The reality of Islamophobia in America


There is the world of neoconservative columnists such as The Times’ Jonah Goldberg, who in an Aug. 24 column asserted that the anti-Muslim backlash is mainly a myth.

Then there is the world where the rest of us live.

Anyone who is witnessing the debates over the proposal to build an Islamic center in New York City has watched an unraveling of emotions across America. Muslims in America — numbering between 4 million and 7 million — have been chastised for not being sufficiently sorry for the acts of 19 hijackers on that terrible day in September 2001, or sensitive enough to the victims’ families. It has been a momentously myopic moment in American history, made worse by violent acts and signs that disparaged Muslims and Islam.

Expressing one’s opinion is, of course, a right; nobody would say otherwise. However, in places like California, Kentucky, Texas, Florida, New York, Wisconsin and elsewhere, disturbing incidents have either taken place or are being planned. These actions undermine years of interfaith efforts and belie our ideals of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism.

Goldberg is right to note that hate crimes occur against other groups, namely Jews, and those crimes rightfully disturb and disgust. There are people who harbor strong anti-Semitic views, and some cowards act on those views. The hate crimes committed against Jews are greater in number than the crimes committed against Muslims, but does that make the crimes committed against Muslims insignificant? Of course not. If anything, Jews and Muslims share a common interest in fighting hate crimes in America and working to strengthen pluralism.

The first step is to acknowledge there is a problem. The crimes against Muslims do not look random or isolated.

Law enforcement authorities in California classified the vandalism at the Madera Islamic Center in the Central Valley that nearly smashed a window as a hate crime when they discovered signs that read “Wake up America the enemy is here” and “No temple for the god of terrorism.” In New York, an intoxicated man forced his way into a mosque in Queens and urinated on several prayer rugs. Michael Enright, a 21-year-old New York film student, is being charged with attempted murder in connection with the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver. The act has been classified as a hate crime.

There have been many other incidents, such as a reported pipe-bomb incident at a mosque in Florida and the vandalism and arson that took place in Texas in July. This is to say nothing about efforts to construct mosques in Wisconsin and Kentucky that have come under the kind of attack that would never have happened if the building projects were for Christian churches.

Then there are the numbers.

Statistics corroborate the belief that Islamophobia is on the rise in America, and that the temptation to view Islam and Muslims through the prism of extremism remains ever-present. A study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the public’s view of Islam has worsened. According to the study, 30% say they have a favorable opinion of Islam, while 38% have an unfavorable view. These figures mark a change from 2005, when slightly more expressed a favorable opinion of Islam. The study found that those who are younger than 50 have more mixed views of Islam than older Americans, who harbor more uniformly negative opinions.

These perceptions are undoubtedly linked to the debates in New York, but Christian pastors and elected leaders whose irresponsible rhetoric has undone years of interfaith work on part of Muslims and non-Muslims also deserve blame. Last month, Newt Gingrich compared Muslim Americans who want to build the Islamic center in New York to Nazis who would erect a sign next to Washington’s Holocaust museum. Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, posted a video that outlines his desire to “expose Islam;” he uses fear and paranoia to encourage more people to burn the Koran. He warns that Europe has been lost to Muslims and that America might be next.

No widespread Islamophobia, Goldberg says.

Oh really?

John L. Esposito, the author of “The Future of Islam,” is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a research fellow at the center.