What the Ground Zero mosque controversy has taught us

The controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” dominated the last couple months of summer and sparked an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities around the country. A Florida pastor’s plan to burn the Koran was headline news, there were numerous protests against the building of mosques nowhere near Ground Zero, and political candidates across the country were forced to weigh in.

This debate raised larger questions about American identity and about perceptions of Islam in American society. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world, but this diversity has often been a source of conflict. Americans’ general unfamiliarity with Muslims and misrepresentations of Islam in the media and by politicians have exacerbated the tension created by the mosque controversy. But while America has a long history of intolerance, it also has a long history of overcoming intolerance, and there is good reason to believe that Muslim Americans will eventually be part of this history too, despite the recent turmoil.

Nationalism and the Other

America has always been a majority Protestant nation, and the integration of minority groups into the American mainstream has always been difficult. Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard, explained, “Nationalism as an ideology is premised on the notion of the other. So you always have to have an ‘other.’” Significant parallels can be drawn between Muslims in America today and the experience of Catholics in the early 20th century. Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College, told the HPR that there were “wild overreactions to Catholic immigrants” at the time.             “But this doesn’t mean there weren’t legitimate and reasonable reasons for non-Catholics to raise questions and have reservations about Catholics,” Skerry noted. Many questioned the loyalty of Catholics to the United States because they “had loyalties to a transnational organization.” Similarly, although there is no “pope” in Islam that commands the allegiance of Muslims all over the world, some American distrust of Muslims is derived from the impression that they are more attached to their religious identity than to their national one.

Capitalizing on Fear

Politicians and the media have mainly exacerbated negative impressions of Muslims. As Andrea Elliott, a reporter on Islam in America for the New York Times, told the HPR, “In the aftermath of 9/11, Islam and terrorism became almost synonymous in the media.” The media’s focus on a few cases of homegrown terrorist activity since 9/11 also heightened fears that radical Islam was widespread among American Muslims.

Meanwhile, politicians sometimes actively associate Islam with terrorism, as witnessed on several occasions during the Ground Zero mosque controversy. More often, politicians fail to condemn anti-Muslim prejudice. For example, in 2008, when an audience member at a McCain rally claimed that “Obama [was] an Arab,” the candidate replied, “No, he’s a decent family man,” as if Arabs and family men were mutually exclusive categories. And the Obama campaign reacted to the accusation that its candidate was Muslim as if it were a smear.

Zeenat Rahman, director of public affairs at the Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue, told the HPR, “Many Americans’ opinions are informed by this industry of ‘Islamophobia,’ which advances the narrative that Islam can only be violent.” The polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims promotes the classification of Muslims as “others” in society.

Fear of the Unknown

These political tactics and misleading media stories have such force because many Americans remain relatively unfamiliar with Islam. Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University, told the HPR, “There are many people that have never [met] a Muslim or learned anything about Islam, and the only thing they know about Islam is that terrorists attacked the United States and did so in the name of Islam.”  Rogers explained, “Even though we are the most diverse nation in the world, we do not provide tools for citizens to learn about cultures and religions that are different.”

Improved knowledge of Islam and contact with Muslims, it stands to reason, could help ease tensions. According to a 2006 Gallup poll, most Americans do not know any Muslims personally. The same poll found that almost one in four Americans say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor, and one in three would be nervous if they noticed a Muslim man boarding their flight. Personally knowing a Muslim, however, significantly correlates with a more favorable perception.

Analogously, as knowledge of and exposure to Catholicism increased throughout the 20th century, prejudice against Catholics became much rarer. Rogers believes the Catholic example shows that “there is a widening circle of inclusion, in terms of the connections between different religious communities,” in the long run.

Bridging the Gap

Increasing knowledge of Islam, however, is no easy task. Not only is there a need for better understanding among non-Muslims, the media, and politicians, but there is also a need for American Muslims to reconcile differences among themselves.

America is home to Muslims from more than 50 different countries—some have been here since the time of Spanish exploration—and there are many different interpretations of and ways of practicing Islam. According to Asani, “Muslims in the United States have to come to terms with pluralism amongst themselves, which I think is a new experience, as many Muslim-majority countries today are not as diverse as the United States.”

American Muslims have been forced, as a result of 9/11, to publicly represent their diverse interests in a more unified fashion. As Elliott explained, Muslims in the past decade have taken a “crash course on how to become an American constituency.” Asani agreed, noting, “[There is] competition for who gets to speak for Islam. Quite a large number of Muslim organizations are not comfortable that Imam [Feisal Abdul] Rauf has come to represent the Muslim community in America because he only represents one particular interpretation.”

Increasing interfaith dialogue and acknowledging intrafaith diversity may be the most important elements in overcoming prejudice against Islam. It is vital to uphold the tradition of religious freedom and “seek greater knowledge of facts when there are controversies that surround facts,” as Rogers said. If history is any guide, this can be accomplished with Muslims just as it was with other American religious minorities. “This isn’t about Muslims against Christians or Jews. It is about us living in pluralism and how we can live as Americans,” Rahman concluded.

Neil Patel ’13 is the Graphics Editor and Pragya Kakani ’14 is a Contributing Writer.

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