Originally Published in The Washington Post
“You don’t have to do this! You shouldn’t have to. It’s a disgrace.”
At the height of the 2010 Park 51 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversies, I, along with thousands of Muslim American youth nationwide, was engrossed in a massive “Muslims for Peace” flyer distribution. Days before the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11, I met my match at a Wisconsin State Fair.
The young mother of two looked me in the eye and said, “I am a Christian. The day I see Christians passing out millions of ‘Christians for Peace’ flyers to condemn abortion clinic bombings, let’s talk. You’re my fellow American. You don’t need to prove your Americanness to me.”
Our discussion was short-lived as her children pulled her to the next great fair adventure. She left with a smile. I was left grateful, and wondering. Grateful that people like her exist. Wondering what it would take for all Americans to embrace tolerance and pluralism over prejudice?
In the 11 years since Sept. 11, 2001, we have learned that Osama bin Laden is dead, Afghanistan is on its last leg, and that Muslim Americans have raised over 20,000 blood donations in the past 13 months alone specifically to honor Sept. 11 victims. Yet, Pew reports that Muslim Americans had a higher approval rating right after Sept. 11 than they do now. Despite all the progress we have made as a nation, is our net movement in the red?
Take the Park 51 Mosque for example. Legitimate reasons of sensitivity and timing certainly existed in its construction—but anti-Islam elements instead chose to fabricate fears of alleged Islamic supremacy to express their opposition. It worked. Two dozen states have tried or passed some sort of “anti-shariah” legislation. The Justice Department reports that of the 28 anti-Mosque campaigns that have emerged since Sept. 11, 2001, 18 have emerged since the Park 51 showdown.
The years since the attacks have also forged specific media language to delineate “Islamic terrorism” from literally every other violent act. For example, Fort Hood culprit Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan was a terrorist, but Sikh gurdwara culprit Wade Michael Page was a gunman. The Sept. 11 plane bombers were terrorists but Joseph Stack’s plane bombing in 2010 was unfortunate. Failed Times Square bomb convict Faisal Shahzad was a terrorist, while former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s would-be assassin Jared Lee Loughner and Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect James Holmes were both simply disturbed.
And the trend forward is not exactly promising.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate groups have nearly tripled since Sept. 11, 2001 to over 30. In a throwback to 1940s Japanese American civil rights violations, the New York Police Department admitted it illegally spied on Muslim Americans in New York for six years—without a single arrest. How ironic that in claiming to prevent Muslim Americans from violating the Constitution, the NYPD themselves trampled several fundamental constitutional principles, like due process and privacy? Likewise, federal enforcement agencies have promoted vitriolic anti-Islam training modules, teaching that “the more devout a Muslim, the bigger a threat s/he is to America.”
Even “looking” Muslim warrants a backlash. Since Sept. 11, Sikh Americans have suffered over 700 hate crimes; a fact the Justice Department admits is a consequence of rising Islamophobia. After the act of terrorism on the Oak Creek Sikh temple in August, media spent more time explaining the difference between Islam and Sikhism than reporting on the incident or condemning the act.
In the days, weeks, and years after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush repeatedly praised Islam as a peaceful faith, clarifying that the 19 who committed the horrific act did not represent the 1.5 billion who condemned it. Yet, something tells me amnesia is not the culprit when, 11 years later, numerous politicians perpetuate the fabrication that Muslim Americans threaten American sovereignty. No amount of flyer distributions would convince such individuals otherwise.
The fact is that such prejudice does not protect America, but awards victory to the cowards who concocted and executed the attacks. Americans did not defeat Nazism and Japan because we stripped Japanese and German Americans of their constitutionally protected rights. No intelligent person recognizes Japanese internment camps as a source of pride or protection for American citizens. Likewise, government, media, and individual hate mongers who today obscure constitutional freedoms to Americans who choose Islam as their faith, do not protect America. Rather, they do exactly what the Sept. 11 terrorists hoped—tear our country apart.
The young mother of two was right. No citizen should have to “prove” their Americanness any more than any other citizen. So let’s get back into the black. On the 11-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is time to give victory to tolerance and pluralism over prejudice.
Our future depends on it.