Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



Political Islamophobia
by Andrew Walsh

In days of yore, a news story achieved the status of certified trend when it appeared on the cover of one of the newsweeklies. It’s an antiquated standard of judgment, but Time did put its finger on the pulse of the nation when its August 19 cover asked: “Is America Islamophobic?”

At that moment, two stories, the epic of the “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York and the tale of an obscure Florida Pentecostal pastor who planned to burn a copy of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, were going viral and global and the GOP was testing the utility of “stealth sharia” as a wedge issue in the mid-term Congressional campaigns.

Plumbing “what it feels like to be Muslim in American today,” Time opened its cover story with an evocative account of a February 2010 zoning hearing in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, where a young Pakistani immigrant physician was submitting a proposal to open a small mosque on commercial property he owned in the tiny rural town of Wilson. Dr. Mansoor Mirza’s local co-religionists—mostly Bosnian and Albanian refugees—had warned him that the mosque would be resisted, but Mirza had experienced a warm welcome from his patients and didn’t expect trouble.

At the hearing, however, he was deeply shocked. “One after another,” Time reported, speakers poured “scorn and hostility on the proposal.” Few even mentioned the mosque proposal itself. Instead, they focused on rumors and allegations.

“Islam is a religion of hate, they say. Muslims are out to wipe out Christianity. There are 20 jihadi training camps hidden across rural America, busy even now producing the next wave of terrorists. Muslims murder their children. Christian kids have enough problems with drugs, alcohol and pornography and should not have to worry about Islam too. ‘I don’t want it in my backyard,’ said one, according to the hearing transcript. Another said, ‘I just think it’s not America.’”

2010 was a tough year to be Muslim in America, but nevertheless the direct answer to Time’s question is: No, America is not Islamophobic.

To be sure, many Americans harbor a deep suspicion of Islam. After the zoning hearing in Sheboygan County, local pastors organized a continuing campaign of protest. “The political object of Islam is to dominate the world with its teachings…and to have domination of all other religions militarily,” the Rev. Wayne DeVrou, pastor of the First Reformed Church in neighboring Oostburg, told Time.

During 2010 there were similar, highly publicized, zoning controversies over proposals for new mosques in Temecula, California, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as well as, of course, in lower Manhattan. (Such controversies have in fact been quite common in the United States for years.)

“The core argument emerging from [the anti-mosque] protests is that Muslims are not and can not be full Americans,” Eboo Patel, a Muslim who sat on President Obama’s first advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships and blogs on religion for the Washington Post’s On Faith web site, told Time despairingly. But the key point is not how much bigotry proposed mosques are stirring up. It is that, despite the tumult, all four proposals received rapid and unanimous approval from the government bodies charged with granting the required zoning permits.

The American promise is not that everyone will be nice. Competitive mutual vituperation is a deep tradition among American religious and political groups. The promise, rather, is that the government will not suppress religion, even unpopular religion.

And so far, at least, there has been no ban on girls wearing head-coverings in public schools, as there is in France. And no restriction on the construction of minarets, as there is in Switzerland. Proposals to build mosques, especially in highly visible locations, are often resisted here, but they are not stymied entirely, as in Italy or Greece. There has been no upsurge in violence against Muslims either. Nor are there many cases of law enforcement officials colluding in the harassment of Muslims.

What has surged in recent months has been expression of public hostility toward Islam and Muslims, shading often toward hate speech. The Murfreesboro dispute turned ugly when anonymous protesters spray-painted “Not Here” on a sign announcing the impending construction of a mosque and then vandalized construction equipment on the site.

Calculated insult has often been a feature of these protests. In Temecula, protesters brought dogs with them to protests, knowing that dogs aren’t allowed in mosques. The Houston Chronicle reported on November 16 that one unhappy abutter has been running pig races timed to coincide with Friday prayer services at a neighboring mosque that was expanding its building. (Muslims are forbidden to eat pork.)

A teenager named Tasmia Khan wrote the Hartford Courant September 1 to describe an unexpected confrontation that took place in a Norwich, Connecticut, hospital where she was volunteering.

The daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, Khan was on her way to help discharge a patient when she encountered an elderly woman, whom she did not know, in a hospital elevator. After glaring at her, the old woman abruptly complained about the headscarf Kahn was wearing, saying, “You must be from another country because you wear that thing on your head.” Kahn replied that she was American-born, and the woman replied, “Well, why don’t you dress like an American? You should dress like an American. When we go over to your country, you make us wear those things. You should dress like an American.”

The encounter, Kahn wrote, stunned her. “The elevator closed and I started crying. I felt humiliated. I had never experienced that kind of hatred,” she wrote. “What does it mean to be an American? Dress like everybody else? The country was founded by all different kinds of people. People dress the way they like and that is their business,” she wrote.

In 2010, many American Muslims shared Khan’s perception of a new and elevated hostility towards visible manifestations of Islam. “This has been a year for American Muslims of living dangerously,” Farhana Kera, executive director of a California group called Muslim Advocates, told Matt O’Brien of the Contra Costa Times in early December.

Why so? Why now? There’s little consensus about the causes and merits of anti-Muslim hostility, but some context must be invoked.

Wars often bring with them waves of enforced conformity in this country. The nation’s very vibrant German-American culture was virtually destroyed during World War I, with state legislatures passing laws banning school instruction in German and even worship in German. During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans had their property expropriated and endured forced internment in concentration camps.

By those standards, the current unpopularity of Muslims is small potatoes. America has been at war in Afghanistan since 2002 and in Iraq since 2003. But it is not merely the many years of fighting abroad that now shapes attitudes.

“Wonder why Americans have a negative opinion of Islam?” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Huntley wrote September 14. “The shoe bomber, the attack on Fort Hood, the New York subway bombing plot—the list goes on of atrocities committed, attempted or planned in the name of Islam.”

Hostile commentaries very often cited the two 2009 events: Virginia-born Army Maj. Nidal Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood and a Pakistani immigrant’s unsuccessful attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square. Islamic radicalism is not simply “out there”; it’s here, even if 95 percent of American Muslims are loyal and law-abiding.

“Most Muslims are not terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim,” is a sentence that has appeared, with minor variations, in hundreds of blogs and opinion pieces since at least 2005.

A sense of wartime urgency suffuses the utterances of conservative writers and spokespersons, who have increasingly insisted that American Muslims must repudiate terrorism, loudly support American policies in the world, and embrace “American” norms.  A classic in this vein was Sarah Palin’s famous Twitter message of July 18 on the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero: “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

American Muslims do indeed condemn terrorism—regularly and at high volume. The Washington Post reported on November 9, for example, that the immense All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), which operates five large sites for Muslim worship in Northern Virginia, automatically issues a communiqué “denouncing terrorism within hours of every arrest or foiled terrorist attempt that could trigger a wave of Islamophobia.”

In October, when a man who had attended worship at ADAMS was charged with plotting to blow up Metro stations in Washington, the mosque’s staff combed their records to show he had never formally joined or contributed to the mosque. They repeatedly announced the FBI’s telephone number at evening worship—“urging members to call with any information they might have.”

But that’s not good enough for many critics. “Why are the terrorists called inauthentic Muslims when they kill in the name of Islam, but seen as persecuted Muslim when we respond?” asked Joseph A. Bosco, who worked on Muslim relations for the Department of Defense from 2002 to 2010, in a November 10 Christian Science Monitor op-ed headlined, “How Well Are American Muslims Challenging Extremists?” 

It’s fair to say that organized Muslim groups in America haven’t often adopted super-patriotic rhetoric or championed American policies in the Muslim world. Instead, they have focused mostly on mobilizing civil rights arguments in their own defense, taking the “anti-defamation” approach pioneered to combat anti-Semitism. Few have followed the precedent set by some Irish Catholic immigrants in late 19th-century America, who fought stereotypes of Catholic authoritarianism by their vocal embrace of American exceptionalism, and vigorous flag-waving.

It is also the case that anti-Muslim prejudice among Americans has deep roots in the global rivalry and antagonism that has marked the history of Christian-Muslim relations. Pastor DeVrou in Sheboygan is far from alone. One opportunistic evangelist responded to the controversy over the lower Manhattan Islamic center by promising to open his own “9/11 Christian Center at Ground Zero.” Muslims, he told Anne Appelbaum of the London Daily Telegraph, can “go to their mosque and preach the lies of Islam and I’ll come here to preach the truth of the Gospel.” At the heart of this view is the still lively folk belief that America is a Christian nation, and not simply a nation with a Christian majority. (See accompanying sidebar.)

It rarely escapes the notice of this school of thought that the legal guarantees of religious freedom that allow American Muslims to organize mosques here are not reciprocated in many Muslim nations.

The media whirlwind over Gainesville, Florida independent Pentecostal pastor Terry Jones comes out of this extremist Christian trajectory. In his pre-controversy obscurity, Jones had self-published a book with the title “Islam is of the Devil.” His anti-Muslim animus attracted little notice beyond Gainesville before last summer, but Jones was working it.

In 2009, the Gainesville Sun reported, he put the book title on a sign outside his 50-member Dove World Outreach Center, and then sent children in the congregation to school wearing t-shirts imprinted with it. A small local controversy ensued when school officials banned the shirts and sent the children home.

Jones responded with a flurry of YouTube postings, Facebook manifestos, and a small protest outside a local shopping mall on September 11, 2009. The AP’s Rachel Zoll described him as “on the fringe of U.S. Christian life.” Nevertheless, she continued, “for many Christian conservatives, criticism of Islam is rooted in the longtime persecution of Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim countries and in bans on Christian missionaries working in those same countries. Christianity and Islam are both evangelizing faiths that are in competition in many areas.”

The Quran-burning story broke when, to the chagrin of the mayor of Gainesville and many other Floridians, Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of Religion News Service, noticed a Facebook posting by Terry Jones proposing an “International Burn a Quran Day” to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Eckstrom assigned the story to reporter Maggie Hyde, who produced the first journalistic report on July 21.

The story went global within a few days, with incessant “will he or won’t he” debates and hordes of reporters descending on Gainesville. Jones spent most of August and early September playing the story for all it was worth, tacking back and forth about whether he would actually burn the Quran or not.

Meanwhile, government officials ranging from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued public pleas not to do it for national security reasons and to avoid inflaming global Muslim opinion. A vast religious coalition—including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention and the full panoply of mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders—mobilized to urge Jones to cancel his stunt.

At the last moment, as the AP reported on September 10, even Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s evangelist son and no slouch as a critic of Islam, “joined the chorus of religious leaders.” Speaking from North Carolina, Graham said it was “always wrong to deface or destroy any religion’s holy writings, even those someone disagrees with.” Jones, he added “has a right to burn the Quran as a political act, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Jones called off the Quran burning on September 10. But, after losing the attention of the world’s media, he announced in January that he would “put the Quran on trial.” On March 20, with little advance warning, he held a ceremony in Gainesville and lit a kerosene-soaked copy of the book alight. The event was streamed live on the Internet with Arabic subtitles. As of press time, 24 had died in Afghanistan in rioting that followed reports of the burning. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff asked Jones in a story printed on April 3 whether he had broken his word. Jones replied: “If you want to be technical, I guess we broke our word.”

There are, of course, parts of the country where mosque construction is largely unopposed. The Buffalo News carried a 1,300-word piece in October with the headline, “Amherst mosque draws little controversy” and the Philadelphia Inquirer produced a piece on September 7 with the headline, “Tolerance of Islam Seems Stronger Here.” In February, the Hartford Courant reported the state senate’s confirmation of the state’s first Muslim judge, a Pakistani immigrant, whose appointment was vigorously acclaimed by the GOP senatorial leadership. But in the country as a whole, there’s little doubt that Muslims have an image problem.

Cathy Grossman of USA Today reported in January that a study of public opinion surveys by academics Robert Putnam and David Campbell shows that over time “Muslims stand out for unpopularity” among American faith groups, although other groups, including Mormons and Buddhists, are also pretty unpopular. Putnam and Campbell’s key finding, however, was that very few Americans say they know any Muslims personally. That isn’t surprising, since Muslims make up less than one percent of the population and are thinly scattered.

The Muslim community is roughly two-thirds composed of immigrants and their children, and these immigrants come from at least 60 different nations. So they often don’t share language or cultural background. Moreover, there are few established community institutions to train leaders—the first Muslim-sponsored college just opened in September in California. Under the circumstances, organizing to respond to the challenges has been difficult.

But there are some signs of a developing Muslim response that draws on a familiar interpretation of American history. “What’s going on for Muslim-Americans now is a trial by fire,” Farhanahz Ellis, interfaith director of ADAMS, told William Wan of the Washington Post November 9. “You look at the history of this country, and we’re not the first group that’s been put through the fire. You look at the experience of African Americans, the Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Polish Americans.”

“The hope among Muslims,” Ellis said, “is that once we get through to the other side of these trials, we will never have to go through it again. That, eventually, this too, shall pass.”

Hamza Yusuf Hanson, co-founder of the new Zaytuna College in California, weighed in with an even more specific historical analysis in the September 16 Christian Science Monitor. The current experience of Muslims, he wrote, is strongly reminiscent of the difficult experience of Irish Catholic immigrants in the then overwhelmingly Protestant United States during the middle decades of the 19th century. He recounted the story of his own great great grandfather, who arrived in Philadelphia from Ireland in 1844 in the middle of violent anti-Catholic riots that killed dozens of people and destroyed two Catholic churches.

“In many ways,” Hanson wrote, “Muslims are the new Irish. While they are spared the blatant bigotry of job ads that caution, ‘No Muslims need apply,’ Muslims often feel the chill of their reception during job interviews, especially women wearing a scarf or men with a beard and skullcap.”

“But the Irish narrative is also one of good cheer for Muslims. They aren’t called the fighting Irish for nothing. The Irish pressed on. Slowly they built some of the finest schools and colleges in our nation, as well as churches and charitable hospitals. They were hardworking and industrious, and their natural genius flourished in opportunities afforded them in a free and open society.”

This sort of Americanism may not be exactly what Newt Gingrich is looking for, but it is a deeply rooted and authentically American response. Hanson may be a harbinger of a new generation of openly pluralist American Muslim leaders who can play a role like the “Americanist” Catholic bishops of the late 19th century, whose ardent, optimistic identification with the United States helped ease, if not erase, Protestant concerns about the Catholic menace.

In a complicated way, the mosque controversies are themselves proof that Islam is growing and taking root in the U.S. The Time cover story estimated that since 2001, the number of American mosques has grown by about 700, to 1,900. Many of them reflect the affluence of American Muslims, who tend to be highly educated and comparatively prosperous.

In Tennessee, critics grumble that a small group of Muslims couldn’t possibly need a 50,000 square foot community center. But, like the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, many long established American mosques are moving out of basements and industrial parks into much more highly visible locations and much more elaborate buildings.

“Forty years ago, the thought of granite counter tops, marble floors and indoor gyms at Houston mosques seemed unthinkable,” Zain Shauk of the Houston Chronicle wrote November 16. Mosques are now noticeable. Hitherto, they usually were not.

It will undoubtedly take more time to pass through the current ordeal than is comfortable for most Muslims. This, finally, is because of the rough-and-tumble of American politics. For nothing explains the sudden surge in Islamophobia in 2010 better than the midterm congressional elections.

“Negative reference,” as the political scientists like to say, has been the fuel of American electoral politics since its beginning, and racial, religious, regional, and ethnic antagonisms have always been exploited by politicians to mobilize votes. It’s not nice, but virtually everyone does it.

Suddenly last summer, Republican leaders, who are always probing for a wedge issue that will effectively mobilize their voter base, converged on the specter of a Muslim threat to undermine American culture and even government. It wasn’t the only—or even the top—wedge issue (overreaching government wins the prize), but it was there in the tool box.

Given the wartime atmosphere of 2010, conservative backlash against immigration, and the deep resonance of anti-Muslim rhetoric among conservative leaning Protestants, the specter of a global Islamic threat coming home to roost in America seemed pretty plausible to lots of voters. Mobilizing to scapegoat one percent of the population is a pretty low-cost political venture.

The highly particular evolution of the epic story of the proposed building on Park Place in lower Manhattan illustrates how and why hostility to Muslims became an effective voter mobilization tool.

The story broke on page one of the New York Times on December 8, 2009, with a report on plans to construct an “Islamic center” at 45 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site in a building that would include Muslim worship space but function “like the Chautauqua Institution, 92nd St. Y, or the Jewish Community Center,” with athletic, cultural, and educational facilities.

The basement of the unoccupied 13-story building was already in weekly use as an overflow worship space for the Al Farah Mosque on West Broadway in neighboring Soho—a congregation led by a Sufi imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose nonprofit Cordoba Institute was among a group of partners that had purchased the building for $4.85 million in July.

“The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim prayer space, but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an Islamic center near the city’s most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero’s more unexpected and striking neighbors,” reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood wrote.

The location near Ground Zero was one of the key attractions of the building, Abdul Rauf told reporters. “A presence so close to the World Trade Center, ‘where a piece of the wreckage fell,’ said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, ‘sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.’”

“Those who have worked with him say if anyone could pull off what many regard to be a delicate project, it would be Imam Feisal, whom they described as having built a career preaching tolerance and interfaith understanding,” the Times reported.

The story carried endorsements from Rabbi Arthur Schneier and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, as well as supportive comments from an FBI spokesman who said that Abdul Rauf “had helped agents reach out to the Muslim population after Sept. 11.”

No other major story appeared in the mainstream New York press for almost six months. But the same day, Pamela Geller, proprietor of a blog called Atlas, jumped on the story, interlarding the Times’ article with hostile comments and quoting her friend and fellow blogger Robert Spencer (of the JihadWatch website) on Sufi Islam’s allegedly close connections with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On December 21, Geller hit harder with a blog headed “Mosque at Ground Zero: Adding Insult to Agony.” Seeking to change the terms of the discussion, she described the proposed building as “a giant mosque planted on the site of Islamic destruction…Sort of a giant victory lap. Any decent American, Muslim or otherwise, wouldn’t dream of such an insult. It’s a stab in the eye of America. What’s wrong with these people? Have they no heart or soul?”

“This best demonstrates the territorial nature of Islam. This is Islamic domination and expansionism,” she went on, calling instead for a Muslim center devoted “to expunging the Koran and all Islamic teachings of the prescribed violent jihad and all hateful texts and incitement to violence. The only center in the heart of the WTC should be devoted to a Vatican II for Islam.”

This would later appear to many as fairly advanced fear-mongering. (Salon called Geller “a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger” in one review of the journalistic coverage.) But Geller’s reframing—mega-mosque at Ground Zero, jihadi victory lap, soft Sharia, and deliberately insensitive insult to the memory of World Trade Center bombing victims—would, in time, prove to be potent.

In March, Geller and Spencer organized a nonprofit called Freedom Defense Initiative/Stop Islamization of America, but her campaign did not get much traction outside the blogosphere. Then on May 6, New York City Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee unanimously approved permits for the Islamic center and the AP and the Daily News moved a story that included quotes from family members of people killed on 9/11 complaining about the proposal.

Geller swung into action with a blog post headlined “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction,” this time including the charge that the new “mega mosque” would “cast a rude shadow over Ground Zero” and open on September 11, 2011.  (The Daily News had quoted Daisy Khan, Abdul Feisal’s wife, as saying she hoped construction on the $100 million project would begin by the 10th anniversary of the attacks. A few days earlier, Newsday carried a brief item quoting Abdul Feisal as saying the project could take 18 months to three years to complete.)

New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser jumped in on May 13 with an argument that tracked precisely with Geller, headlined “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero.” It included the dubious statement, “The opening date shall live in infamy: September 11, 2011. The 10th anniversary of the day a hole was punched in the city’s heart.”

With that, the story took off. Geller’s web site notes that she played hardball on NBC Nightly News, ABC, CNN, AP, Reuters, Hannity, Red Eye, Geraldo, the Mike Huckabee show, and other  programs on the Fox News channel.

By early August, Robert Schlesinger wrote in an August 11 U.S. News & World Report piece, many “old media” drones were trying to puzzle through how to reconcile the actual site with the Geller “framework.”

Fifty-one Park Place does not “overlook” Ground Zero. It’s two blocks north of the site in a nondescript business district, and “the intervening blocks have buildings taller than the proposed center.” Its neighbors on the block include a bar and an Off Track Betting Parlor. The Daily News, the Boston Globe, and other papers noted the presence of strip clubs and porn shops in similar proximity to the bombing site.

“Opponents say that Park51’s mere proximity to Ground Zero is an intentional political statement, and it almost certainly is,” Schlesinger wrote. “It says that not all Muslims are radical killers and thugs, and that Islamic moderates won’t be cowed into letting terrorists be the face of their religion.” But the center’s supporters couldn’t—or at least didn’t—ever reframe the reframing that effectively. Instead, Abdul Feisal spent most of August on a State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East, leaving his wife and his partner, developer Sharif El-Gamal, struggling to respond effectively.

Eventually, it would become clear that Abdul Feisal’s vision of an Islamic community open to the community could be accomplished in some other spot, but El-Gamal was stuck owning the building on Park Place and couldn’t just move along. Adbul Feisal left the project in January, and his imam successor soon came a cropper because of anti-gay rhetoric in sermons. As of this writing, it seemed unlikely that the Park51 community center would ever happen, but there was still a worship space in the basement.

The Republicans piling on began in earnest in early August. On August 5, Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox’s “Hannity” and denounced “elite politicians” for “turning a blind eye” to the views of most Americans.

Host Sean Hannity then shaped the pitch:  “Isn’t that where we are, though, in terms of American society? The American people support Arizona’s immigration law, but it doesn’t matter to liberal Democrats. The American people don’t want this mosque built. It doesn’t matter to liberal Democrats.”

On August 11, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association called for “no more mosques” in the United States in his Talking Points blog post. That pitch would crop up in Republican campaigns in many states during the fall.

In Tennessee, the issue immediately appeared in the August Republican primaries. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, vying for the gubernatorial nomination, posted a YouTube video in which he suggested that First Amendment protections for freedom of worship might not apply to Muslims. “Now you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, or whatever you want to call it,” he said.

The claim that Islam was not a religion but a political movement aimed at undermining constitutional government, aligning nicely with Tea Party tendencies, suddenly informed a legal challenge to the Rutherford County Planning Commission’s May decision to issue permits for a new Islamic center in Murfreesboro.

The claims were ventilated in a lengthy court proceeding later in the fall, with plaintiffs vowing to carry the case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Republican legislators in least 15 states were moving to ban American courts from citing Islamic law in their decisions, based largely on Gingrich’s “stealth sharia” bogeyman.

For most of the 2000s, Republicans had made little open, tactical use of anti-Muslim rhetoric, largely because President Bush, the leader of their party, pre-empted it with very vigorous statements insisting that the U.S. was at war with “terror” and not with Islam, which he called, “a religion of peace.”

President Obama has regularly made similar statements, but coming from a Democrat, they haven’t had the same restraining impact. To the contrary, Obama has been dogged by persistent rumor campaigns that he is himself a Muslim. (Polls show that about 20 percent of Americans say they believe that, up from about 15 during 2008.) Republican leaders have not exerted themselves to knock these rumors down.

One additional reason that anti-Muslim rhetoric now resonates so effectively on the right is that it fits quite neatly into the hole left by the evaporation of global communism as a frightening urgent and external threat.

It also fits neatly into the received wisdom of the left. See, for example, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole’s December 21 blog post, “Hating Muslims in America,” which asserts that anti-Muslim rhetoric is a machination of the national security state: “Since the wars are for resources in the resource-rich Muslim world, it is convenient to demonize Muslims across the board, including domestic ones. In essence, the military-industrial complex…is busy reducing us to prison inmates, and convincing us that we are about to be raped by some large Muslim convict.”

As the fall campaign picked up speed, anti-Muslim rhetoric was clearly effective in mobilizing Republican voters in many states. In Oklahoma, for example, not only did a state constitutional amendment forbidding judges from considering international or Islamic law in deciding cases attract 70 percent support from voters, but also most of the Democrats who voted against it were voted out of office. (Amusingly, there is now some worry in corporate and high Republican Party circles that the ban will cause trouble for Oklahoma businesses that are involved in international trade.)

Cory Williams, a Democrat from Stillwater, was re-elected to his legislative post in November by 280 votes, but had to battle through a campaign in which his Republican opponent distributed flyers showing a shadowy figure in Arab headgear standing next to him. The New York Times reported on November 16 that the text charged that Williams “wanted to allow Islamic ‘Shariah’ law to be used in Oklahoma courts” and connected him to an “international movement supported by militant Muslims and liberals” to establish Islamic law throughout the world.

The intensity of the controversy dropped fast after Election Day, but some reverberations continue. One intriguing one came in late January, when the majestic Rev. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made a rare public climb-down.

Representing the largest Protestant denomination in the country and publicly cherishing the historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom, Land had been a very conspicuous figure in ecumenical efforts to denounce Terry Jones, and had signed the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques’ “friend of the court” brief defending the right of Muslims to build their mosque in Murfreesboro. On January 28, however, Travis Loller of the AP reported that Land had been obliged by pressure from inside the SBC to withdraw from the ICM.

“[M]any Southern Baptists…felt the work of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques crossed the line from defending religious freedom to promoting Islam,” Land told Loller. “I don’t agree with that perception, but it’s widespread and I have to respect it.”

Then, as the 2012 presidential election cycle began to crank up, it appeared that at least some GOP hopefuls wanted to see whether they could use anti-Muslim rhetoric to mobilize voters on their behalf.

On February 21, the Christian Century reported that Mike Huckabee had used a “Fox and Friends” cable television appearance to criticize a couple of Christian congregations for allowing Muslims to use their buildings for worship.

“As much as I respect the autonomy of each local church, you just wonder, what are they thinking?” the former Baptist minister and president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention said. “If the purpose of a church is to push forward the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then you have a Muslim group that says that Jesus Christ and all the people that follow him are a bunch of infidels who should be essentially obliterated, I have a hard time understanding that.”           

On February 23, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had mounted a spirited defense of both the Crusades and the concept of Christendom during a visit to a local Christian private school. “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical,” Santorum said. “And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom.”

“What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers,” he continued. “What we’re talking about are core American values. ‘All men are created equal’—that’s a Christian value, but it’s an American value. It’s become part of our national religion, if you will. The point I was trying to make was that the national faith, the national ideal, is rooted in the Christian ideal—in the Judeo-Christian concept of the person.”

A Pew Research Center for the Study of Religion and Politics poll published on March 9, suggests how particularized anti-Muslim sentiment is. The poll showed little change since 2003, when Pew began asking whether “Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence.” Since then, a small plurality of Americans have answered in the negative, with most African Americans and religiously unaffiliated voters strongly rejecting that view, a plurality of Catholics doing so, and mainline Protestants and Latinos about evenly divided. But Evangelical Protestants view Islam as a religion of violence by a margin of 60 percent to 24 percent.

This isn’t a good sign for those who hope the country can move on to new and more elevated wedge issues. But it isn’t a given that anti-Muslim rhetoric will always hit the hot button in Christian America.

While many American Christians will probably always harbor doubts about Islam, the wartime context will change, as will the immigrant context of Islam in America. The everydayness of the American Islamic community, which Muslims now fumble to convey, will be increasingly evident. And it won’t matter so much if the community produces another terrorist or two. 

Meanwhile, the Hamza Yusuf Hansons of this country will get more nimble at deflecting Pamela Geller’s sucker punches. And savvy Muslim operators will even learn to let Santorum’s American crusaders lie, while demonstrating that “all men are created equal” is a certifiable Muslim value, too.


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