The debate over the proposed Islamic “cultural center”/ “mosque” close to 9/11 “ground zero” won’t go away. Unfortunately what should be a discussion or negotiation between the project’s developers and an organization representing the families of the World Trade Center victims has been taken over by self serving politicians, platitude addicted bishops, rabbis, columnists and story enhancing media commentators. The controversy over a specific site for one of thousands of American Islamic mosques has thus morphed into a media made super story entitled “Islamophobia in America”. To support this allegation, the media points to polls and has enabled an insignificant and eccentric southern preacher with a tiny congregation to become an internationally recognized false face of American attitudes towards Islam with his absurd threat to stage a “Burn a Koran Day”.
Sadly, the parameters of this new and larger controversy have been constructed around false choices. First, the term “Islamophobia” implies an irrational, unjustified and discriminatory fear. Clearly Americans feel many levels of concern, distrust and even anger which do not fit this description. Second, do the most strident voices opposed to the New York City mosque including the southern preacher, represent attitudes across America? Most certainly not. Third, the nature of world wide Islam is presented as a simple dichotomy between a “tiny minority” of radical jihadists and the vast majority of 1.5 billion “peace loving moderates” which supposedly includes the several million Muslims residing in America. But the American people, who admittedly know little about the theology of Islam and rely on events and public pronouncements of Islamic spokesmen here and abroad, may be forgiven if their perception of the nature, goals and threats of the religion does not fit with the benign nature of “moderate” Islam offered by advocates of tolerance. We are all familiar with the activities of the terrorists; their acts and attempts across the globe going back over twenty years are too numerous to mention. But the proposition that the remaining “vast majority” are all peace loving moderates who pose no threat to Western secular values and political doctrines does not withstand simple scrutiny. The jihadists and the peaceful “moderates” represent the two poles of the Islamic spectrum. There is a vast middle encompassing a variety of interpretations and attitudes. Clearly, every Muslim who is not a terrorist is not a moderate and the concerns of significant numbers of Americans about this group do not constitute and irrational phobia.
The evidence to support these concerns is abundant. In 1988 Salman Rushdie, a highly esteemed British author of Indian heritage, wrote a novel entitled “The Satanic Verses”. Although a work of fiction, it was attacked by Muslims across the world as blasphemous to Islam and banned by the governments of Muslim nations. Fearing violence, the governments of South Africa, Thailand and Venezuela also banned the book. In the U.S. there were many threats to book stores who offered the book for sale. A bookstore in Berkeley, CA was bombed. In New York City, the office of the Riverdale Press was firebombed for simply publicly defending the right of bookstores to sell the book. Numerous British book stores were bombed. Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa” calling for the assassination of Rushdie. Several British Muslim leaders endorsed the fatwa and the Union of Islamic Student Associations in Europe, offered it’s “services” to Khomeini in his effort to bring about the death of Rushdie. In the U.S., George Sabbath, the Director of Near East Studies at UCLA said that Khomeini was “completely within his rights” to call for Rushdie’s death. These individuals and groups residing in Britain and the U.S. were not part of the international terrorist network but their positions on fundamental Western beliefs such as freedom of speech and press and murder are just as threatening.
Americans were more recently exposed to the spectacle of worldwide Muslim violence in response to the publication of a few political cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. In September, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons and over the next few months the cartoons were reprinted across the globe. The reaction by Muslims in various countries can only be described as hysterical and unfathomable to Western observers. European embassies in Islamic countries were stormed and burned. Million dollar rewards were offered by Muslim clerics for the murder of the Danish cartoonists. Again, the reaction to the cartoons was not inspired by any terrorist network. The foreign ministers of seventeen Muslim nations demanded that the government of Denmark “punish” the cartoonists. In London, Muslim citizens and residents marched with signs declaring “Slay, Massacre and Behead” those who insult Islam. Others carried signs that said “Free Speech Go to Hell” and “Europe You Will Pay; Your 9/11 is on its way.”
These violent demonstrations from Manila in the Philippines, to Jakarta in Indonesia, to the capitals of Western Europe, involved tens of thousands of ordinary citizens not a “tiny minority hiding in caves.
Maybe most American Muslims are genuinely different in there level of cultural assimilation and their attitudes towards secular government and individual rights. Substantial evidence for this exists. But the voices of extremism still can be found in some Islamic communities in the U.S. and there are recent cases of Muslim individuals who are citizens who have been religiously radicalized. The “Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad, is a U.S. citizen whose failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in one of the busiest places in America, says he was inspired by another U.S. born citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki who spent years preaching in American mosques before fleeing to Yemen. This is the same individual who “inspired” Ft. Hood killer, American citizen and U.S. Army officer, Nidal Malik Hasan.
It is obvious that most of the large Muslim-American population does not share the attitudes of, and are no way connected with, nor responsible for, the actions of these individuals or the more radicalized beliefs of thousands of Muslims in Western Europe or the rest of the world. It is however, unrealistic and unfair to expect non-Muslim Americans to ignore these facts and simply make the leap of faith necessary to separate the two. Of course the issues will be demagogued by some irresponsible individuals but the continuous condemnation of average Americans by morally superior columnists and commentators who claim to be the “real Americans” while others are “nativists”, “racists” and “Islamaphobes” is an egregious, ideologically inspired insult.