kinds of hate incidents because they fear further harassment or attack,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They’re hoping all this will just blow over.”
Blow over it will, one hopes. Although the recent times have been agonizing for the Muslim community that has truly caused no grief to any segment of the American population, it hopes its non-confrontational approach will allow this artificially created controversy to die down. It takes comfort in the fact that the attention span of American politicians, media and the people is historically short and can swiftly move to other emerging issues.
Come November, the issue of ‘Ground Zero mosque’ should run out of steam, unlikely to remain an election issue, as the GOP strategists also recommend. Economy, budget deficit, unemployment and the US retreat from Afghanistan will most certainly replace it as attention grabbers. But to expect that the fall out from this controversy will disappear in entirety any time soon, would be a fallacy. Its reverberations will be heard long into the future.