The anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is always a time for solemn pause. Memorializing that tragic day by reflecting on the lives lost and others changed forever is appropriate and necessary and respectful.
This year, though, the country’s remembrance comes at a time of great discord and mistrust between many Americans and their Muslim neighbors. In recent weeks, attacks on members of the Islamic faith — including mosque arsons, assaults, Congressional witch hunts, and anti-Sharia convulsions — have signaled the recurrence of a metastasizing social cancer that is eating away the pluralistic fabric of America.
Out of our collective national heartbreak, a sustained climate of hate has burgeoned and that is the wrong response to the losses suffered.
While it is normal to still feel the pain inflicted by the merciless and misguided terrorists that, more than a decade ago, carried out their unthinkable deed, the wounds of that time have not healed. They have worsened. Instead of emerging from the darkness as a nation just as united in its determination to combat terrorism as in its commitment to unify a hurting population, the passing years have only witnessed more fracture as suspicion, anger and prejudice directed at American Muslims has grown and manifested itself in ugly and un-American ways.
Last year, in one of the most recent studies to date, the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that nearly half of all Americans believe that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values. The same percentage also reported that they would be uncomfortable with a mosque being built in their neighborhood and forty-one percent admitted they would be uncomfortable if a teacher at the elementary school in their community were Muslim.
Growing anti-Muslim sentiment has real consequences. In 2010, the FBI reported a 50 percent spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes, the last year for which data of that type is available. This year has undoubtedly witnessed a bump as well. During Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting for Muslims, eight attacks on mosques were carried out in a period of just eleven days. One cemetery was destroyed, a homemade bomb was detonated, and pig parts — an animal considered by Muslims to be unclean — were strewn about their houses of worship. Instead of celebrating their religious holiday in peace, a cloud of panic and fear hovered above their festivities.
Americans are better than that. The problem is that we’ve been listening to the wrong voices for too long — voices that agitate and exacerbate anxieties and prey on heightened emotions brought about by national tragedies. An overabundance of pseudo-scholars, professed terrorism experts, and ideologically driven activists and religious leaders have long monopolized the national discourse about Islam and turned Muslim-bashing into a lucrative cottage industry.
American blogger Robert Spencer, who the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group leader, is among the most prominent voices opposing an improved relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. His popular website presents an off balanced view of Islam, offering dozens of sensational and violent headlines about violence carried out by Muslims each day. His books regularly appear atop bestseller lists and until just recently were used by the FBI and other law enforcement institutions to train new recruits.
Spencer’s colleague, Pamela Geller, is also a rising star in the Islamophobia industry. In 2010, she single-handedly ignited a firestorm over the Park 51 Islamic Community Center by injecting the “Ground Zero Mosque” meme into an otherwise balanced conversation. In addition to waging a culture war against such cartoonish threats as “stealth jihad,” “creeping Sharia,” and “high-school prom jihad,” her latest metropolitan bus advertisements in New York and San Francisco equate the Palestinian cause with holy war.
Geller and Spencer’s legal counsel, Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan official who heads the Center for Security Policy, was behind Michele Bachman’s recent accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating Congress. Gaffney once served as an advisor to Bachman and regularly travels the country proclaiming, with the same loose evidence used by the Minnesota Congresswoman, that Islamic law will soon usurp the Constitution.
This fear mongering has even gone global. The writings of Spencer, Geller, and Gaffney appeared in the manifesto of the Norwegian killer, Anders Breivik, who digested their ominous warnings of Muslim violence and concluded that the only logical response was the slaughter of 77 people he blamed for the supposed Islamic takeover of Europe.
And this week, as Americans remember the anniversary of Sept., 11, Spencer and Geller will host an international conference in New York aimed at stopping the “Islamization of nations.”
To reach our true potential as a nation, we must recognize the power of our multiculturalism. The voices of intolerance that wish to divide us along religious lines must be drowned out by overwhelming calls for pluralism and co-existence. Marginalizing Muslims is not the answer. They are an integral and beautiful part of our country’s character just as they are an important part of the solution to the challenges that face this great land.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post on September 11, 2012.