This is not the first time in American history that there has been a rejection of Islam—in one form or another—on the part of a political and social culture which held the superstition that it threatened the American way of life. This fear was also at the front of the American worldview was in the days of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, during his involvement with the Nation of Islam and after, was regarded as a demagogue attempting to foster violence and hatred against Americans Caucasians. The rhetoric used against him was very similar in character to the rhetoric used to denounce Muslim leaders and the religion of Islam today. Viewed as anti-progressive and violent by those galvanized by neo-conservative political rhetoric, they are denounced as a threat to the American way of life, prompting shrill and preposterous legal bans on implementations of shari‘a “law” and discussions over the propriety of allowing women to wear veils in various situations. These fears have further sparked endless controversy over the propriety or legality of the establishment of Islamic worship spaces.
While there is some effort at interfaith dialog and diversity in historical and cultural background, it seems to be all but muted amid the cacophony of fear-mongering undertaken by right-wing conservatives, typically aligned or allied with evangelical Christian and Zionist interest groups which prop them up politically and fiscally. Their responses to those who take a more pluralistic and inclusive approach are such that it swiftly becomes impossible to even conduct a discussion in meaningful or sensible terms. They tend to conflate and confound even the simplest paradigms in an effort at generating dissolution and confusion of thought on the part of their constituents, consumers, or co-religionists and parishioners in the case of politicians, media personalities or religious leaders, respectively. The result, as Likayat Takim of McMaster University observes, is that
“[in] the United States, pluralism and diversity have often evoked more conflict that cooperation. Encouraging self-expression of different ethnic and racial identities has bred more—not less—insularity, intolerance, and/or prejudice. Arguably, people’s diverse histories and cultures, instead of being an occasion for broadening the resources of the society at large and for seeking solutions to common human problems, have become an occasion to blame, censure, exclude and demand special rights.”1
The end result of this is a lack of actual progress on the part of American society as a whole. Instead, it then appears that we have two or more Americas: one in which barriers are dissolved by Constitutionally enforced equality and freedom of expression and another in which only a certain type of Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian expression of faith and social norms is allowed, to the exclusion of all others. It should be clear that if the latter America society exists, then the former cannot possibly exist except in the most idealistic sense. As we were reminded again recently in the case of the as-yet-unpunished murder of Orlando high-school student Travon Martin, race and the perception of difference are linked to conceptions of criminality and the possibility of harm directed at good, upstanding (read “white, Christian”) Americans.
The truth is, as Americans, we haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. There have been Muslims in the United States for hundreds of years and they have always been “other.” There have always been non-white Americans, and they have always suffered marginalization, whether it be legally or socially imposed. The framers of the Constitution may have won the day in applying freedoms regarding expression, assembly and disestablishment of state religion, but they lost the long game socially and politically. We only uphold Constitutional principles when it is fashionable to do so or when they can be twisted into expressions such as the “values” espoused by members of the ultra-conservative TEA Party.
Muslims are now, as was Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, scapegoats used to distract political discourse from other topics. There should be absolutely no question over the legality or propriety of the establishment of a house of worship anywhere in the United States, even at or near the former site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.2 It is an activity that is subject to Constitutional protection, whether it conforms to the present sensibilities of a bunch of shrill, racist, hate-and-fear-mongering demagogues or not. Far more meaningful and deeply ramified discussions need to be had in the United States at present, but are placed on the shelf in favor of more scapegoating. No American is free of blame for the future consequences either, no matter where the discourse originates. If this trend continues, this generation will be regarded as among the most brutally discriminatory in American history, and it will be a designation rightly deserved.
2 I refuse to use the appellation “Ground Zero” here because it is a misconstrues what occurred at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The term “Ground Zero” refers to the place at which a nuclear warhead makes its terrestrial impact upon being deployed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, are Ground Zero points. The former site of the World Trade Center is not. Even this appellation was an effort at galvanizing the American public, having forgotten that the same public, albeit several generations earlier, supported the destruction of over 100,000 lives in Japan. What happened at the WTC on September 11, 2001 was ghastly and horrible and should be remembered as such, but it should not be done in such a way that it obscures what actually happened.