Mosque Mania: Anti-Muslim Fears and the Far Right

There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now
raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.
The angry "debate" over whether the building should exist has a kind of
glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of

There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now
raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.
The angry "debate" over whether the building should exist has a kind of
glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of

It's not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a
phony "Mosque at Ground Zero" shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death,
and evildoers). Many have pointed out -- futilely -- that the complex
will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a
corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball
court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting
space, 9/11 memorial, and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The
shorthand still sticks.

Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number
of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee,
and Illinois
as well as Sheepshead
, Brooklyn, and Midland
Beach, Staten Island, in New York City. Such protests are emerging
with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders --
from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls
-- have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin
that "peaceful Muslims" step up and "refudiate" the plan; Newt Gingrich
the building of such a "mosque" as long as Saudi Arabia bars
construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican
campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted
that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers "to feel safe
and be safe.")

No, it's the deja-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles
special unease, the sense that we've been here before as a country, and
the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation's
political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative which
fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading
like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.

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 mere presence of
Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as
Bridgeport, Connecticut, police discovered
last week. 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. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro,
Tennessee, and Temecula, California, are all in this together. And it is
not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation
Commission gave its unanimous
to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it's
worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.

Panic in the Streets

In the panicked wake of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims (and
dark-skinned people mistaken for Muslims) swept the country. Hundreds of
beatings and even some random reprisal killings were reported coast to

On Sept. 17, 2001, the day after he told
the nation
that a "crusade" against terror was in order, President
Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and piously proclaimed
that "Islam is peace." At virtually the same moment across town,
Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III were
at a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into
their ballooning 9/11 investigation, an undisclosed number of
immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were being hauled
into custody, Arabic and Farsi speakers were suddenly in demand at the
FBI, and major legislation was already in the works to beef up
government surveillance, immigration, and anti-terror capabilities. But
no, Mueller said, there was nothing at all to complaints of ethnic
targeting from Arab-American communities.

After the Patriot Act became law that October, Ashcroft launched a
nationwide program of 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with Muslims from the
Middle East. Internal Justice Department memos instructed interviewers
to detain anyone suspected of immigration violations. "Let the
terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa -- even by one
day -- we will arrest you," Ashcroft proclaimed.

When that initial set of 5,000 interviews was deemed complete
(leading to no terrorism arrests of any kind), Ashcroft announced that
another 3,000 would be conducted. He vowed to find anyone who had
skipped out on the previous "voluntary" round.

By the end of 2001, a minimum of 2,000 Middle Easterners and South
Asians had been taken into custody, the vast majority without criminal
charges of any kind being lodged. Arrests were often highly publicized;
the aftermaths of those arrests were shrouded in secrecy as court and
immigration hearings were closed to family, public, and press. Vague color-coded
attack alerts were announced by federal officials, and citizens were
instructed to be prepared for a second 9/11 at any time. In 2004,
another round of 5,000 voluntary interviews with Arabs and Muslims was

The FBI began toting
the number and location of mosques around the country. The
Census Bureau was drawn into a scheme to identify and
enumerate areas with large Middle Eastern populations. The Energy
Department was engaged to monitor
mosques for suspicious levels of radiation.

A year after the 9/11 attacks, a
special immigration program was instituted that required men from two
dozen predominantly Muslim nations (and North Korea) to register with
immigration authorities. Nearly 84,000 did so, with about 3,000 abruptly
detained and over 13,000 promptly subjected to deportation proceedings.
Muslims began to "disappear" from the streets of America. Lawyers
wearing yellow shirts with "Human Rights Monitor" written on the back
sought to keep track of individuals heading into registration centers in
New York and Los Angeles -- and never leaving again.

Not surprisingly, this frenzy of law enforcement activity led many
Americans to believe that there must be a dark reason so much attention
was being paid to so many Muslims. By 2003, announcements of elaborate
terror "plots" and investigations had already taken over the news.
These would regularly serve, like booster shots, to revitalize public
suspicions that foul things were afoot. Muslims in Lodi, California,
were plotting
to blow up supermarkets. In Columbus, Ohio, they were targeting
. In New York City, it was the Herald
Square subway station

Dozens and dozens of such cases have been reported over the past
decade. Virtually all of them involved Middle Eastern and South Asian
Muslims. Virtually none of the supposed plots had any chance of
happening, and many were, in fact, fueled
zealous government informers and covert agents. As with the
numerous immigration detentions and deportations in the immediate
aftermath of 9/11, much publicity surrounded announcements that violent
and deadly "jihadist" plots had been thwarted. Often, when the suspects
finally came to trial, charges and evidence amounted to something far
less ominous (and so, far less publicized).

Nevertheless, the threat, said authorities, was everywhere -- even if
it couldn't be seen.

New Administration, Old Story

Throughout this period, the number of vigilante attacks on mosques,
as well as individual Muslims, continued to rise, though these received
little press attention. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
received 602 credible Muslim civil rights complaints in 2002, 1,019 in
2003, and 1,522 in 2004.Such complaints included 42
hate crimes reported in 2002, 93 in 2003, and 141 in 2004. CAIR also
cited and described several significant acts of violence against
mosques, including bombings and arson, but did not specify the figures.

In its 2009 civil rights report, CAIR said it had processed 2,728
civil rights violations, including 721 that involved mosques or Muslim
organizations, up from 221 mosque incidents in 2006. The organization
expressed some optimism in its report, however, because there had been a
decline in the number of reported hate crimes to 116 in 2008 from 135
the previous year. Again, CAIR reported serious mosque attacks and
vandalism without separating out the figures.

It seems hardly coincidental, at this point, that when authorities
announce another incident or terror plot -- the failed effort to blow up
an SUV in Times Square in May, for instance -- random attacks on
Muslims and Muslim institutions as well quickly follow. For example, a
bomb was detonated
at a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida, shortly after the Times Square
incident. As the Lower Manhattan controversy spread in the news,
arsonists attacked
a mosque in Texas, and a church in Gainesville, Florida, announced that
it would hold a bonfire
of Qurans
on the anniversary of 9/11.

The change in presidential administrations has had no discernable
moderating effect on such passions. In fact, as if to assert its own
toughness, the Obama administration has now given its tacit blessing to
legislation introduced
in Congress late in July by Adam Schiff, a congressman from
California, that would carve out "terrorism exceptions" to
constitutionally mandated Miranda warnings. The legislation would extend
to up four days the period when law enforcement agents can question
terrorism suspects without informing them of their right to remain
silent and to receive the assistance of an attorney. If past is prelude,
such exceptions will initially have a disproportionate impact on Middle
Eastern and South Asian Muslims in America, only later spreading to
wider groups of Americans taken into custody.

Parallel to the federal law-enforcement focus on Muslims, the past
decade has witnessed a proliferation of anti-Muslim "analysts," "terror
experts," political commentators, and websites. This burgeoning
industry, focused on Muslims as virtually a fifth column seeking to take
over the country, has attracted ever more media attention, particularly
as FOX News has chronicled and promoted the rise of the Tea Party

It is in this alternate universe, after so many years of heightened
anti-Muslim sentiments
, that a Lower Manhattan prayer space
designed to promote reconciliation has
the dreaded Mosque at Ground Zero, a "monument that would
consist of a mosque for the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god," as
Mark Williams, then-chairman of a group known as the Tea Party Express,
put it.

Waiting for the Demagogue

Here we come to the real source of unease over what's now going on --
the realization that we've seen something like this developing before,
only it wasn't diaperheads and terrorism inflaming the country. It was
dirty commies and Jews then.

Sixty years ago, on February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy rose
before a Republican women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and
delivered the famous speech in which he waved a sheet of paper and claimed
that on it were the names of -- there is dispute -- 57 or 205 known
communists "working and shaping policy in the State Department." In
doing so, he put his incendiary, eponymous stamp on the most oppressive
period of the Cold War, and as it turned out, the nation was ready for
the message.

McCarthyism did not emerge on that cold day solely from the fevered
imagination of the Wisconsin senator. There had been a drumbeat of
anti-Communist red-baiting, hearings, speeches, treason charges, and
grandstanding coming from Washington for years. The House Committee on
Un-American Activities, anti-communist informer Whittaker Chambers,
ambitious congressman Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover,
President Harry Truman -- all did yeoman's work in preparing the soil
for McCarthy and his reckless accusations of "20 years of treason!"

There are some substantial differences between then and now. Most
importantly, McCarthy operated from within the political system, using
his subcommittee chairmanship as a vehicle for pseudo-investigations and
attacks. When his Senate colleagues turned on him following a
particularly reckless campaign against the U.S. Army, McCarthy was
stripped of his chairmanship and his power. A true demagogue, he had no
organization to speak of, only those who feared him and those who
followed him.

By contrast, while some extreme anti-Muslim sentiment is in evidence
in Washington, the real juice for an anti-Muslim movement is now
bubbling up outside the Beltway, much as virulent racist hysteria has,
in the past, bubbled up from the grassroots. In that regard, it's worth
noting that about a third of America's five to eight million Muslims are
African American.

Some mainstream politicians have actually tried to tamp down the
Lower Manhattan controversy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, for
instance, made numerous comments in support of the project and the
principle of freedom of religion that goes with it. Such statements
have, however, had little effect in quieting the dispute, countered as
they are by opposition not only from the fringes, but from some
mainstream Republican politicians and establishment non-governmental
organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for example, recently
came out with a statement opposing
the construction plan, despite the fact that the rest of the
opposition, the group said, exhibited elements of bigotry. It is better
to side with bigots, the ADL essentially argued, than ignore the
post-9/11 "healing process."

Because of the decentralized, grassroots nature of this anti-Muslim
movement and the accompanying hysteria, it will be no easy task to put
the mosque-at-Ground-Zero genie back in its bottle. Those who think that
the decision by the New York City Landmarks Commission to clear the way
for construction is likely to end the antagonism are undoubtedly engaged in
wishful thinking. There are virtually endless potential flashpoints
embedded along the road ahead, nor are the issue and its passions purely
dependant on what happens in Manhattan, where a recent poll
showed a majority of residents favor construction (although a majority
of all New York City residents do not).

In California, those opposed to mosque construction in Temecula were
urged to protest by rallying at the mosque with their dogs. Muslims "hate
" an unsigned email alert erroneously claimed.
Counter-demonstrators turned out. There, too, the dispute continues.
"The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don't want to
see their influence spread," Pastor Bill Rench of Temecula's Calvary
Baptist Church told
the Los Angeles Times. "There is a concern with all the
rumors you hear about sleeper cells and all that. Are we supposed to be
complacent just because these people say it's a religion of peace? Many
others have said the same thing."

In Kentucky, a fledgling controversy over a proposed mosque in
Florence, south of Cincinnati, is also spreading thanks to anonymous
communications. One unsigned protest flyer stated that
"Americans need to stop the takeover of our country, our government is
protecting us."

Such sentiments are common to virtually all anti-Muslim protests:
somehow, Muslims are taking over. Oklahoma legislators, fearing the
imposition of Islamic law in Oklahoma courts, have even asked voters to amend
the state constitution to forbid it. The government, increasing
numbers of Americans evidently believe, is passively allowing Muslim
subversion, and citizens need to defend themselves.

In Tennessee, a rancorous fight over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro
has been rife with such sentiments. Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee
Republican congressional candidate locked in a tough primary race,
denounced the mosque plan, characterized its leaders as foreign agents
with a "radical agenda," and received strong support from the Wilson
County Tea Party, a local group.

On its website, the Tea Party curtsies
to the U.S. Constitution and then quickly cuts to the chase: "But this
question must be asked based on repeated violence committed by Islamists
in the name of religion: Is Islam nothing more than a front for
terrorism?" Tennessee's lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, a Republican
candidate for governor, went out of his way last month to characterize
Islam as a "cult" which may not warrant First Amendment protection:
"You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is
it a nationality, a way of life, or a cult -- whatever you want to call

The proliferation of, and acceptance of, such talk, particularly from
major political candidates, may be preparing the American ground for
the emergence of a leader who can synthesize the demonizing and
scapegoating of Muslims, fears augmented by severe economic anxiety, the
maturing of extreme rightwing activism, and a widespread and growing
contempt for official Washington. If that happens, the nation -- and
American Muslims -- could face something far worse than McCarthy, who
held sway in a golden era of rising expectations and general economic

Mosque controversies will be the least of it then.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia
Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American
Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).

[Note on further reading: The CAIR 2005 report on
civil rights abuses with some comparative statistics can be found in
.pdf format here.
The CAIR 2009 report and statistics, also in .pdf format, can be found here.]

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