Mosque controversy is just the beginning

Stoked by a dominant political narrative, anti-Muslim sentiment has taken hold since 9/11. It will likely get worse

Published August 10, 2010 4:11PM (EDT)

There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The angry "debate" over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.

It's not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a phony "Mosque at Ground Zero" shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death and evildoers). Many have pointed out -- futilely -- that the complex will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting space, 9/11 memorial and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The shorthand still sticks.

Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Illinois as well as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Midland Beach, Staten Island, in New York City. Such protests are emerging with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders -- from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls -- have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin demanded that "peaceful Muslims" step up and "refudiate" the plan; Newt Gingrich denounced the building of such a "mosque" as long as Saudi Arabia bars construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers "to feel safe and be safe.")

No, it's the déjà-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles special unease, the sense that we've been here before as a country, and the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation's political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative, which fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.

The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it's about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation's psyche. The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as Bridgeport, Conn., police discovered last week. Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grass-roots groups. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Temecula, Calif., are all in this together. And it is not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission gave its unanimous blessing to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it's worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.

Panic in the Streets

In the panicked wake of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims (and dark-skinned people mistaken for Muslims) swept the country. Hundreds of beatings and even some random reprisal killings were reported coast to coast.

On Sept. 17, 2001, the day after he told the nation that a "crusade" against terror was in order, President Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and piously proclaimed that "Islam is peace." At virtually the same moment across town, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller III were at a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into their ballooning 9/11 investigation, an undisclosed number of immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were being hauled into custody, Arabic and Farsi speakers were suddenly in demand at the FBI, and major legislation was already in the works to beef up government surveillance, immigration and anti-terror capabilities. But no, Mueller said, there was nothing at all to complaints of ethnic targeting from Arab-American communities.

After the Patriot Act became law that October, Ashcroft launched a nationwide program of 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with Muslims from the Middle East. Internal Justice Department memos instructed interviewers to detain anyone suspected of immigration violations. "Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa -- even by one day -- we will arrest you," Ashcroft proclaimed.

When that initial set of 5,000 interviews was deemed complete (leading to no terrorism arrests of any kind), Ashcroft announced that another 3,000 would be conducted. He vowed to find anyone who had skipped out on the previous "voluntary" round.

By the end of 2001, a minimum of 2,000 Middle Easterners and South Asians had been taken into custody, the vast majority without criminal charges of any kind being lodged. Arrests were often highly publicized; the aftermaths of those arrests were shrouded in secrecy as court and immigration hearings were closed to family, public and press. Vague color-coded attack alerts were announced by federal officials, and citizens were instructed to be prepared for a second 9/11 at any time. In 2004, another round of 5,000 voluntary interviews with Arabs and Muslims was announced.

The FBI began toting up the number and location of mosques around the country. The Census Bureau was drawn into a scheme to identify and enumerate areas with large Middle Eastern populations. The Energy Department was engaged to monitor mosques for suspicious levels of radiation.

A year after the 9/11 attacks, a special immigration program was instituted that required men from two dozen predominantly Muslim nations (and North Korea) to register with immigration authorities. Nearly 84,000 did so, with about 3,000 abruptly detained and over 13,000 promptly subjected to deportation proceedings. Muslims began to "disappear" from the streets of America. Lawyers wearing yellow shirts with "Human Rights Monitor" written on the back sought to keep track of individuals heading into registration centers in New York and Los Angeles -- and never leaving again.

Not surprisingly, this frenzy of law enforcement activity led many Americans to believe that there must be a dark reason so much attention was being paid to so many Muslims. By 2003, announcements of elaborate terror "plots" and investigations had already taken over the news. These would regularly serve, like booster shots, to revitalize public suspicions that foul things were afoot. Muslims in Lodi, Calif., were plotting to blow up supermarkets. In Columbus, Ohio, they were targeting malls. In New York City, it was the Herald Square subway station.

Dozens and dozens of such cases have been reported over the past decade. Virtually all of them involved Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims. Virtually none of the supposed plots had any chance of happening, and many were, in fact, fueled by zealous government informers and covert agents. As with the numerous immigration detentions and deportations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much publicity surrounded announcements that violent and deadly "jihadist" plots had been thwarted. Often, when the suspects finally came to trial, charges and evidence amounted to something far less ominous (and so, far less publicized).

Nevertheless, the threat, said authorities, was everywhere -- even if it couldn't be seen.

New Administration, Old Story

Throughout this period, the number of vigilante attacks on mosques, as well as individual Muslims, continued to rise, though these received little press attention. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received 602 credible Muslim civil rights complaints in 2002, 1,019 in 2003, and 1,522 in 2004. Such complaints included 42 hate crimes reported in 2002, 93 in 2003, and 141 in 2004. CAIR also cited and described several significant acts of violence against mosques, including bombings and arson, but did not specify the figures. 

In its 2009 civil rights report, CAIR said it had processed 2,728 civil rights violations, including 721 that involved mosques or Muslim organizations, up from 221 mosque incidents in 2006. The organization expressed some optimism in its report, however, because there had been a decline in the number of reported hate crimes to 116 in 2008 from 135 the previous year. Again, CAIR reported serious mosque attacks and vandalism without separating out the figures.

It seems hardly coincidental, at this point, that when authorities announce another incident or terror plot -- the failed effort to blow up an SUV in Times Square in May, for instance -- random attacks on Muslims and Muslim institutions as well quickly follow. For example, a bomb was detonated at a mosque in Jacksonville, Fla., shortly after the Times Square incident. As the Lower Manhattan controversy spread in the news, arsonists attacked a mosque in Texas, and a church in Gainesville, Fla., announced that it would hold a bonfire of Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11.

The change in presidential administrations has had no discernible moderating effect on such passions. In fact, as if to assert its own toughness, the Obama administration has now given its tacit blessing to legislation introduced in Congress late in July by Adam Schiff, a congressman from California, that would carve out "terrorism exceptions" to constitutionally mandated Miranda warnings. The legislation would extend to up to four days the period when law enforcement agents can question terrorism suspects without informing them of their right to remain silent and to receive the assistance of an attorney. If past is prelude, such exceptions will initially have a disproportionate impact on Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims in America, only later spreading to wider groups of Americans taken into custody.

Parallel to the federal law-enforcement focus on Muslims, the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of anti-Muslim "analysts," "terror experts," political commentators and websites. This burgeoning industry, focused on Muslims as virtually a fifth column seeking to take over the country, has attracted ever more media attention, particularly as Fox News has chronicled and promoted the rise of the Tea Party movement.

It is in this alternate universe, after so many years of heightened anti-Muslim sentiments, that a Lower Manhattan prayer space designed to promote reconciliation has become the dreaded mosque at ground zero, a "monument that would consist of a mosque for the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god," as Mark Williams, then-chairman of a group known as the Tea Party Express, put it.

Waiting for the Demagogue

Here we come to the real source of unease over what's now going on -- the realization that we've seen something like this developing before, only it wasn't diaperheads and terrorism inflaming the country. It was dirty commies and Jews then.

Sixty years ago, on Feb. 9, 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy rose before a Republican women's club in Wheeling, W.Va., and delivered the famous speech in which he waved a sheet of paper and claimed that on it were the names of -- there is dispute -- 57 or 205 known communists "working and shaping policy in the State Department."  In doing so, he put his incendiary, eponymous stamp on the most oppressive period of the Cold War, and as it turned out, the nation was ready for the message.

McCarthyism did not emerge on that cold day solely from the fevered imagination of the Wisconsin senator. There had been a drumbeat of anti-communist red-baiting, hearings, speeches, treason charges, and grandstanding coming from Washington for years. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, anti-communist informer Whittaker Chambers, ambitious congressman Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, President Harry Truman -- all did yeoman's work in preparing the soil for McCarthy and his reckless accusations of "20 years of treason!"

There are some substantial differences between then and now. Most important, McCarthy operated from within the political system, using his subcommittee chairmanship as a vehicle for pseudo-investigations and attacks. When his Senate colleagues turned on him following a particularly reckless campaign against the U.S. Army, McCarthy was stripped of his chairmanship and his power. A true demagogue, he had no organization to speak of, only those who feared him and those who followed him.

By contrast, while some extreme anti-Muslim sentiment is in evidence in Washington, the real juice for an anti-Muslim movement is now bubbling up outside the Beltway, much as virulent racist hysteria has, in the past, bubbled up from the grass roots. In that regard, it's worth noting that about a third of America's 5 to 8 million Muslims are African-American.

Some mainstream politicians have actually tried to tamp down the Lower Manhattan controversy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, for instance, made numerous comments in support of the project and the principle of freedom of religion that goes with it. Such statements have, however, had little effect in quieting the dispute, countered as they are by opposition not only from the fringes, but from some mainstream Republican politicians and establishment non-governmental organizations. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, recently came out with a statement opposing the construction plan, despite the fact that the rest of the opposition, the group said, exhibited elements of bigotry.  It is better to side with bigots, the ADL essentially argued, than ignore the post-9/11 "healing process."

Because of the decentralized, grass-roots nature of this anti-Muslim movement and the accompanying hysteria, it will be no easy task to put the mosque-at-ground-zero genie back in its bottle. Those who think that the decision by the New York City Landmarks Commission to clear the way for construction is likely to end the antagonism are undoubtedly engaged in wishful thinking. There are virtually endless potential flashpoints embedded along the road ahead, nor are the issue and its passions purely dependent on what happens in Manhattan, where a recent poll showed a majority of residents favor construction (although a majority of all New York City residents do not).

In California, those opposed to mosque construction in Temecula were urged to protest by rallying at the mosque with their dogs. Muslims "hate dogs," an unsigned e-mail alert erroneously claimed. Counter-demonstrators turned out. There, too, the dispute continues. "The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don't want to see their influence spread," pastor Bill Rench of Temecula's Calvary Baptist Church told the Los Angeles Times. "There is a concern with all the rumors you hear about sleeper cells and all that. Are we supposed to be complacent just because these people say it's a religion of peace? Many others have said the same thing."

In Kentucky, a fledgling controversy over a proposed mosque in Florence, south of Cincinnati, is also spreading thanks to anonymous communications. One unsigned protest flyer stated that "Americans need to stop the takeover of our country, our government is not protecting us."

Such sentiments are common to virtually all anti-Muslim protests: Somehow, Muslims are taking over. Oklahoma legislators, fearing the imposition of Islamic law in Oklahoma courts, have even asked voters to amend the state constitution to forbid it. The government, increasing numbers of Americans evidently believe, is passively allowing Muslim subversion, and citizens need to defend themselves.

In Tennessee, a rancorous fight over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro has been rife with such sentiments. Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate locked in a tough primary race, denounced the mosque plan, characterized its leaders as foreign agents with a "radical agenda," and received strong support from the Wilson County Tea Party, a local group.

On its website, the Tea Party curtsies to the U.S. Constitution and then quickly cuts to the chase: "But this question must be asked based on repeated violence committed by Islamists in the name of religion: Is Islam nothing more than a front for terrorism?"  Tennessee's lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor, went out of his way last month to characterize Islam as a "cult" that may not warrant First Amendment protection: "You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life, or a cult -- whatever you want to call it ..."

The proliferation of, and acceptance of, such talk, particularly from major political candidates, may be preparing the American ground for the emergence of a leader who can synthesize the demonizing and scapegoating of Muslims, fears augmented by severe economic anxiety, the maturing of extreme right-wing activism, and a widespread and growing contempt for official Washington. If that happens, the nation -- and American Muslims -- could face something far worse than McCarthy, who held sway in a golden era of rising expectations and general economic growth.

Mosque controversies will be the least of it then.

[Note on further reading:  The CAIR 2005 report on civil rights abuses with some comparative statistics can be found in .pdf format here. The CAIR 2009 report and statistics, also in .pdf format, can be found here.]

By Stephan Salisbury

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).

MORE FROM Stephan Salisbury

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Park51 Terrorism