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

Human Rights

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.

In Tennessee, an elected official, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, suggested that Muslims shouldn’t be accorded the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. “Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it," he said. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, the House’s second-ranking Republican, said of the Ground Zero controversy, “America's built on the rights of free expression, the rights to practice your faith, but come on.” (Reporter Eric Kleefeld wrote that Cantor was invoking the "’come on’ exception to America's freedom of religion.”)

An Oklahoma lawmaker is pushing a ballot measure “that would prohibit courts from considering international or sharia law when deciding cases.” He said it was a "preemptive strike" against "liberal judges" who want to "undermine those founding principles" of America. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich compared the organizers of the Park 51 project in downtown Manhattan (including the imam who was sent by none other than George W. Bush to represent the United States in its outreach to the Muslim world) with the Nazis. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, a prominent figure within the religious Right, argued that “permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America” because “each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.” Just weeks after the mosque bombing in Florida, right-wing talk-radio host Michael Berry told his audience, “If you do build a mosque, I hope somebody blows it up. … I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up. And I mean that.” He added: “It’s right-wing radicals like me that are going to keep this country safe for you and everyone else.”

The results of these incessant smears are predictable. According to a poll commissioned by Time magazine, one in three Americans believes that Muslims should be barred from running for president; a similar number said they’d oppose the construction of a mosque in their own neighborhood, and almost three in 10 said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court.

According to the New York Times, “Opposition to new mosques has become almost commonplace.” During a public hearing with Muslim leaders to discuss a proposed mosque on Staten Island, miles from Manhattan, “the tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting around 11pm, prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.” The Times’ account of what happened before the cops broke up the fracas is telling. “The meeting’s single moment of hushed silence” came when a Marine who had served two tours in Afghanistan working as a mediator with local tribes took the microphone. 

After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.

Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”

The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted. 

It’s ugly, and it can only get worse as Republicans seek to “nationalize” the issue in time for the midterm elections. (According to The Hill, John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee “believes the mosque set to be built near Ground Zero in New York City will be a campaign issue this fall.”) Right-wingers have started referring to the Park 51 project as “the Obamosque.” They see fear and loathing of Islam as a potent social issue in an era when overtly racist messages invite a political backlash and gay-bashing is gaining less traction among voters. And with prominent Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada caving in to the hateful rhetoric, bigotry against American Muslims is becoming an acceptable and bipartisan affair.

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous game, not only for the American Muslim community but for U.S. national security as well. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who has interrogated several dangerous terrorists, wrote this week that “when demagogues appear to be equating Islam with terrorism” it reinforces “the message that radicalizers are selling: That the war is against Islam, and Muslims are not welcome in America.” He added: “from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.”

Fortunately, the hysteria over the Islamic center in downtown Manhattan has produced no fatal attacks to date. But as the rhetoric continues to get hotter, good people -- those who embrace American values of pluralism and religious liberty -- need to stand up to the hate and confront these views before we have a body count on our hands, not after.

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