Parallel to the federal law-enforcement focus on Muslims, the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of anti-Muslim "analysts," "terror experts," political commentators, and websites. This burgeoning industry, focused on Muslims as virtually a fifth column seeking to take over the country, has attracted ever more media attention, particularly as FOX News has chronicled and promoted the rise of the Tea Party movement.
It is in this alternate universe, after so many years of heightened anti-Muslim sentiments, that a Lower Manhattan prayer space designed to promote reconciliation has become the dreaded Mosque at Ground Zero, a "monument that would consist of a mosque for the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god," as Mark Williams, then-chairman of a group known as the Tea Party Express, put it.
Waiting for the Demagogue
Here we come to the real source of unease over what's now going on—the realization that we've seen something like this developing before, only it wasn't diaperheads and terrorism inflaming the country. It was dirty commies and Jews then.
Sixty years ago, on February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy rose before a Republican women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and delivered the famous speech in which he waved a sheet of paper and claimed that on it were the names of—there is dispute—57 or 205 known communists "working and shaping policy in the State Department." In doing so, he put his incendiary, eponymous stamp on the most oppressive period of the Cold War, and as it turned out, the nation was ready for the message.
McCarthyism did not emerge on that cold day solely from the fevered imagination of the Wisconsin senator. There had been a drumbeat of anti-Communist red-baiting, hearings, speeches, treason charges, and grandstanding coming from Washington for years. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, anti-communist informer Whittaker Chambers, ambitious congressman Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, President Harry Truman—all did yeoman's work in preparing the soil for McCarthy and his reckless accusations of "20 years of treason!"
There are some substantial differences between then and now. Most importantly, McCarthy operated from within the political system, using his subcommittee chairmanship as a vehicle for pseudo-investigations and attacks. When his Senate colleagues turned on him following a particularly reckless campaign against the U.S. Army, McCarthy was stripped of his chairmanship and his power. A true demagogue, he had no organization to speak of, only those who feared him and those who followed him.
By contrast, while some extreme anti-Muslim sentiment is in evidence in Washington, the real juice for an anti-Muslim movement is now bubbling up outside the Beltway, much as virulent racist hysteria has, in the past, bubbled up from the grassroots. In that regard, it's worth noting that about a third of America's five to eight million Muslims are African American.
Some mainstream politicians have actually tried to tamp down the Lower Manhattan controversy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, for instance, made numerous comments in support of the project and the principle of freedom of religion that goes with it. Such statements have, however, had little effect in quieting the dispute, countered as they are by opposition not only from the fringes, but from some mainstream Republican politicians and establishment non-governmental organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for example, recently came out with a statement opposing the construction plan, despite the fact that the rest of the opposition, the group said, exhibited elements of bigotry. It is better to side with bigots, the ADL essentially argued, than ignore the post-9/11 "healing process."
Because of the decentralized, grassroots nature of this anti-Muslim movement and the accompanying hysteria, it will be no easy task to put the mosque-at-Ground-Zero genie back in its bottle. Those who think that the decision by the New York City Landmarks Commission to clear the way for construction is likely to end the antagonism are undoubtedly engaged in wishful thinking. There are virtually endless potential flashpoints embedded along the road ahead, nor are the issue and its passions purely dependant on what happens in Manhattan, where a recent poll showed a majority of residents favor construction (although a majority of all New York City residents do not).
In California, those opposed to mosque construction in Temecula were urged to protest by rallying at the mosque with their dogs. Muslims "hate dogs," an unsigned email alert erroneously claimed. Counter-demonstrators turned out. There, too, the dispute continues. "The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don't want to see their influence spread," Pastor Bill Rench of Temecula's Calvary Baptist Church told the Los Angeles Times. "There is a concern with all the rumors you hear about sleeper cells and all that. Are we supposed to be complacent just because these people say it's a religion of peace? Many others have said the same thing."
In Kentucky, a fledgling controversy over a proposed mosque in Florence, south of Cincinnati, is also spreading thanks to anonymous communications. One unsigned protest flyer stated that "Americans need to stop the takeover of our country, our government is not protecting us."
Such sentiments are common to virtually all anti-Muslim protests: somehow, Muslims are taking over. Oklahoma legislators, fearing the imposition of Islamic law in Oklahoma courts, have even asked voters to amend the state constitution to forbid it. The government, increasing numbers of Americans evidently believe, is passively allowing Muslim subversion, and citizens need to defend themselves.
In Tennessee, a rancorous fight over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro has been rife with such sentiments. Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate locked in a tough primary race, denounced the mosque plan, characterized its leaders as foreign agents with a "radical agenda," and received strong support from the Wilson County Tea Party, a local group.
On its website, the Tea Party curtsies to the U.S. Constitution and then quickly cuts to the chase: "But this question must be asked based on repeated violence committed by Islamists in the name of religion: Is Islam nothing more than a front for terrorism?" Tennessee's lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor, went out of his way last month to characterize Islam as a "cult" which may not warrant First Amendment protection: "You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life, or a cult—whatever you want to call it..."
The proliferation of, and acceptance of, such talk, particularly from major political candidates, may be preparing the American ground for the emergence of a leader who can synthesize the demonizing and scapegoating of Muslims, fears augmented by severe economic anxiety, the maturing of extreme rightwing activism, and a widespread and growing contempt for official Washington. If that happens, the nation—and American Muslims—could face something far worse than McCarthy, who held sway in a golden era of rising expectations and general economic growth.
Mosque controversies will be the least of it then.
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).
[Note on further reading: The CAIR 2005 report on civil rights abuses with some comparative statistics can be found in .pdf format here. The CAIR 2009 report and statistics, also in .pdf format, can be found here.]