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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Mertze Dahlin   

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American Muslims nine years after 9/11

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The seven-million strong American Muslim community, under siege since the ghastly tragedy of 9/11, is challenged in recent months with a growing anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry sparked by the opposition to the planned Park51 project popularly known as the Ground Zero Mosque on Manhattan island, in New York City. The inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the project, actually a cultural center and already approved by the New York City Planning Commission, has stirred hatred toward Muslims in America.

There has been so much fear-mongering and so much misinformation in the debate peddled by bigots and rightwing politicians. The constant vilification of Islam and Muslims over the air on radio talk shows, in newspapers and the Internet is contributing to the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.

The hate speech and fear-mongering has resulted in hate crimes against Muslims and their prayer centers. At least three anti-Muslim acts were reported in one day, on August 24. In New York, taxi driver Ahmed H. Sharif was stabbed after the passenger asked the driver "Are you Muslim?" When the driver said yes, the man slashed him with a knife on the throat, arm and face. The same night a drunk man barged into a Queens (New York) mosque and shouted anti-Muslim slurs at the congregation during the nightly Tarawee prayers. He then proceeded to urinate on the prayer rugs. Anti-Muslim acts are not limited to New York. Several thousand miles away in Madera, California, a mosque was vandalized with a sign reading 'Wake up America, the enemy is here.' Tellingly, earlier last month, a mock pig inscribed with "No Mosque in NYC" was left at a California Islamic center. It was also inscribed with "Remember 9-11" and "MO HAM MED the Pig."

Amid growing anti-Muslim sentiment—stirred up by a raging debate over the Ground Zero mosque, at least two more incidents were reported till August 31. In New York State’s tiny town, Carlton, five teenagers harassed worshippers at the town mosque. The teenagers were charged with disrupting religious services at the mosque after they honked their car horns and yelled obscenities during one prayer service, and fired a weapon outside of another. In the Nashville suburb of Murfreesboro (Tennessee) a fire was reported at the site of a planned Islamic center and mosque. More alarmingly, gunshots were fired when the community members arrived to inspect the site.

All these hate incidents come in an atmosphere of near anti-Muslim hysteria that is currently being generated by the feverish discourse and manufactured controversy over the Ground Zero mosque. It is generating anti-Muslim and anti-Islam public sentiments. A poll on August 29 by the extreme right San Diego, California 760 KFMB AM talk radio station indicated that 70% of those polled are in favor of forced registration for American Muslims in a national database. The same day a poll conducted by Chris Matthews show at the MSNBC revealed that more than half of Republicans polled say they have a negative attitude toward Islam, this compared to only 27% of Democrats. A  PEW Institute poll result released on August 24 corroborated the findings of Chris Mathews show. By more than two-to-one (54% to 21%), Republicans expressed an unfavorable opinion of Islam and by more than four-to-one (74% to 17%), Republicans say they agree more with those who object to the building of the Ground Zero Mosque. By contrast, more Democrats agree with the center’s supporters than its opponents (by 47% to 39%).

One may ask. If the feverish discourse about the so-called Ground Zero mosque is only about the building of a new mosque or something else? To borrow, Stephan Salisbury of Tom Dispatch, the mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche. The dark stain of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry or Islamophobia had spread far and wide long before the controversy erupted. As Salisbury pointed out, “those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups.”

Since 9/11, there has been a steady rise in Islamophobia, however recent months have seen exponential rise of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. Many Religious Right leaders and opportunist politicians assert over and over that Islam is not a religion at all but a political cult, that Muslims cannot be good Americans and that mosques are fronts for extremist ‘jihadis.’ Over the course of the past year there has been a substantial increase in the number of political candidates using Islamophobic tactics in an effort to leverage votes, and use such tactics as a platform to enhance their political visibility.

A few examples: A Minnesota Republican congressional candidate, Lynne Torgerson, says that the religion of Islam cannot be protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, one of three Republican candidates running for governor, says Islam may be called a “cult” instead of a religion. Ron McNeil, a Florida congressional candidate tells local high and middle class students that Islam is against everything America stands for. Another Florida Republican candidate for Congress, Dan Fanelli, runs television ads in which he points to a white man and asks, "Does this look like a terrorist?" and then turns to an Arab-looking man and asks, "Or this?" A Texas congressional hopeful, Canyon Clowdus, wants no more Muslim immigration to America. The American Family Association also wants a halt to the immigration of Muslims into the U.S. to “protect our national security and preserve our national identity, culture, ideals and values.” In Oklahoma an anti-Muslim measure is being pushed for the November ballot.

Alarmingly, allegations of anti-Muslim bias are being leveled against the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, that advises the president and other government officials on issues related to religious freedom worldwide. The Washington Post has quoted some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the Commission as saying that the agency is rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background. In particular, they say an anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission's work.

Burning of the Quran stunt

Desecration of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, is another method of bigotry. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim Pastor Terry Jones of a tiny Florida Church, known as the Dove World Outreach Center, planned to commemorate 9/11 by burning copies of the Holy Quran. He abandoned the Quran burning stunt when US Secretary of Defense phoned him saying that his provocative act would inflame the Muslim world and jeopardize the lives of American troops now deployed in many Muslim countries. However, Jones message was not lost to many. Torn pages of the Quran were found on Saturday (9/10) at the front of the Islamic Center of East Lansing, Michigan. Some of the pages appeared to be smeared with feces.

Amid heightened hate speech and fear-mongering mosques in California, Tennessee, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida have faced vocal opposition or have been targeted by hate incidents in recent months. In the most recent incidents, on 9/11 eve, vandals spray-painted "9-11" on windows and countertops at the Muslim owned Jaffa Market in Columbus, Ohio. Some cash and a laptop computer were stolen, while several display cases were vandalized. Just after midnight on Wednesday (9/8), back wall of the Hudson Islamic Center in New York was pained with slur "sand n**gers" and an obscenity. Last week also, a Phoenix mosque under construction was vandalized. Paint was spilled on the floor and several tall, arched glass windows were broken by what appeared to be gunshots. There was also anti-Muslim graffiti. The same mosque was vandalized in last February.

The presence of mosques and the building of new mosques have become a divisive issue in several communities across the country in recent years. A church may be a church, and a temple a temple, but through the prism of emotion that grips many Americans, a decade after 9/11, a mosque can apparently represent a lot of things.

Eid Al Fitr celebrations scaled back

This year the seven million strong American Muslim community scaled back the Eid Al Fitr celebrations at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, which fell just one day before the 9/11 anniversary. Islamic civic advocacy groups worried that the proximity of Eid Al Fitr with 9/11 anniversary will increase suspicion and hostility towards Muslims at a time when feelings towards their religion are already running high.

The Council of Muslim Organizations in Washington DC called on all US Islamic centers, schools and organizations to refrain from holding Eid Al Fitr celebrations. The Council said the move was out of respect for the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Muslim leaders feared that the celebrations might have been mistakenly -- or deliberately – misconstrued. "Definitely there are people who would like to make us look like we are celebrating on 9/11 and we are not going to let them," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, Washington DC.

Many Muslims believed that sensitivity toward the anniversary of September 11 is crucial since this has been a tense summer for Muslims in the US due to the controversy over the Grand Zero mosque.

The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, California announced cancellation of its Eid al-Fitr carnival on Sept. 11. For the past several years, the Islamic Cultural Center had celebrated Eid al-Fitr with a carnival on the first Saturday after the holiday, when the potential is greater for large attendance. Center officials said the cancellation was an acknowledgment that any celebration could be misinterpreted and also could be seen by some as insensitivity to the remembrance of 9/11.

With anti-Muslim rhetoric reaching epic proportions in broader U.S. society -- largely tolerated, rarely condemned – the American Muslim community remains optimistic that the current campaign which is partly driven by the forthcoming elections will eventually subside since the

religious freedom is a founding principle of this country and the main catalyst for its origins in the early seventeenth century. This principle was emphatically reiterated by President George Washington in his 1790 letter to the Jews of Rhode Island who built the Touro Synagogue:

"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship….The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

When President Washington wrote this letter 220 years back, he must have been aware of the effect it would have on the fledgling nation.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.