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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Abandoned by Friends
The arguments marshaled by Islam's detractors have become familiar: Since most terrorist attacks are conducted by Muslims and in the name of their faith, Islam must be a violent creed. Passages of the Koran taken out of context are brandished as evidence that Islam requires believers to kill or convert all others. Shari'a laws requiring the stoning of adulterers or other gruesome punishments serve as proof that Muslims are savage and backward. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that Islam is a death cult, not a real religion, so constitutional freedoms don't apply to it. Religious intolerance is not limited to Islam, of course: Jews, Mormons and others still experience hate speech. But the most toxic bile is reserved for Muslims. Franklin Graham, son of Evangelical giant Billy Graham, tells TIME that Islam is "a religion of hatred. It's a religion of war." Park51 should not be allowed, he says, because Muslim worshippers will be able to walk there, and "the entire area they walk by foot they claim as Islamic territory. They will claim now that the World Trade Center property ... is Islamic land."

Those railing against new mosques also use arguments of equivalence: Saudi Arabia doesn't allow churches and synagogues, so why should the U.S. permit the building of Islamic places of worship? Never mind that the U.S. is not, like Saudi Arabia, a country with a state religion, or that America was founded on ideals of religious freedom and tolerance.

It's worth noting that wherever opposition has been nakedly anti-Islamic, it has been denounced by many Christian, Jewish and secular groups. Muslims are by no means friendless. But in recent weeks, they have felt abandoned by people they would have expected to be their staunchest allies. Prominent Democrats either have been notably silent on the Park51 controversy or, like Senator Harry Reid recently, have sided with those who think the center should be moved someplace else. Even André Carson, a Democratic Congressman from Indiana and one of two Muslims in the House, skirted questions on the location of the project, telling TIME, "That's certainly a question my friends in New York will have to hash out."

Over the weekend, Muslim hopes were first raised, then dashed, by President Obama. On Friday, Aug. 13, hosting a dinner for Muslim leaders at the White House, he eloquently defended the community's constitutional right to practice its faith — and by inference, to build their mosques where legally permitted. But the very next day, Obama added a rider: he was not, he clarified, commenting on the "wisdom of making the decision to put the mosque there." A White House official explains the Saturday restatement by saying, "There's a reason the President rarely makes the tactical decision to speak" with reporters in impromptu media gaggles.

Even from the distance and relative safety of Dearborn, Muslims expressed alarm at the explosion of bile over Park51. A heated discussion broke out among customers at a bakery on Aug. 11, the start of the fasting month of Ramadan. Some argued that the Park51 project should be scrapped, lest it inflame anti-Muslim sentiment; others said backing down would be a mistake. "If they don't build it, they will be agreeing with those who say Muslims are not proper Americans," said Sami, a recent Iraqi immigrant who would give only his first name. "If that's the case, I might as well go back to Baghdad, because I will never be accepted here."

In Dearborn and elsewhere, many American Muslims are especially distressed by the demonization of Rauf, one of the country's foremost practitioners of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam reviled by extremists like Osama bin Laden. "It demonstrates that this is not about distinguishing good from bad, extreme from moderate," says Saeed Khan, who lectures on ethnic-identity politics and the Muslim diaspora at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Muslims are being subjected to a broader brush as a community." In reality, the U.S. has probably the most diverse Muslim population of any country: American Muslims represent practically every race and sect, even those regarded by many Islamic states as heretical.

Why has Islamophobia suddenly intensified? Some Muslim Americans argue it hasn't: these sentiments have existed for years. Others say there have been peaks and troughs since 9/11. Muslim-American commentator Iftikhar recalls the "first wave" of anti-Muslim outbursts after the terrorist attacks, when leading Christian figures like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell openly questioned whether Islam was a religion at all and labeled the Prophet Muhammad a robber, brigand and terrorist. Political leaders were hardly more circumspect. Saxby Chambliss, then a Representative from Georgia (now a Senator), said his state should "arrest every Muslim that comes across the state line," though he later apologized for the remark.

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