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

  • James Nachtwey for TIME

    Prayer during Ramadan in the controversial mosque near Ground Zero

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    The venom was diluted by President George W. Bush. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Bush visited an Islamic center in Washington and declared that there would be no reprisals against Muslims. Islam, he said, was a religion of peace. The message was reinforced by top Administration officials like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. While Bush's credibility with American Muslims would eventually be blighted by the war in Iraq and the attendant death of tens of thousands of Muslims there, some commentators give him credit for reining in Islamophobes. Patel says, "Bush was very strong [in defending Islam] on the domestic front." Like Obama after him, Bush repeatedly drew sharp distinctions between the extremist, violent interpretation of Islam by followers of bin Laden and its peaceful majority. (Bush has declined requests, including from TIME, to comment on Park51.) But by the tail end of his Administration, some Republican groups were already breaking away from the White House line. One unexpected watershed moment was the 2007 release of the Pew Research Center report Muslim Americans, still the most comprehensive survey of the community, which estimated the Muslim-American population at 2.35 million. It was the first definitive number and was much smaller than previous estimates, which ranged from 6 million to 8 million. One consequence of the reduced estimate, says Wayne State's Khan, was that it made the community much more vulnerable to political attack. "It put the metaphorical chum in the water," he says. "It signaled to people that Muslims were a very small group and didn't need to be taken seriously."

    Then came the attempt to portray Obama as a closet Muslim during the 2008 presidential campaign, which brought anti-Islamic rhetoric onto the political stage, marking a break from the Bush years. (Remarkably, according to TIME's poll, nearly a quarter of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim.) Since becoming President, Obama has made it a priority to improve the country's image in the eyes of the Islamic world.

    His outreach to American Muslims has been much quieter. Unlike Bush, Obama has not yet visited a mosque in the U.S. Attitudes toward Islam have worsened perceptibly in the past two years, perhaps because of a string of terrorism-related incidents involving American Muslims like the accused Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Sami, the Iraqi immigrant in Dearborn, says he noticed a change in his neighbors' attitude after the Times Square incident. "Two days later, I was loading some bags in my car, and one guy comes over and looks over my shoulder," he recalls. "I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew what he was thinking."

    The concern now is that the mosque protests and the attention they have drawn from politicians may have brought Islamophobia firmly into the mainstream. "It may have become a permanent political wedge issue," says Iftikhar. So far, the Muslim-American community's response has gone little beyond hand-wringing. It has historically had trouble presenting a united front: divisions abound along both racial and linguistic lines, and the community has no obvious leaders.

    In the meantime, some worry that growing resentment against Islam will discourage Muslims, especially young ones, from assimilating into the wider society. "When you have a leading politician equating Islam to Nazism, you can imagine that a 17-year-old Muslim in Virginia is thinking, Oh, my God, these people are totally against my religion," says Duke's Moosa.

    For Iftikhar, the community's best chance now is to appeal to Americans' sense of justice and fair play. And such appeals can work. In Wilson, the town's executive council eventually ruled in Mirza's favor, and the Islamic Society of Sheboygan has converted a building on his property into a mosque. The Muslim community has already elected an imam, Mohammed Hamad. But it took a tragedy to bring Muslims and non-Muslims closer together. In June, Sofia Khan, a Muslim girl from Chicago, disappeared in Lake Michigan near Oostburg while on vacation with her family. Rita Harmeling, a local woman from a church that had opposed the mosque, called the imam and asked him to minister to the grieving Khan family. Later Harmeling helped volunteers and rescue workers who tried to find the girl. Soon, other residents opened their homes to the Khans. A neighbor of the mosque offered the use of his front yard for the girl's family to gather.

    In Sheboygan County, the good old-fashioned American sense of community came through for Mirza, Hamad and the Khans. But when it comes to Muslims and Islam, America's better angels are not always so accommodating.

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