Fear of a Muslim America

In the fight against radical Islam, conservatives are trying to limit the property and speech rights of peaceful American Muslims.


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.

Blocking Mosques

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.)

Some opposition to mosques surely stems from concerns about traffic and other land-use issues. But the activists' denial of anti-Muslim animus is often belied by their own words. In New Jersey, Bridgewater Township recently moved to ban houses of worship from residential neighborhoods after a Muslim group announced plans to convert a vacant inn into a mosque and community center. (The ordinance is now being challenged in court.) Local Tea Party leader James Lefkowitz, who supports the ban, told the New Jersey Jewish News his objections were entirely about neighborhood impact: "The fact that the center would contain a Muslim, rather than Christian or Jewish, house of worship doesn't trouble me at all." Yet in the very same interview, Lefkowitz also stated that "certainly a Muslim mosque raises questions about where the money is coming from and the principals involved and any association with terrorism." Ironically, it was Republicans who, 10 years ago, spearheaded a federal law prohibiting local governments from using zoning laws to impose an "undue burden," especially in a targeted, discriminatory sense, on the exercise of religion.

Fighting Shariah

The last year also has seen an explosion of bills to ban the use of Islamic religious law in state courts. In November a ballot initiative prohibiting courts from considering Shariah law or international law passed in Oklahoma. (The law has been stayed by a federal injunction pending a court challenge.) The Missouri House of Representatives approved a similar measure in April. Anti-Shariah bills—sometimes specifically singling out Islamic law, sometimes referring more broadly to international, foreign, or religious law—are pending in about a dozen other states.

The push for Shariah bans is puzzling, to say the least. Since Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and government establishment of religion is prohibited by the Constitution, a Shariah takeover in America is about as likely as a zombie apocalypse. Yet to proponents, this is a threat that must be stopped while there's still time. A closer look at the purported evidence for "creeping Shariah," however, shows a lot of skewed and garbled facts—and issues by no means unique to Muslims or Islam.

The most notorious example in the anti-Shariah brief was a 2010 New Jersey case in which a judge seemed to say that an American Muslim could rape his wife with impunity because his religion allowed it. The 18-year-old plaintiff, who had come to the U.S. from Morocco with her husband shortly after their arranged marriage, was seeking a permanent restraining order while filing for divorce. She testified that her husband had repeatedly assaulted her—claims corroborated by police photos of multiple bruises on her body—and forced her to have sex against her will. Family Court Judge Joseph Charles made a finding of domestic violence but denied the restraining order, dismissing the abuse as a "bad patch" in the marriage. As for the forced sex, the judge reasoned that, since the husband believed he was within his rights to demand sex from his wife, he lacked the intent to commit criminal sexual assault.

Outrageous? Yes. Shariah in action? Not exactly. Excusing illegal acts because they are sanctioned by a defendant's culture or religion is a very bad idea for many reasons. It subverts equal justice, hinders the integration of immigrants, and perpetuates oppressive customs that many hope to escape. But the "cultural defense" in U.S. law goes back more than 20 years, and most controversies related to it have not involved Muslims. In 1989 a Chinese immigrant in New York City received five years' probation for bludgeoning his unfaithful wife to death; the defense argued that he had been provoked by the extreme shame attached to cuckoldry in Chinese culture. The decision angered many people, especially advocates for battered women. But no one tried to depict it as a warning sign of the yellow peril.

Another minor cause célèbre in 2010 was the summer arrest of four Christian evangelists at the annual Arab festival in Dearborn, Michigan, for disturbing the peace, a story that spread through Christian and conservative blogs. The missionaries, it was reported, had committed no offense but speaking of their faith and handing out Christian literature, and were arrested in deference to the Shariah ban on preaching religions other than Islam. Republican politicians such as Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle sounded the alarm about Shariah law coming to Dearborn, which has a large Muslim population.

The real story was far more complicated. The evangelists, members of a ministry called Acts 17 Apologetics, were arrested based on a complaint from a Christian festival volunteer who claimed they had verbally harassed him and blocked his path. Two days later, they returned to hand out gospel booklets in the street outside the festival—mainly, as their own video of the incident makes clear, to test whether they would be stopped. They were approached by police, taken to a security booth, and advised that festival rules prohibited any handouts in that location.

The Dearborn Four were later acquitted on the breach of peace charge, and video footage strongly suggests the initial harassment complaint was trumped up. (Whatever verbal aggression occurred in the encounter came primarily from the volunteer himself.) The complaint may have arisen from a vendetta against a group that festival staffers saw as obnoxious troublemakers. An Acts 17 video from 2009, Sharia in America, shows three members of the group goading a man at an Arab festival booth in a debate on Islam and terrorism, ignoring his requests to stop filming him, and then getting into a spat with security.

But were the evangelists targeted for preaching the word of Christ to Muslims? The Baptist Press columnist Kelly Boggs, one of the commentators who made this charge, retracted it a week later after learning some additional facts—in particular, that several Christian ministries had booths at the festival where they freely interacted with visitors and gave out DVDs, pamphlets, and books, including the Gospels in Arabic. Acts 17 leader Nabeel Qureshi has acknowledged in an interview that "not all Christians ran into trouble," only "those who were vocal" and who would not obey rules restricting the distribution of literature to certain locations. So much for the dramatic assertion in one of the group's videos that "this is life in Dearborn if you're a Christian."

Qureshi and his friends have attracted little sympathy from the local Christian community. A 2009 letter co-signed by several ministers—not "Kumbaya"-singing liberal Christians but conservative evangelicals who stressed their own critical view of Islam—accused them of spreading blatant falsehoods about the situation in Dearborn, saying their aggressive conduct at the festival "brought shame to the name of Christ." 

Annoying though their antics may be, the Dearborn Four still have First Amendment rights that were very likely violated. But the real issue here is the practice of restricting freedom of speech at conventions, festivals, and other public events to designated "free speech zones." It is not about "Shariah law" any more than the 2007 arrest of two Jews for Jesus members for handing out leaflets outside an Israel Day festival in Los Angeles was about covert rabbinical rule.

Culture Clash

Shariah panic aside, there are real cultural conflicts involving the practice of Islamic beliefs in the United States. At the extreme, these tensions can escalate into severe and even deadly violence toward women who transgress traditional norms of behavior. Far more commonly, disputes have arisen over such minor yet momentarily divisive issues as cab drivers turning down passengers who are carrying alcoholic beverages or accompanied by service dogs. (In many such cases, the "Muslim" position is a fringe one within Islam. While Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol and strongly discouraged from keeping dogs as house pets, most Islamic authorities agree there is no prohibition on transporting either.)

So far the official responses to these disputes show no signs of a rush to either appeasement or persecution. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the only metropolitan area where taxi drivers' denial of service to liquor-carrying passengers at the airport is a significant issue, the city responded with stiff penalties—a 30-day license suspension on the first offense, a two-year revocation on the second—for refusing a passenger for "unwarranted reasons."

In other instances, furor over Islamization has been set off by trivial and harmless measures that infringe on no one's rights, such the installation on a few college campuses of foot baths for Muslim students to use for ritual ablutions. Such provisions are no different in principle from accommodations that benefit other religious groups, such as kosher menus in student dining halls.

Indeed, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment specialist, points out that many current disputes about public accommodation of Islamic beliefs and practices, or enforcement of private contracts and arbitrations based on Islamic law, are not particularly novel. "They're not some special new monkey wrench that Muslims are throwing into our legal system," he wrote on his Volokh Conspiracy blog on March 25. "Christians, Jews, and others have routinely raised such issues before, and continue to do so today." In most such cases—for instance, when Catholic social service agencies ask to be exempted from state laws that prohibit discriminating against same-sex couples in adoption placements—conservatives are found on the side of more religious accommodation.

Such accommodations, large and small, are very much a part of American life. While single-sex hours at a few municipal swimming pools for the benefit of Muslims who observe traditional rules of modesty have raised hackles, similar provisions have been made for Orthodox Jews. In many areas with large Jewish communities, push-button-controlled traffic lights at crosswalks switch to automatic control on the Sabbath, when the Orthodox are not allowed to operate electrical devices. 

Nor is there anything new about conflicts and controversies over religion and state. In upstate New York in the 1980s, parents in an Orthodox Jewish enclave sued the public school board because of their objections to female drivers on school buses carrying boys; when the suit was rejected, they created their own school district, which was green-lit by the state legislature but later blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court as overtly religious in nature. In some religious communities that expect all interpersonal disputes to be handled by spiritual elders—Jehovah's Witnesses, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Amish—there have been serious concerns about cover-ups of criminal acts such as child sexual abuse, because of traditional pressure to not report such crimes to the secular authorities.

How do critics of "Islamization" deal with these parallels? Last December, a Jewish reader on the website of Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes pointed out that much-reviled proposals to allow Muslims to voluntarily settle domestic relations cases and financial disputes in Shariah courts are analogous to existing Jewish religious courts or within-community conflict resolutions among Mormons or the Amish. Pipes responded: "Jews and Amish do not try to take over the United States; Islamists do." Thus, all Muslims who ask for modest and standard accommodations for their religious values are equated with "Islamists" who seek to take over America, and any concessions to such requests are seen as "the camel's nose under the tent"—the first step to public floggings, stonings, and beheadings.

Any accommodation of faith-based beliefs that violates fundamental liberties and individual rights should be firmly rejected, whether it's the acceptance of religiously sanctioned wife beating or the recent suggestion by Washburn University law professor Liaqat Ali Khan that "desecrations of the Qur'an" should be outlawed because "given the presence of a growing population of American Muslims, Qur'an burning threatens domestic peace." But the anti-Islamic backlash threatens essential rights too. Efforts to block the construction of mosques using government muscle are the most obvious example. The recent Shariah bans could prevent American courts from honoring and enforcing private contracts and agreements based on Islamic religious law, and perhaps even from recognizing the validity of marriages performed by Islamic courts abroad.

The Myth of the Muslim Monolith

The hard-to-swallow truth is that anti-Islam polemicists have a point: Islam is not quite the same as any other major religion. There is no country in the world right now where a Christian or Jewish government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy, or illicit sex; several major Muslim states do. Earlier this year in Pakistan, after Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer spoke out in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad, Taseer himself was murdered. Large segments of the Pakistani public, including politicians and clerics, hailed his assassin as a hero. Even in modernized Malaysia and Indonesia, which have legal guarantees for religious minorities and are often cited as models of tolerance among majority-Muslim states, Shariah courts have the de facto power to bar any Muslim from converting to another faith or (for women) marrying a non-Muslim. 

But many self-styled anti-jihadists—Geller, her guru and comrade-in-arms Robert Spencer, Michelle Malkin, and quite a few others—go further, claiming that fanaticism, intolerance, and violence are at the core of Islam and that the religion is impervious to reform. Spencer, who blogs at JihadWatch.org, adamantly asserts that terrorism is the real face of Islam and that so-called moderate Muslims are either liars or dupes who don't understand the true nature of their faith. As evidence, he and others quote inflammatory verses from the Koran that prescribe the conquest and slaughter of unbelievers and enjoin the faithful against befriending Christians and Jews.

Yet the Bible has more than a few alarmingly violent and intolerant passages, and even the relatively pacific New Testament contains an exhortation from St. Paul to avoid friendships with non-Christians. Such verses have not prevented most Christians from coming to terms with modernity and liberal democracy. Much more of Islam is stuck in a pre-modern, authoritarian frame of mind. When a figure like Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi—the Qatar-based cleric who advocates capital punishment for apostates and homosexuals and the "light beating" of unruly wives—can be an esteemed religious scholar and a reputed "moderate," it says a great deal about the current state of the religion. 

But there are many Muslims who have condemned and stood up against terrorism, including those who recently volunteered to serve as human shields for Christian churches in Egypt after church bombings by Islamist fanatics. There are Muslim scholars who are advocating a revision of Islamic orthodoxy on issues ranging from women's rights to blasphemy and apostasy, and who are challenging the age-old clerical doctrine that the Koran's earlier, more peaceful and tolerant verses are nullified by the later, more militant ones. In 2004, over 2,500 Muslim academics from 23 countries signed a petition condemning "theologians of terror" (al-Qaradawi among them) who use Islamic scriptures as justification for political violence. It remains to be seen whether such voices will prevail in the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East.

Islamist radicalism is pervasive enough to pose thorny problems for the West. Even in the United States, where the Muslim community is far more integrated into the mainstream culture than in Europe, some mosques have been used for terrorist recruitment and some supposedly moderate Muslim groups have provided a platform to those who advocate violence.

Al-Darsani readily agrees that the Muslim community in the United States has a problem with extremism. "It certainly does not help," he says, "when their religious leaders use Islam as a tool to vent their political dissatisfaction through violent rants about how evil America is and how the West is waging a cosmic war against Islam." Yet Al-Darsani is also convinced that "this is where freedom and tolerance come into play: As second- and third-generation American Muslims are exposed to freely exchanged ideas and establish themselves in America, they will become an integral part of the American fabric." 

The tolerance this requires is exactly what the "anti-jihadists" vehemently reject. Spencer's JihadWatch site has argued that even secularized Muslims are potentially dangerous because either they or their children could revert to militant Islam. Comments threads on anti-jihadist sites are filled with calls to block Muslim immigration or ban Islam altogether. 

With Muslims accounting for nearly a quarter of the world's population, the modernization of Islam is one of the 21st century's most urgent priorities. But the obstacles to reform come not only from militant Islamism but from Islamophobia as well. The Islamophobes, after all, repeat everything the Islamists tell Muslims: that the West is implacably hostile to them and their faith, that the most extreme and violent form of Islam is also its truest form, and that a liberalized Islam is impossible. American Muslims, and America, deserve better. 

Contributing Editor Cathy Young (CathyYoung63@gmail.com) is a columnist for RealClearPolitics.