Fall 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2002

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Articles in this issue

Our Muslim Neighbors

9/11 On Our Mind

Scandal Without End

After the Globe

Choosing Up Sides in the Middle East

Reading the Koran in Chapel Hill

Faith Based Administration

Amazing Graceland

Sex in the (Catholic) City

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 stake.

But the leadership ought to come from the top.

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