In March, almost 10 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, America’s uneasy, contradictory relationship with Islam was on full display at two congressional hearings. The first, a House Committee on Homeland Security meeting chaired by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), tackled “radicalization” among American Muslims. Three weeks later, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) presided over a Senate Judiciary Committee panel that heard testimony about anti-Muslim prejudice. Conservatives trumpet the Muslim peril, while liberals warn of Islamophobia.
Islamic extremism is indeed a serious global problem today, to a degree unmatched by the radical fringes of other major religions. While violent fundamentalism is far less of a problem in the United States than in many other parts of the world, radicalism within the American Muslim community is not entirely an invention of the Islamophobic right. The 2009 Fort Hood shooting by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hassan is an extreme but real example of what some Americans are willing to do. And a 2007 Pew poll found that 27 percent of American Muslim men under 30 believe suicide terrorism in defense of Islam is at least sometimes justified.
But bias against American Muslims isn’t a P.C. myth. Once confined mainly to a few right-wing blogs, anti-Islamic bigotry has become a visible presence in Republican politics and the respectable conservative media. All around the country, right-of-center activists and politicians are trying to use government force to limit the property rights of Muslims and repel the alleged menace of Shariah law. Islamophobia has crossed the line from fringe rhetorical hysteria to active discrimination against U.S. citizens of the Islamic faith.
For several years after 9/11, anti-Muslim rhetoric remained fairly rare. This can be credited in no small part to then-President George W. Bush, who repeatedly stressed that we were not at war with Muslims, that Islam was a peaceful religion hijacked by violent extremists. The idea that Islam itself was evil and that virtually all Muslims were potential enemies flourished mostly on “anti-jihadist” blogs, and some conservative pundits such as Michelle Malkin occasionally peddled Muslims-under-the-bed paranoia. But these remained the exceptions.
When Barack Obama became president, that changed. Bush no longer held authority as a conservative leader, and the persistent rumors that Obama is a secret Muslim gave added traction to a more overt anti-Islamic hostility. The turning point came during the furor over the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
That controversy was slow to start. When plans for Park 51, an Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site, were initially announced in December 2009, there was hardly any negative reaction from the right. “I like what you’re doing,” the conservative pundit Laura Ingraham told Park 51 project organizer Daisy Khan on Fox News.
But a few months later, the far-right blogger/activist Pamela Geller launched a “Stop the 911 Mosque” campaign that was soon introduced to larger audiences by the likes of Fox News host Sean Hannity and New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser. By the summer of 2010, opposition to the Islamic center project became the conservative party line, and majorities of both Americans and New Yorkers agreed that the center shouldn’t be built.
The symbolism of sites associated with tragic memories can be a highly sensitive issue. In the late 1980s, many Jewish groups objected when a group of Carmelite nuns set up a convent on the edge of the Auschwitz grounds to pray for the dead. Their critics viewed the convent as an affront to the memory of the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy. It is not difficult to see why a large Islamic structure near a place where fanatics claiming to fight for Islam murdered nearly 3,000 people would stir emotions.
But there is also no question that the anti-mosque campaign was rife with vitriol toward all of Islam. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and other pundits equated the project with a Ku Klux Klan memorial at Gettysburg, a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor, or a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum, each analogy equating mainstream Muslims with murderous aggressors. Rallies against Park 51 featured signs declaring that “Islam Kills” and “Islam Is Terrorism,” occasionally spelling Islam with a double s scripted like the Nazi SS logo.
Mohammed Al-Darsani, a second-generation immigrant, son of an imam, Florida International University law student, and U.S. Army veteran who considers himself a member of the political right, believes opposition to Park 51 became “an overt assault on Islam.” Al-Darsani admits this hostility is largely a response to the real threat posed by Islamist extremism. Still, he says, “what unnerves me most is that detractors of the center seem to assume that American Muslims are not as American as non-Muslims and have somehow been less affected by the terrorist attacks.”
During the mosque debate, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer asserted that “no one disputes the right to build” it, only “the decency of doing so” in that location. In fact, some of Park 51’s leading opponents, including Geller and Gingrich, explicitly advocated a government ban. Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, wanted the government to stop the project; so did Rick Lazio, his chief rival for the GOP nomination. What’s more, around the same time, mosque blocking spread across the country, thousands of miles away from Ground Zero.
In Temecula, California, the mosque-fighting Baptist pastor Bill Rench bluntly stated that “we really don’t want to see their influence spread.” Tea Party activist Diana Serafin berated local authorities for worrying too much about religious freedom: “I know it’s there in the Constitution and everything, but everything I read says Islam is a political movement.”
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the backlash against a mosque-to-be included vandalism as well as legal efforts to stop the project. The opposition was backed by Republican politicians: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, then a gubernatorial candidate, questioned “whether being a Muslim is actually a religion,” while congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik campaigned on a firm stance against the “Muslim extremists.” One Zelenik press release stated that “until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts…we are not obligated to open our society to any of them.” (Ramsey and Zelenik both lost in the Republican primaries in November 2010.)