The Mosque and the Mythical Backlash
On August 25, 2010, a New York City cabdriver was slashed and stabbed by a drunken passenger who allegedly accompanied his assault with anti-Muslim remarks. The driver, Ahmed H. Sharif, a native of Bangladesh, survived the attack, and the accused assailant was quickly arrested and faces a stiff prison sentence. Attacks on New York cabdrivers are not unheard of, but this incident quickly assumed the nature of a symbol of American intolerance for Muslims because of the contentious national debate over plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero—the site of the former World Trade Center destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Polls consistently showed that the majority of New Yorkers and Americans thought the placing of the planned 13-story Islamic center and mosque on the site of a building that was among those devastated by debris from the 9/11 assault on the towers was, at best, insensitive and, at worst, an affront to the victims. But after months of debate, much of the public discussion about the topic had by the time of the attack on Mr. Sharif come to be centered on a different question altogether: the peril faced by American Muslims.
Indeed, many in America’s political and media elite had come to characterize virtually any opposition to the planned Islamic center, no matter how finely nuanced and devoid of prejudice against Islam, as more a product of bigotry than concern about the propriety of such a scheme. In a speech given with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, the city’s mayor,Michael Bloomberg, proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake. Later he would say that all critics of the so-called Cordoba Initiative (a name that was quickly changed to the more neutral Park51 from one that invoked the era of Muslim rule in Spain) “should be ashamed of themselves” and that any compromise about the site of the project was out of the question, since to oppose the presence of a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero was a form of bigotry that must be defeated at all costs. The cover of Time asked, “Does America Have a Muslim Problem?” The New York cabbie attack was seen as the culmination of weeks of contention that was concrete proof that it does.
How had the debate over this project turned from one about what seemed to many Americans an ill-considered provocation into one about the victimization of Muslims? The answer lies in the formation of a narrative about the aftermath of 9/11 that has sought to establish as fact that a massive backlash against all Muslims took place in the wake of the attacks. This idea, promoted largely by American Islamic and Arab groups whose own bona fides as opponents of terrorism is questionable, holds that a strain of Islamophobia has seized hold of the country in the past nine years. As Time put it: “to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith—not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery.” If one were to accept this statement as true, then it was possible to believe that all those who questioned the Ground Zero project, no matter what their avowed motives, were fellow travelers of an invidious movement whose purpose was to delegitimize Islam and to harass its believers.
But the problem with this narrative is that it is false. While incidents of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab discrimination or violence have taken place, any attempt to portray such acts as representative of American attitudes toward Muslims is entirely unfounded. It would be far closer to the truth to characterize post-9/11 America—from the statements and policies enacted by its leaders to much of the content of the mainstream media—as having been dedicated to a great degree to safeguarding American Muslims from such discrimination.
Despite the searing impact of the 9/11 attacks on the national consciousness, rather than feeding hatred of those identified as having a connection with the enemy, as is historically the case with virtually any country at war, American popular culture has largely avoided the use of Arabs and Muslims as stereotypical villains in films and television shows since 2001. Governmental action against suspected terrorists and those who fund such activities has been narrowly cast: despite the nation’s post-9/11 emphasis on security, racial profiling of young Muslim males, which experience shows are the most likely terror suspects, has been banned. Though stories of Muslims being subjected to unfair questioning at airports are legion—guilty only of “flying while Muslim”—security procedures designed to avoid targeting Muslims have made it just as likely for anyone, even those who are the least likely to be possible terrorists, to be harassed by security personnel.
Starting with President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Americans have been incessantly lectured by their leaders to the effect that Islam is a “religion of peace” and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t support anti-American terrorism. This has been repeated on both national and local levels after every subsequent instance of Muslim-based terror against Americans. The FBI has devoted significant resources to reaching out to Muslims, thereby securing their cooperation in investigations of terrorists and also reassuring them of the government’s goodwill and disinclination to view all adherents of Islam as in any way responsible for the actions of terrorists. Indeed, every time such a crime was committed or plot uncovered in the United States, as several were in just the past two years, the reflex of nearly all political, religious, and media figures is first to warn the public against tarring all Muslims with the brush of terrorism before exploring the possibility that some form of Islam might have inspired the crime—if the latter is addressed at all.
Even more to the point, though largely isolated incidents of anti-Muslim violence such as the New York cabbie attack are deplorable, there is no empirical evidence that there has been anything like a surge of violence against Muslims since 9/11 or that Muslims or Arabs have been singled out for more bias attacks than any other religious or ethnic group. FBI hate-crime statistics compiled in the years since 9/11 flatly contradict the thesis that Muslims have suffered disproportionately from such attacks. In 2000, the FBI recorded 28 instances of anti-Islamic hate crimes. That went up considerably to 554 in 2001, the year of 9/11, but then went down in 2002 to 170. That number remained relatively stable throughout the decade. The total for 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was 105 reported attacks motivated by anti-Islamic bias. Meanwhile, in every year from 2000 to 2008, the number of hate crimes reported against Jews far outnumbered those against Muslims. Even in 2001, when anti-Islamic violence peaked, more than twice as many crimes were motivated by anti-Semitism than those rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2008, there were 1,013 incidents of anti-Jewish crime, a total that comprised nearly two-thirds of all reported religion-based incidents and more than eight times as many as against Muslims.
Those who purport to represent the interests of American Muslims may dispute these figures as underestimating the number of crimes against their community because of reluctance on the part of minorities to cooperate with authorities and report crimes. But even if one believes that the true figures may be higher, the facts make it clear that there has been no wave of anti-Muslim bias.
The comparison to anti-Jewish hate crimes is also instructive. Though it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Muslims in America, Islamic groups are prone to claim that there are approximately 6 million adherents in the United States, a round number that matches the rough estimate for the number of Jews. But even if the number of American Muslims is smaller than the population of American Jews, how is it possible to claim that the nation is racked by Islamophobic violence when it is generally acknowledged that the far greater instances of anti-Jewish attacks do not justify a conclusion that the United States is boiling over with anti-Semitism?
Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the post-9/11 reaction may well be the general absence of discrimination or violence against Muslims. Even in the first days after the attacks, when both the American people and its government awakened to the realization that a terror network of Islamists considered itself at war with the United States, the impulse to characterize this fight as a conflict against Islam per se has been consistently rejected.
Though some, such as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the driving force behind the Ground Zero project, have rationalized the attraction of Muslims to anti-American violence by claiming that “the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent Muslims,” American policy has never strayed from the concept that the war on terror was never one against Islam but against Muslims who had distorted their religion and were, in fact, more likely to target more moderate co-religionists than Americans. Indeed, with more than a billion Muslims and the need for help from Muslim nations and the foes of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan, how could America’s stance be any different? Despite the desire of some to demonize U.S. military action in the Middle East as a war on Islam, the number of Muslims who have been liberated from oppressive regimes by virtue of the power of the U.S. military is astonishing—more than 45 million in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Why then are Muslim groups and their friends in the mainstream media so intent on claiming that Islamophobia is running amok in the land? A leading factor is that the best-known American Muslim organizations were largely founded on this notion that America is a foe of Islam. Perhaps the most prominent such group, the Council on American-Islamic Affairs (CAIR), was created in the early 1990s as the political and public-relations arm of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity whose purpose was to raise funds in the United States to benefit the Hamas terrorist organization. Though the Holy Land Foundation was eventually shut down by the Treasury Department and prosecuted in federal court (during the course of which records documenting CAIR’s Hamas ties were revealed and it was named an unindicted co-conspirator), CAIR has expanded its reach. It has sprouted chapters around the country; gained access at times to Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House; and its leaders have become frequent talking heads on television.
CAIR’s political agenda has been dedicated to expressing criticism of the alliance between the United States and Israel while also opposing American efforts to restrain radical Islamic regimes such as Iran. But CAIR has also, in conjunction with other groups, such as the American Muslim Council and the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee, pursued a parallel agenda of portraying American Muslims as besieged by a tide of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Its arguments are couched in the sociological jargon of anti-bias advocacy in large measure because there is, as the FBI hate-crimes statistics show, little except the “anecdotal evidence” cited by Time to back up their claims.
In this manner, such groups have entrenched themselves as the voice of American Muslims—even though it is arguable that the majority of this population, composed for the most part of hard-working immigrants, are more interested in gaining a piece of the traditional American dream than rationalizing the behavior of Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran. By doing so, these groups have promulgated a perspective that seeks to blur the line between radical Islamists and the rest of the Muslim world. From this frame of reference, one that has been increasingly accepted by liberals in the media, any critic of Islamism as well as groups like CAIR may be smeared as an anti-Muslim racist who does not deserve a hearing—a factor that played a significant role in the attempt to bulldoze those questioning the Park51 project.
The effort to marginalize justified criticism of Islamism has gone hand in hand with the gradual acceptance of the myth of the post-9/11 backlash. The success of this campaign about Muslim victimization is made plain by a September 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This poll found that 58 percent of Americans believed that Muslims are subject to “a lot of discrimination,” far more than say the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, or Mormons—despite empirical evidence that says otherwise. With the notion of Muslim victimhood—a prized status in America’s contemporary media culture—firmly established, the groundwork was laid for the Ground Zero mosque controversy.
The debate about the Park51 project began slowly. Few objections were raised when the property at 45 Park Place, which served as a Burlington Coat Factory store until 9/11, was sold to a real-estate group composed of Muslim investors in July 2009. Since the attack occurred before the store had opened for business, no one was hurt when the landing gear of one of the hijacked planes crashed through the roof and through two empty selling floors of the building. (Project backers who scoff at the notion that the building is part of the Ground Zero area have ignored the fact that the site was itself hit.) But the extensive damage has kept the place vacant ever since that day. Even in the months following the purchase of the site, when tensions rose over the ambitious plans of the developers to create a structure that might cast its shadow over the planned memorial where the World Trade Center had stood, few could be found to question the actual legal right of the property owners to do as they liked with the site. Nor were there any protests when modest Muslim prayer services began to be conducted there in late 2009.
But once the scale of the project became generally known, concern grew among the families of 9/11 victims and ordinary New Yorkers. Despite the mounting criticism of the scheme, approval was swiftly secured through the local community-planning board as well as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which removed the final legal obstacle on August 3, 2010. Since the putative Islamic center was led by a figure well known in the world of interfaith dialogue, the rationale for the expeditious treatment of the proposal was seen as support for the idea put forward by Imam Abdul Rauf that the new building would be a symbol of tolerance.
But for whom was tolerance being sought? Though this avowal was cheered by liberal clergy of many faiths as well as some political figures, the signal being sent was that what was needed at or around Ground Zero was not so much remembrance of the attack on New York by Islamists but a warning to Americans not to think ill of Muslims.
It is this subtext of the plan for the center and mosque that has grated on the nerves of many Americans. They see the Ground Zero environs as a place whose only proper purpose ought to be one of national mourning—and a return to business activity that would stand as a defiant rejoinder to the destructive efforts of al-Qaeda. Moreover, the way in which the feelings of most of the families of 9/11 victims were discarded without much ado also fueled the fires of protest about the plan. It was on this point that the Anti-Defamation League, an organization as besotted with the concept of interfaith dialogue as any and whose largely liberal inclinations on domestic politics are well known, chose to speak out in favor of moving the center to a less contentious site. But rather than listen to the concerns of the ADL and the many other critics of the project, the backers of the project raised the ante, labeling the group and those who agreed with it as misguided bigots. It was at this point that Mayor Bloomberg issued his grandiose endorsement of the Islamic center, eschewing compromise as appeasement of prejudice.
It is true that in the heat of the debate, extreme views and statements that could well be interpreted as demeaning to all of Islam were soon expressed by a few of the protesters. But the test of goodwill applied here was soon revealed to be the same as the one CAIR seeks to enforce on other topics: any criticism of the mosque plan was quickly labeled as prejudice. When Rauf’s previous statements rationalizing those who blamed American policy for 9/11 and a refusal to call Hamas a terrorist organization (always a pressure point for groups like CAIR because of its own history as a Hamas front) came to light, concerns that his moderation was more a matter of support for “progressive” politics than a genuine understanding of the threat from terrorism were similarly dismissed. Rather than engage with the other side, supporters of the project were unwilling to listen to or respect any opposing view.
Critics of the Islamic center were also accused of turning the topic into a political football, with Republicans Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin widely slammed for rabble-rousing on the issue. But political gamesmanship on this topic was hardly limited to the right, as President Obama sought to establish himself as a defender of religious liberty by using the mosque—though the president backed away from his stand less than a day after delivering his own broadside at a White House Ramadan dinner. But no one in the anti-center camp disputed mosque construction anywhere but in the direct flight path of 9/11. And most mosque opponents were careful to point out that they did not deny the “right” of the site’s owners to put up the mosque and center there, just the propriety of the move. If there was a political low point to the discussion, it was reached by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who threatened to investigate the funding of opponents of the center.
By reframing the Ground Zero controversy as one in which the reasonable concerns of the vast majority of Americans were portrayed as bigoted, the organizers of the project and the Muslim organizations had scored a stunning victory. It may well be true that Abdul Rauf and his backers see the world very differently from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 murderers and do not intend their building to serve, as some critics fear, as a victory monument for Islam like the mosques built on the ruins of Judaism’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem or the minarets that adorn what was once St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Istanbul. But their mosque will be another kind of monument, one that serves to institutionalize a very different way of thinking about September 11.
Unlike planned memorials at Ground Zero that should serve to perpetuate the memory of the thousands of victims of 9/11 who perished at the hands of Islamist fanatics determined to pursue their war against the West, Park51’s ultimate purpose will be to reinterpret that national tragedy in a way that will fundamentally distort that memory. The shift in the debate threatens to transmute 9/11 into a story of a strange one-off event that led to a mythical reign of domestic terror in which Muslims and their faith came under siege. It exempts every major branch of Islam from even the most remote connection to al-Qaeda and it casts the adherents of that faith as the ultimate sufferers of 9/11.
This account is an effort to redirect, redefine, and rewrite the unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. To achieve this aim, those who propound it are painting a vicious and libelous portrait of the United States and its citizens as hostile to and violent toward a minority population that was almost entirely left in peace and protected from any implication of involvement in the 9/11 crimes.
The conduct of the United States and its people toward Americans who profess Islam over the past nine years has been exemplary. The conduct of those who would build the mosque at Ground Zero, the Islamic organizations who have used the controversy to their advantage, and elitist opinion makers who have, in the course of this mess, suddenly discovered a passion for the free expression of religion and arrogantly set aside the sensibilities of those connected to the true victims of 9/11, has been the opposite of exemplary.