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The Far-Right's Anti-Mosque Mania Spreads from Ground Zero to Across the U.S., Pointing to Dark Politics Ahead

The phony 'debate' over the construction of an Islamic cultural center near the former World Trade Center portends darker things to come.

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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 announced.

The FBI began toting up 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 malls. 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 by 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. 

 
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