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Fallout of Hate Is Spreading Across America from "Ground Zero"

The hysteria over a planned Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan is only the tip of the iceberg.
 
 
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Scientists building the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos referred to the coordinates where a test device was detonated as “point zero.” When the horror of nuclear warfare was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the term “Ground Zero” entered our lexicon. The expression has come to mean the epicenter of a catastrophic event, be it a nuclear detonation, a disease epidemic or an earthquake. It is the point from which damage spreads, whether it’s radioactive fallout or a deadly contagion.

That the site of the World Trade Center has come to be known as Ground Zero illustrates how the American public has come to fetishize the attacks of 9/11. It’s not an apt analog for the physical destruction that resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center. But it is an appropriate metaphor for the virulent and socially acceptable bigotry against Muslim Americans that has radiated out from Ground Zero and spread across the United States.

One thing is clear: the feverish discourse about Muslims’ role in American society is not about the proposal to build an Islamic community center a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site. Park 51, as it’s being called, merely let an ugly genie out of the bottle. The dark stain of Islamophobia had spread far and wide long before the controversy erupted.

In May, a man walked into the Jacksonville Islamic Center in Northeast Florida during evening prayers and detonated a pipebomb. Fortunately, there were no injuries. (If the man had been Muslim and the House of worship a Christian church, the incident would have garnered wall-to-wall coverage, but while the story got plenty of local press it was ignored by CBS News, Fox, CNN and MSNBC.)

It was the most serious of a series of incidents in which mosques far from the supposedly hallowed earth of Ground Zero have been targeted. A mosque in Miami, Florida, was sprayed with gunfire last year. Mosques have been vandalized or set aflame in Brownstown, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Arlington, Texas (where the mosque was first vandalized and then later targeted by arsonists); Taylor, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; and in both Northern and Southern California. A mosque in a suburb of Chicago has been vandalized four times in recent years.

In May, an Arab man was brutally beaten in broad daylight in New York by four young men. According to the victim’s nephew, "They used the bad word. 'The mother bleeping Muslim, go back to your country.' They started beating him and after that he don't know what happened.” A Muslim woman in Chicago was assaulted by another woman who took offense at her headscarf. A Muslim teacher in Florida was sent a white powdery substance in the mail. In San Diego, a man in his 50s became so incensed by the sight of an American of Afghan descent praying that he assaulted him after screaming, “You idiot, you mother f**ker, go back to where you came from."

The perpetrators of these hate crimes are clearly unhinged, but they’re not operating in a vacuum. They’re being whipped into a frenzy by cynical fearmongers on the Right. Writing for Tablet magazine, Daniel Luban astutely calls the dark spread of Islamophobia, “the new Anti-Semitism.”

Many of the tropes of classic anti-Semitism have been revived and given new force on the American right. Once again jingoistic politicians and commentators posit a religious conspiracy breeding within Western society, pledging allegiance to an alien power, conspiring with allies at the highest levels of government to overturn the existing order. Because the propagators of these conspiracy theories are not anti-Semitic but militantly pro-Israel, and because their targets are not Jews but Muslims, the ADL and other Jewish groups have had little to say about them. But since the election of President Barack Obama, this Islamophobic discourse has rapidly intensified.

 
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