Laurie Goodstein notes in the New York Times that the controversy surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque” has made many Muslim-Americans feel more alienated from the country in which they live. That’s not much of a surprise. The debate has expanded from a discussion of the appropriateness of constructing an Islamic cultural center near the Ground Zero site to a broader critique about the intentions and values of Muslim-Americans. This has been coupled by a series of attacks on American Muslims and mosques.
But it’s important to highlight that Islamophobia in the United States is not inevitable. Rather, it is a learned attitude. Indeed, during a several month period after 9/11, anti-Muslim attitudes did not rise much at all. Just look at the polls. Four months after the attacks occurred, just 14% of the US population –according to one ABC survey — believed that Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims. This surprising level of tolerance in the wake of such a major national tragedy is attributable to the fact that anti-Islamic rhetoric was not yet widely accepted. President Bush, for example, declared publicly at a Washington mosque not long after the attacks that Islam is a religion of peace, and he took pains to assert the unity of Muslim-Americans and non-Muslim Americans. Press accounts were also more balanced, not highlighting Muslim-Americans merely in the context of terrorism, war, or misogyny (as we are more likely to see today.)
But such talk of tolerance and national unity has, of course, long since broken down. Islamophobia is now rampant on mainstream talk radio as well as in Washington. Outright racism against Arabs and Muslims is now the norm, and commentators and politicians who engage in bigotry rarely receive any censure or condemnation. Whereas radio host Don Imus was briefly suspended and widely criticized for his comments about “nappy heady hos,” comments about Muslims by Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage to the same effect or worse have elicited virtually no such response.
Savage, for instance, in a July 2007 broadcast of his show, “The Savage Nation,” compared Muslims to Nazis. “When I see a woman walking around with a burqa, I see…a hateful Nazi who would like to cut your throat and kill your children.” On other shows, he has referred to Arabs as “non-humans,” “primates,” and “racist, fascist bigots,” and argued for the forced conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Just replace the subject of these diatribes — Arabs — with African-Americans and Savage would no doubt have been suspended, fired, or publicly disgraced.
What is disturbing about this phenomenon is that Islamophobia continues unabated years after the 9/11 attacks. And it may even be growing. In fact, the Ground Zero controversy has revealed how deeply this current of racism runs through American society. While some civil society groups are working hard to combat this phenomenon, major political figures — I’m looking at you, Harry Reid — continue to adopt cowardly positions that enforce the notion that Muslim-Americans are second class citizens.