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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Shrugs.com, 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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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