What shocks me more than anything about the mosque debate is that being a Muslim in the US is not as "normal" as I once took it to be. After all, I lived in the US for about five years, both in the Midwest and on the East Coast, both before and after September 11. My faith was pretty much never an issue in any of my dealings with non-Muslim Americans. The sense I got from my stay there was that, unlike the current climate in Western Europe, where being a Muslim automatically places you in the "dodgy" category for a large chunk of the population, in the United States you are judged more by your individual actions than any group identity (barring race, but that's not really the subject here). Well, that was then. Reading about the vitriol that surrounds the Park51 project has made me think again.
A Time poll shows a rather disheartening picture of Americans' attitudes about their Muslim compatriots. Only 55% of the people surveyed believe that most American Muslims are patriotic. Yes, that is a majority, but quite a slim one. Again, 55% would agree to a mosque being built in their neighbourhood. That means that we should be prepared for a slew of anti-mosque protests around the US from the 45% who disagree -- the kind of protests we've already been seeing in California, Tennessee and Wisconsin. It gets worse, though: around 30% of Americans think that Muslims should be prevented from occupying the post of president or Supreme Court judge. Only 44% say that they have a favourable attitude towards Muslims. What do you make of numbers like that? I'm not alone in making comparisons between the current American wave of Islamophobia and older, more ingrained European Islamophobia.
Politicians from both major US parties have been falling over each other in making outrageously Islamophobic remarks, the most infamous, of course, being Newt Gingrich's comparison of Muslims to Nazis. If Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is currently touring the Middle East on behalf of the State Department, is a "radical Islamist", as Gingrich claims, then which Muslim is not?
Some media players have not been much better. In particular, News Corporation, which owns the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News (among many other media outlets) unleashed the whole furore in the first place. The New York Times, which has launched a concerted and refreshingly sane attack on the mosque rejection movement, still featured a column that accused American Muslims of supporting "illiberal causes", and an article by the editor of National Review Online, who claimed that Park51 was "a Hamas-endorsed Islamic center". This is one example of the kind of demagoguery that has surrounded the issue. Yes, Hamas has "endorsed" the mosque, while "endorsing" churches and synagogues in the same breath. So are the Sarah Palins of this world going to "refudiate" churches next?
The pleasantly surprising part in all this has been that, as Maureen Dowd has pointed out, some of the most spirited defence for Park51 has come from Republicans, namely Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie. Now Ron Paul has joined this group, issuing one of the most lucid statements that has yet been made in favour of building Park51. It is a sad thought, though, that Ron Paul, of all people, offers more hope on the issue than Barack Obama does.
So there's some hope here that even right-wing Americans will come to their senses. Newsweek suggests that the issue will go away after the primaries. Perhaps it will. But it certainly leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth, one which may linger for years to come. Perhaps one day Muslims will be praised for revitalising Park Place by building Park51 (some are doing so already). But rebuilding a secure place for Muslims in American society will most likely take far longer.