Islamophobia: Does America Have a Muslim Problem?

American Islamophobia: At least six mosque projects across the U.S., not just in New York, have faced bitter opposition this year

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James Nachtwey for TIME

Prayer during Ramadan in the controversial mosque near Ground Zero

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The controversy, meanwhile, has brought new scrutiny to other examples of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim protests across the country, raising larger questions: Does the U.S. have a problem with Islam? Have the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — and the other attempts since — permanently excluded Muslims from full assimilation into American life?

Muslims and Mosques in the West
Muslim Americans need no convincing. The Park51 uproar, says Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, "is part of a pattern of intolerance" against Muslims that has existed since 9/11 but has deepened in the past few years. Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there's no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. "Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America," says Muslim-American writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar. "You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it."

There's reason to think that the sentiments expressed in lower Manhattan and in Sheboygan County are not isolated. A new TIME — Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn't approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are a minority: there's no American equivalent of France's ban on the burqa or Switzerland's new law against building minarets. Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country's first Muslim college will formally open its doors in Berkeley, Calif. Zaytuna College's motto: "Where Islam Meets America."

But where ordinary Americans meet Islam, there is evidence that suspicion and hostility are growing. To be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country's most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there's no-one in Europe with the stature of a former House Speaker who seemed to equate Islam with Nazism, as Gingrich did recently. "The core argument emerging from [the anti-mosque protests] is that Muslims are not and can never be full Americans," says Eboo Patel, an American Muslim on Obama's advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.

It makes sense that the most heated encounters take place over mosques. Since America's Muslim population tends to be much more diffusely scattered than Europe's (with the exception of concentrations in cities like Dearborn, Mich.), places of worship are often the most tangible targets for hatred. And there are suddenly many more of them than before. According to Ihsan Bagby, an Islamic-studies professor at the University of Kentucky, there are now 1,900 mosques in the U.S., up from about 1,200 in 2001. Many of these are little more than makeshift prayer rooms in shops and offices; when Muslim groups set out to build formal mosques, they become more exposed and vulnerable.

This year, at least six mosque projects across the U.S. have faced bitter opposition. In Temecula, Calif., a group in July brought dogs to a protest where Muslims were praying, knowing full well that the animals are regarded as unclean in Islam. And the rage against Muslims is by no means limited to proposed mosques. In Gainesville, Fla., a pastor has announced plans to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, arguing that Jesus would burn the Koran because "it's not holy." Groups calling themselves the Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop the Islamization of America have sponsored advertisements offering Muslims a "safe" way to give up Islam — the sort of exhortation directed at Jews and Roman Catholics in generations past.

But perhaps the most vicious attacks take place online, where extreme bigotry can easily metastasize. Bloggers like Pamela Geller, a New Yorker who runs the website Atlas Shrugs, played a pivotal role in making Park51 a national issue even after mainstream conservative commentators had given it a thumbs-up. In December, Laura Ingraham, sitting in for Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, interviewed Daisy Khan and ended the segment by telling her, "I like what you're trying to do." Geller, however, mounted a concerted campaign against the center. "This is Islamic domination and expansionism," she wrote. "The location is no accident — just as al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem." Eventually other bloggers picked up the thread, and the campaign went viral.

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