A substantial racist uproar is taking place in conservative America, particularly in right-wing radio and television. Reactionary pundits are drawing increased attention to plans to build an Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan, near Ground Zero. Republicans and conservatives have long been known to harbor racist views of Islam, although they’re hardly alone in this. Many on the right frame the entire religion as radical, fundamentalist, and a threat to national security. In light of this pattern, there’s little surprising about the right’s most recent attack on Muslim Americans as a secret, under the radar threat.
Islam has at times been portrayed on the right as the bedrock threat to American cultural values, and Muslims are depicted as uni-dimensionally set on overthrowing Christianity, enslaving the American public, and imposing “Sharia law.” The last warning about “Sharia law” – repeated by pundits like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh – among many others – comes off as extremely ignorant, considering that the term “Sharia” itself means Islamic law. One should take the warnings of those who use the phrase “Sharia law” about as seriously as someone who masquerades as a legal scholar while talking about the importance of “American law law.”
The American right has also taken to paranoid conspiracy theories charging that Obama is a non-citizen. As the story goes, Obama was really born in Kenya, and his “take over” of the White House represents a secret victory for radical Islam, since, as we all “know,” Obama is a closet Muslim terrorist who is allied with Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists. About half of Republicans believe either that Obama is not a citizen or that they cannot be sure of whether he is really an American citizen or not. These views are shared by nearly 60 percent of self-designated Tea Party supporters.
Of course, the nuances of the Islamic faith and the mainstream nature of the American Muslim community - the vast majority who oppose terrorism, fundamentalism, or repression of women - have been completely lost in the smug arrogance and incompetence of racists on the right.
The reactionary right has long been opposed to anything related to Arab culture and the Muslim religion in New York and around the country. One infamous example is New York’s Khalil Gibran Arabic language academy, the first of its kind for the city. Rabid right-wingers railed against it, especially those in the “stop the Madrassa” campaign (many of whom worried about the dangers of “Madrassa schools,” while apparently too ignorant to realize that the word Madrassa itself means school). I argued with one of the leaders of this group on Alan Colmes’ radio show a few years ago. She seemed un-phased by the reality that there was never any concrete evidence that the Khalil Gibran academy was teaching Islamic values. As she announced on the show (despite my scorn for her comments), the very fact that there was no visible evidence of an Islamic curriculum was proof of just how good the schools’ administrators and teachers were of hiding it. Such paranoia demonstrated how far conservative extremism and racism have come in recent years.
This brings us to the most recent “controversy” related to Islam: the Muslim community center planned for Manhattan. Right wingers in radio and at Fox News have gone into overdrive attacking it as a fundamental threat to the American way of life and to American security. Their racist diatribes have been hard for me to listen to, but they remain important to address, if for no other reason than so we can fight the ignorant assumptions behind them head on.
Here’s a quick review of some of the most outrageous comments made in the American media:
- On Fox News, former Congressman Newt Gingrich attacked the community center for its planned location “right at the edge of a place where, let’s be clear, thousands of Americans were killed in an attack by radical Islamists.” On his website, Gingrich announced that “there should be no mosque near ground zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Gingrich’s choice to spotlight the radical fundamentalist regime of Saudi Arabia (hypocritically supported by Gingrich himself when he was Speaker of the House in the 1990s) – while neglecting moderate and secular governments in the Muslim world, speaks volumes about what he considers to be the “essence” of Islam. Gingrich’s language is truly abhorrent; he frames those supporting the community center in Manhattan as part of the same “they” as the Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the 9-11 attacks. As far as Gingrich is concerned, there are no distinctions to be made in the monolithic “threat” that is the entire U.S. and world Muslim community.
- On Fox, Sarah Palin drew attention to “those innocent victims, those families of those who were killed in the 9-11 tragedy, it saddens me to think that people don’t understand what building this mosque at such hallowed ground really represents.” Inextricably linked to Palin’s warnings is the assumption that the community center represents a single, overarching fifth column threat from American Muslims. This much was clear when she characterized its construction as “an unnecessary provocation” against the people of New York and the American people more generally.
- Fox News host Sean Hannity claimed that the “Iman” supporting the building of the community center is a figure who “supports what happened on 9/11” and “praises Osama bin Laden.” Hannity, of course, failed to present any evidence linking community center supporters to defending the 9/11 attacks, but this hardly seemed to matter to him or his guest, Jay Seculow (of the American Center for Law and Justice), who complained that “you don’t get to build a mosque on a site that’s part of ground zero” because “that would be like putting at Pearl Harbor a monument of the Kamikaze pilots who tried to destroy U.S. troops, you just don’t do that.” In this case, Muslim Americans who had nothing to do with 9/11 are apparently the equivalent of Japanese soldiers who killed Americans during World War II.
- Right wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh, not to be outdone, warned that “the terrorists win” if the community center successfully moves forward. Limbaugh continued, posing a hypothetical comparing Muslim Americans to those who lynched blacks in the post Civil War era: “Let me ask you: What would happen, do you think, if the Ku Klux Klan wanted to establish a memorial at Gettysburg?” Limbaugh also employed a World War II analogy, likening the dangers of the community center to the destruction brought upon Japan by U.S. nuclear weapons: “Let’s go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and let’s build giant monuments in the shape of nuclear bombs and call it the Manhattan Project. I mean you’d have Americans objecting to that, wouldn’t you?”
What is most disturbing about the manufactured controversy involving the community center is the blatant arrogance and stupidity of the right in its warnings of an imminent “threat.” Anyone who spends thirty seconds researching the Cordoba Group, the organization responsible for promoting the community center, would know that the group’s representative, Feisal Abdul Rauf (targeted in Hannity attacks as pro-bin Laden and pro-9/11) is actually a public critic of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, and a vocal supporter of improving relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. None of this is conveyed in any of the right-wing slander above, however, as these pundits are content to showcase their ignorance regarding the basic facts surrounding the community center fiasco they “authoritatively” “report” on.
I should note that all of the pundits above premise their attacks on the Manhattan community center with statements that promotion of religious tolerance and cultural diversity are important and necessary. These claims, however, mean nothing when they are followed by fear mongering and attacks on Muslims as part of an all-encompassing threat that derives from some sort of uniform “Muslim culture” – one that is seen as constituting a danger to U.S. security and the American way of life. These pundits refuse to distinguish between the tiny minority of those throughout the world who support terrorism in the name of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims who reject those beliefs. Their reluctance to take a reasonable, level-headed approach to the study of the Muslim faith is an indicator of their fanaticism, religious bigotry, and racism.
Rather than asking whether the Manhattan community center represents a threat, we should be asking ourselves what happened to our country when national discourse is hijacked by those who not only have no interest in facts, but see them as an active roadblock to advancing their racist agendas. The blatant racism and incompetence of those attacking the Manhattan community center should be obvious enough to those who pride themselves in promoting multi-culturalism, racial diversity, and respect for religious freedom. That the racist right remains so prominent in national television and radio is a sign, more than anything else, of the steep deterioration of American political discourse.