It was late afternoon on Dec. 20, 2009, in Henderson. A group of seven men pulled their minivan into a parking lot for sunset prayers. Unknown to them, they were being watched. The watcher called the police to report that a group of men were kissing the ground. Based on this alarming report, police officers were sent to the scene. From the subsequent police report, they apparently arrived after the prayer and watched from a distance for a few minutes (“1 HAS PAPERS COMING OUT OF A BACK POCKET”).
Confronted by police, one of the men recorded the event on his cell phone.
“We don’t [have] you at gunpoint,” one of the officers said. “We’re not going to throw you down on the ground or handcuff you right now. We just want to make sure that you guys are good people.”
“We are praying,” one of the men replied. “You know, this is a Muslim prayer. Is that enough for you to say that this is suspicious activity?”
“Well, that’s why I’m checking it out,” the officer replied.
“Do you think it is?” the Muslim man asked.
“I think there’s somebody out there that called us and said, ‘Hey check this out,’” the officer said. “Did I see you guys praying? No. Do I know what you were saying? I don’t know if you guys repeat the same thing, or if you’re actually over there saying, ‘I hope that I kill a police officer today.’ I don’t know that you’re not saying that.”
After about 45 minutes, the incident ended with no arrests or citations. The men later filed a complaint.
But there was an ominous consequence, according to the police report: “NOTIFY FBI TERRORIST SCREENING CENTER.” So somewhere in a federal databank, presumably, there is a little record on the men.
We have become accustomed to such incidents. But they didn’t start on September 11, 2001.
In the 1990s, Gene Paslov—then Nevada’s superintendent of schools—asked me to speak at a class in Education Leadership he was teaching at the University of Nevada. I’m not sure how we got onto the subject, but in discussing news coverage of minorities, I talked about how troubled I was by the reports I had seen becoming more common in recent years on abuse of Arabs, Arab Americans, and Islam. The term Arab seemed to have become a synonym for all kinds of undesirable things. And there were frequent physical attacks on Islamic worshipers and their mosques. The students were responsive. They were concerned, too.
U.S. Christians in those years tormented Muslims as assiduously as reporters and politicians slandered them. Arab-Americans were profiled and harassed by customs inspectors and police. A Palestinian was in a federal jail in Florida for years without being charged with anything. Disney used nasty anti-Arab song lyrics. Christians from Oral Roberts University intruded on a Tulsa mosque during Ramadan to put their hands on the doors and walls and pray for the conversion of the worshipers inside. Two Denver DJs burst into a mosque to play the “Star Spangled Banner” on a bugle and trumpet in a live broadcast. Hillary Clinton accepted campaign money from all kinds of sleazy sources but rejected it from Muslim leaders. We can be sure that incidents like these received full attention in the news columns of newspapers in Islamic nations.
Imagine that anti-Jewish lyrics, the invasion of synagogues, Jews being profiled and harassed, a Jew being locked up and the key thrown away had been at issue.
Politicians were no help, of course. In 1995, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. Within minutes, the Clinton administration sent Arab translators there, a gesture which, when publicized, made targets of people like the pregnant refugee from Iraq who was terrorized that day at her Oklahoma City home. Projectiles crashed through her window. The woman rushed her children into the bathroom. While she hid there with them, she began bleeding and felt a terrific pain. She miscarried. There were similar incidents across the country. President Clinton never apologized, nor did any of the broadcast reporters who started using the terms Arab and bombing in the same conjectural sentences before the dust settled around the federal building.
In 1996, when—during a two-week period—both TWA Flight 800 went down and a bomb was planted and exploded at the Atlanta Olympics, the New York Times did a story calling attention to the fact that very few people blamed Muslims. Islam-bashing had become so common that a lack of it had become news!
All this was before September 11. For generations, Muslims in the United States had been disdained and abused, though Thomas Jefferson helped write a Virginia religious freedom law specifically designed to protect “Mahometans” (Muslims) and other faiths along with Christians.
By 2001, the problem was still very much with us, as Sparks learned. On March 16, after the Northern Nevada Muslim Community Center received two telephoned threats—one of which said the mosque teaches “filth”—two worshippers at the center were attacked by several assailants, one of them wielding a baseball bat. One man’s arm was broken, the other was so badly injured he had to stop practicing medicine. It was initially characterized as a hate crime by police, who made two arrests and then said it was not a hate crime.
“To state categorically that it is not a hate crime is not something the community is buying,” said center trustee Tariq Kuraishy. “When you rob somebody and take their wallet, you don’t keep beating them to death.”
A few days later I ran a column in the Sparks Tribune calling attention to the frequency of anti-Arab, anti-Arab American and anti-Islam incidents and the underlying bigotry involved. I quoted Southern Illinois University mass communications professor Jack Shaheen:
“Today’s Arab stereotype parallels the image of Jews in pre-Nazi Germany, where Jews were painted as dark, shifty-eyed, venal, and threateningly different people. After the Holocaust, the characterization of Jews as murderous anarchists or greedy financiers was no longer tolerable. Many cartoonists, however, reincarnated this caricature and transferred it to another group of Semites, the Arabs. Only now it wears a robe and headdress instead of a yarmulke and a Star of David.”
September 11 was 24 weeks away.
The tragedies on that day legitimized the free floating anti-Arab sentiments that already characterized U.S. society, fed by ignorance of “experts” about Islamic doctrine and the Quran.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy, was first off the mark, calling Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Later, Graham projected the views of Muslim extremists onto all Muslims: “True Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries.”
Rusty Humphries, a Reno radio host who was almost hysterical on September 11, called that day for turning the Middle East into a “sheet of glass,” perhaps the most extreme example of holding all Muslims responsible for Muslim extremists (to say nothing of what it would mean for Israel).
In the climate of opinion after September 11, of course, it was unsurprising that Muslims were lightning rods for rage, and those who already hated or feared Islam were quick to exploit that feeling. No one knew that better than George W. Bush.
Bush said early and often that Islam and its followers were not responsible, that the actions of the hijackers were not representative of the faith.
“Islam is peace,” he said.
“Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim,” he said. “We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.”
He called Islam “a faith based upon peace and love and compassion” that promoted “morality and learning and tolerance.”
For his trouble, conservatives repeatedly denounced him—mainstream conservatives with respect, others venomously.
Conservative leader Paul Weyrich responded: “I have had much good to say about President Bush in recent months. But one thing that concerned me before September 11th and concerns me even more now is his administration’s constant promotion of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance just like Judaism or Christianity. It is neither.”
“Why would our President, supposedly a Christ-fearing man, deliberately mislead the American people?” asked one anti-Arab website. “He knows history and has all the intelligence resources of our government at his disposal; why would he deliberately lie?”
Whatever explicable reaction there was to September 11, it has endured for 10 years, built on a base of decades of Muslim-bashing. “But, of course, it was not so simple,” Richard Goodwin wrote of the 1960 battle against anti-Catholic prejudice. “Neither reason nor honest passion could overcome fears rooted in childhood, absorbed from parents and neighbors who had themselves been shaped by the folk wisdom of earlier generations.”
Islam haters like to select the most objectionable Quran texts to discredit Islam, akin to the way critics of Christianity cherry-pick the Bible for the worst verses.
But the texts produced by the Islam haters are themselves toxic. Anders Breivik, accused of 77 July murders on an island in Norway, cited prominent U.S. anti-Muslim activists and their writings among his inspirations.
Hatred of Islam has become more than just a prejudice. It has become something even more dangerous—an industry. Journalist Chris Hedges reports, “Right-wing radio and cable news, including Christian radio and television, along with websites such as Jihad Watch and FrontPage, spew toxic filth about Muslims over the airwaves and the internet. But perhaps most ominously—as pointed out in ‘Manufacturing the Muslim Menace,’ a report by Political Research Associates—a cadre of right-wing institutions that peddle themselves as counterterrorism specialists and experts on the Muslim world has been indoctrinating thousands of police, intelligence and military personnel in nationwide seminars.’” Funding for these programs is often tax dollars.
Fear of Islam is big business, and entrepreneurs have—or encourage—lots of helpers.
At Mattress Firm in St. Louis, Syeeda Hussaini was refused service while accompanied by her husband and children.
Aissatou Diallo, a 56-year-old woman in New York City, was attacked by two women, her clothes were torn off and she was called a “fucking terrorist.”
In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, “Go home sand nigger” and two swastikas were painted on real estate developer Haitham Joudeh’s truck.
In Eureka, Calif., a gas station attendant of East Indian descent was assaulted by men who called him a “jihadist.”
When the Hawaii Legislature adopted a ceremonial “Islam Day” resolution honoring “the rich religious, scientific, cultural and artistic contributions” of Muslims, the state’s tourism authority received emails threatening a boycott.
U.S. Rep. Peter King held hearings on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”
At a Gresham, Ill., branch of Citibank a security guard was accused of telling a customer that Citibank policy did not allow customers with head coverings to transact business, the guard then telling another bank employee that permitting the woman to be served would encourage more of “them” to come into the bank.
In New Jersey, Judge Sohail Mohammed’s tenure was challenged by conservatives who claimed he was linked to groups they considered extremist.
In Los Angeles, a cab driver who arrived at a cigar lounge in response to a phoned summons was allegedly confronted by a man who identified himself as the owner. He reportedly told the driver, “I am a Marine officer. Fuck you.” Three men then came out of the lounge and shoved the driver around, making nasty comments: “We’re going to fuck you up like we fucked up your country.”
At a gathering in Dallas, evangelist Benny Hinn told an audience of clergymembers—who applauded—that “We are on God’s side. This is not a war between Arabs and Jews. It’s a war between God and the devil.”
A highway sign that told drivers the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was responsible for tending a section of highway was vandalized to cover up the word Islamic.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said he would be uncomfortable appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet if elected.
Masjid Al Emaan, a Sacramento mosque, was burned in a fire that was later found to be arson.
Crimes against Muslims happen in the United States every day—day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year—before and after September 11.
William F. Buckley Jr. believed “making distinctions” is an important part of public dialogue. There is little of that in the debate over Islam.
While some objected to the Hawaiian resolution on church/state separation grounds, more opposition came from those unwilling to distinguish among peaceful and violent Muslims. “I recall radical Islamists around the world cheering the horrors of 9/11,” said Republican Sen. Fred Hemmings. Was it not possible for a Hawaiian senator to distinguish between Muslims in his district and those who cheered?
Over the 10 years since September 11, there have been occasional signs that the public was coming to an understanding of the nuances of Islam. An Ipsos-Reid opinion survey reported that 56 percent of those polled said they were becoming more comfortable with Muslims. One sobering 2010 Gallup survey indicated that the “strongest predictor of prejudice against Muslims is whether a person holds similar feelings about Jews.
But it is fragile. News events trigger shifts in sentiment. After Osama bin Laden was killed anti-Muslim crimes rose. A prejudice that existed before September 11 could not be easily purged after being reinforced by that terrible day.
Laws like hate crime statutes are no answer—making opinion criminal creates more problems, not fewer. What will make a difference is our making this behavior socially unacceptable. I remember a colleague in a Reno television newsroom who referred to Arabs as “towel heads.” Some of us ignored him, some laughed. None of us objected. We probably feared making a scene or being called politically correct. When those Tulsa students went back on campus or home, did their friends, family members, and fellow Christians fault their behavior? Why did Hillary Clinton’s fellow Democratic leaders remain silent about her bigotry?
The greatest concern should be that growing meanspiritedness and indifference to each other in our society indicates something fundamental changing in the United States. On the notion that the United States is as much an idea as a nation, Goodwin wrote, “It has provided us with a sense of shared worth and social purpose. Even our most unholy departures have sought justification in that idea. We may have had warlike majorities, destructive majorities, or greedy majorities, but we have never had a majority of cynics. At least until now.”
Jewish leaders have been outspoken in denunciation of anti-Muslim sentiments, Christian leaders less so. Ethicist Peter Wehner: “But what is discouraging is how few GOP lawmakers and conservative voices have been willing to confront it.” Both sets of voices are needed.
The power of example is one of the best weapons. When a Florida pastor threatened to burn a Quran, attracting wide publicity, Utah Presbyterians distributed $600 worth of copies of the Quran with the inscription, “This book was donated by the leaders of Wasatch Presbyterian Church, who are not afraid of truth wherever it can be found.”
After vandalism and threats against Springfield, Missouri’s Islamic Center, city officials and members of other faiths joined a weekend rally in support of their neighbors.
When New Jersey’s Judge Mohammed was criticized for his associations, Gov. Chris Christie said, “And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background. This Sharia law business is crap.”
When Rep. King was planning his “radicalization” hearings, more than 50 prominent organizations called on him to examine extremism “in all its forms,” not just in Islam.
In Lake Forest, Calif., Mormon and Islamic teens this month worked together collecting more than 5,000 pounds of food for the needy.
Such heartening events are fewer than the seemingly endless crimes committed against Muslims, but they inspire nonetheless.
Perhaps it is because both Jews and Arabs are victimized by prejudice in the United States that they have found ways to work together. In 1999 in Los Angeles, 85 rabbis and Muslim leaders negotiated and signed a code of conduct they would thenceforth follow in their dealings with each other. It assumed there would in the future be points of conflict, but it got out in front of those disagreements by providing a way to interact when the conflicts came. It called for both sides to meet regularly, refrain from violent rhetoric, resist prejudice. This understanding means they don’t have to agree, but they will try to deal with each other with respect. They show us the way.
Muhammad: “Be gentle and calm … because God likes gentleness in all affairs.”
The Quran: “Do not use God’s name in your oaths as an excuse to prevent you from dealing justly, guarding against evil and making peace between people.”