Alongside the unfolding of attacks upon the proposed Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan, as well as the attacks on other proposed Muslim community centers and mosques throughout the U.S. in recent months, comes the news that a growing number of Americans (especially conservative Republicans) believe that President Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim.”
In the face of all this, it is hard not to conclude that, as Alex Pareene has recently put it, for many Americans, “Muslim” has come to mean “someone they dislike.”
In this frightening and depressing context, the only dim ray of hope has come from the fact that the very visibility of the controversy over Park51, and the level of bigotry that has become more and more open in the rhetoric of those opposed to the project (on view in a video that shows “anti-mosque” protesters doing their best imitation of a lynch mob and nearly attacking an African-American carpenter who works at the Ground Zero site), has led to a new focus on the problem of Islamophobia in America. Even sources as unlikely as Time magazine have been forced to ask the question: Is America Islamophobic?
Of course, given the tide of Islamophobia faced by Muslim communities in the United States since September 2001, including the targeting of innocent members of these communities by federal, state, and local law enforcement, this is a conversation that should have happened long ago. But now that it has begun, we must make certain that it outlasts the current news cycle and remains a true national conversation.
Needless to say, the same forces that have unleashed the current wave of Islamophobia have been quick to dismiss it as such. MediaMatters has usefully documented attempts by right-wing commentators, as well as members of the mainstream media, to deny that Islamophobia is on the rise; the same article documents a long list of anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamophobic actions that have occurred throughout the country in recent weeks. As more acts of violence and hatred, such as the recent attack upon New York City taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, the desecration (to say the least) of a mosque in Queens by a man who accused worshippers of being terrorists, and the targeting of the future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee by arsonists, no doubt these same commentators will describe them as “unrelated” and “isolated” incidents, not indicators of the anti-Muslim sentiments that these commentators have themselves helped to unleash.
In the case of the Park51 project, this refusal to acknowledge a deep-seated and pernicious Islamophobia in the rhetoric of those opposed to the project has taken on a particular, and particularly sinister, form, one that must be directly named and confronted. This has to do with the claim that “anti-mosque” sentiment is not an expression of anti-Muslim bigotry, but rather represents a call for “sensitivity” to those who died on September 11, 2001. As William Saletan has noted, as the other arguments against Park51 have been debunked, this argument in terms of “sensitivity” has become the last refuge for Park51’s opponents. Accordingly, this point has been repeated ad infinitum in recent days.
For those of us who support the Park 51 project and oppose Islamophobia, this has been the most difficult claim to counter. The dubious “facts” cited by opponents can be (and have been) countered; shameless parallels to Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor can be subjected to the ridicule they deserve; naked bigotry can be exposed and denounced. The appeal to “sensitivity” appears to be a more difficult thing to refute.
But we should be clear: the demand for “sensitivity” is in fact the greatest bigotry of all. For what those who make this demand are really saying is this: the presence of anything or anyone having anything to do with Islam or Muslims, in any sort of proximity to Ground Zero, is an affront to those who died there, including those victims who were themselves Muslims. Not just the Park51 project but the very presence of anything or anyone labeled as “Muslim” somehow “dishonors the dead.”
In other words, the true insensitivity is not in the Park51 project; it is in the Islamophobia of the project’s opponents, disguised as a request for sensitivity.
This will be a hard case to make, much harder than simply countering the misinformation and outright lies that have been circulated by the project’s opponents. It will be particularly difficult, since increasingly, it will involve not just denouncing demagogues like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, or exposing the blatant racism of right-wing bloggers such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, but addressing the individual beliefs of neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
To give one example of how this argument for sensitivity gets deployed as part of what we might call an “anti-anti-Islamophobia” strategy: on Thursday, Fox TV’s local morning show Good Day New York featured what it advertised as a debate between Tahir Butt, a member of the NYC Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, and Andy Sullivan, a right-wing blogger who has called upon fellow construction workers to take a pledge not to work on what he describes as “the site of the proposed Ground Zero Mosque”.
The questions that were immediately put to the representative of the Coalition to Stop Islamophobia are ones that those of us working against Islamophobia should expect to face more and more in the coming days: Are you saying that anyone who is opposed to the Park51 project is a racist? Are you saying that the majority of New Yorkers, and the majority of Americans, are Islamophobes?
And then, as it did on Good Day New York, we should expect it to get more personal: Are you saying Andy here is a bigot?
We can expect some of the national figures who have played such a major role in stoking this new Islamophobia to distance themselves from the controversy in the coming weeks (for example, Gingrich has backed out of a scheduled appearance at an “anti-mosque” rally planned for September 11); in any case, they have already inflicted the political damage that was their goal. So it is likely that the media will be turning more and more frequently to the views of so-called “average Americans” such as Sullivan.
In some cases, these very claims to “averageness” are spurious and will need to be challenged. In the case of Sullivan, for example, while it has been strongly implied that he is essentially a construction worker who became politically active only because he is so outraged at the Park51 project, he is actually a seasoned right-wing blogger who has been writing posts (mostly anti-Obama attacks on issues such as health care reform, the economic stimulus package, tax proposals, and the handling of the Gulf oil spill) since early 2009, on his current blog as well as an earlier one. He also identifies in a recent post as a member of the Tea Party.
Of course, Sullivan has a right to write what he likes on his blog and to be part of whatever party he chooses, but all this suggests that it is disingenuous, to say the least, to present him as the representative of some sort of spontaneous hardhat/working class movement against the Park51 project. Sullivan has also specifically endorsed the extremist anti-Muslim views of Pamela Geller, calling her “well schooled on the Koran and the history and traditions of Islam”. This definitely puts his statement that he has “nothing against Muslims in general” in a very different light.
But again, in countering this new Islamophobia, we cannot simply rely on our well-honed ability to produce information and expose false claims. We will still be faced with the “sensitivity” question. And we will still, at the end of the day, have to face the very specific question that will be asked of us by specific individuals: “Are you calling me a racist?”
Listening to Sullivan expressing, in his strong Brooklyn-working-class accent, his feelings of grief and anger at the September 11 attacks, and his concomitant call for those who support the Park51 center to be “sensitive” to these feelings, I realized that I could have been hearing the words of certain members of my extended family, of some of my neighbors, of some of my students and co-workers. These are the people we will need to address, patiently and tirelessly, long after the national media has moved on to the next trumped-up “controversy,” and long after the political opportunists have found another platform for their rancor.
We need to be clear that the term “Islamophobia” is not something that is being brandished for political ends. It is not about demonizing people who hold views we disagree with. It is about challenging the larger political and intellectual climate that has made it acceptable to engage in blatant stereotyping, blanket accusations, smear campaigns based on guilt by association, and expressions of outright racism. It is about a discourse that has knowingly and intentionally fostered an environment that can only lead to more hate crimes and violent incidents. It is also about revealing the deep-seated bigotry that underwrites the claims made by opponents of Park51, as well as those opposed to other proposed mosques and cultural centers throughout the country.
The hate crime of stabbing a taxi driver because he identifies himself as Muslim is a clear expression of Islamophobia. Urinating on a prayer rug in a mosque while shouting “Terrorists!” is a clear expression of Islamophobia. Holding up a sign with a picture of a toilet and the words “This is a mosque,” as an “anti-Ground Zero Mosque” protester did at a recent rally, is a clear expression of Islamophobia. Claiming that the Park51 project “would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god,” in the words of Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, is a clear expression of Islamophobia.
But the demand that the Muslim community not exercise its rights to free speech and religious freedom out of “sensitivity” to those who died on September 11, 2001 is also a clear expression of Islamophobia. The “sensitivity” argument is not equivalent to the more violent expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry, but it is clearly related. It relies on linking those who have initiated the Park51 project with those who carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001. It implicitly or explicitly links all Muslims to terrorists and terrorism. And most blatantly of all, it relies on the argument that the mere presence of anything or anyone identified as “Muslim” near the site of the attacks somehow “dishonors the dead.”
We need to be clear, both in the short-term struggle around the Park51 project, and also in the longer struggle against anti-Muslim bigotry: All those who have played a role in encouraging and supporting the current climate of virulent Islamophobia share some of the responsibility for the hate crimes and violent incidents that have come in its wake. If Islamophobia, in all its forms, is allowed to go unchallenged, we will see more such violence against our neighbors. The only way to stop this is to identify and oppose anti-Muslim bigotry in all its forms, even (especially) when it is Islamophobia posing as sensitivity.