Articles in this issue
9/11 On Our Mind
After the Globe
Choosing Up Sides in the
Reading the Koran in Chapel
Sex in the
Our Muslim Neighbors
By Mark Silk
Journalism may be the first draft of history, but that doesn’t keep
journalists from going for seconds and thirds. At any given time, in any
given newsroom, hapless reporters are beavering away on stories that will
mark the anniversaries of important events by telling the tale again, this
time with meaning.
By normal standards, though, this year’s recollection of 9/11 was
anniversary journalism gone berserk. Some newspapers went so far as to
devote every section front, be it arts or business or sports, to reckoning
with what seemed to have become the most significant date in American
history since December 7, 1941, or maybe July 4, 1776. If so much
concentrated journalistic energy has ever before been expended on something
that happened in the past, I can’t think of when.
In all the orgy of stocktaking and homagemaking, at least one subject
proved worth reporting on: the American Muslim community. And many news
operations did not let the opportunity slip.
The reports were not good. Across the country, Muslims voiced high levels
of fear, frustration, and anxiety about what life for them had become since
9/11. "Sometimes people forget that we are Americans, too. All my
children grew up here, but now it is a little scary," a Muslim woman in
Nashville told the Chicago Tribune October 7. "Now when we go
out, people turn and look at us….We don’t know if we are safe."
As the New York Times’ Jodi Wilgoren put it in a September 11
dispatch from the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn, Michigan, "[F]or
many in the nation’s growing Arab and Muslim communities, this has been
the year the American dream descended into nightmare."
It hadn’t started that way.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks there was a huge collective
effort to make sure that Islam in general, and Muslim Americans in
particular, did not come to be seen as the enemy. Anti-Muslim assaults there
were, a few of them deadly, but far more plentiful were the declarations of
politicians and the interfaith services and the editorials, all intended to
make clear that our Muslim neighbors are valued threads in the ever more
variegated tapestry of American society.
But over time, the search for terrorists and the emergence of less irenic
public voices have taken their toll. Reporting from Patterson, New Jersey,
September 19, Deborah Barfield Berry and Tom Brune of Newsday wrote,
"For months, FBI agents knocked on doors in this Muslim enclave of
about 100,000, visiting some people as many as two to three times and
hauling others off for further questioning. Federal immigration officials
jailed and deported an unknown number of people, mostly from Middle Eastern
and South Asian countries, who had violated their visas."
Meanwhile, the ecumenical flame, while not guttering out, was outshone by
well publicized denigrations of Islam from prominent religious conservatives
like Franklin Graham, son and evangelistic heir of Billy Graham, and the
former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Vines. The
irrepressible Jerry Falwell, who earlier had been compelled to apologize for
blaming liberals and secularists for bringing 9/11 upon the country, called
the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist on CBS’ "60 Minutes"—for
which he again had to apologize.
"I feel like a crusade is happening against Islam," one
Palestinian American told the Tampa Tribune September 5.
"Everywhere you turn on TV somebody is attacking Islam."
After meeting with Muslim leaders at the White House shortly after the
attacks—and being criticized for having included some radicals among them—President
Bush ceased his public outreach to America’s Islamic community.
Politicians down the food chain seemed to follow suit.
None of this has led to the kind of across-the-board hostility to
Japanese-Americans that took shape within a couple of months of Pearl
Harbor. In the news stories, any number of Muslims testified to the support
they and their families have received from non-Muslim friends and neighbors.
Often, they focused on the American government, not ordinary Americans, as
the source of their distress.
Public opinion surveys lent some support to this perception.
The Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that the
proportion of Americans with a favorable image of U.S. Muslims increased
from 45 percent six months before the attacks to 59 percent two months
afterwards. Knight Ridder came up with a nearly identical shift (45 percent
to 58 percent) between March and September 2002.
Such data tended to get short shrift in the anniversary coverage. For
example, in her wide-ranging September 27 story, "Frustrated U.S.
Muslims Feel Marginalized Again," the Los Angeles Times’
Teresa Watanabe emphasized the finding of a Times poll that 37
percent of respondents had a negative impression of Islam, as compared with
28 percent whose impression was favorable. By contrast, she downplayed the
balance of opinion on Muslim Americans, which was 39 percent positive versus
26 percent negative. ("While those surveyed had a more positive
impression of American Muslims than of their faith, roughly a quarter said
they had a negative impression of American Muslims.")
In an open democratic society it’s more important that people respect
adherents of another faith than the faith itself, and thus far at least, the
American public seems to be keeping its priorities straight. However, as the
shock of terrorism has turned routine, we should be worried by the evidence
that Muslim Americans are feeling increasingly beleaguered and isolated from
the rest of American society.
The struggle against terrorism is in large part a struggle against people
who identify their cause as Islamic, and it cannot be doubted that some of
them are now living in America, whether in "sleeper cells" or as
angry individuals. Making sure that Muslim Americans are, and are perceived
to be, as distant from them as possible is a project in which we all have a
But the leadership ought to come from the top.