The current controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero reveals a dramatic shift in the position towards Islam, as religion, culture, and community, in the United States, and points to further degeneration in a relationship already plagued with stereotypes and preconceived ideas. The controversy did emerge to the fore of mainstream culture in the United States as a result of objections verbalized by voices that may have been deemed marginal until recently. The silence with which their objections have been treated in the wider culture is, however, significant.
The attitude in American culture towards Islam, as a broad category, was not necessarily negative in its origins. While the United States is heir to the European heritage — one that has generally viewed the Muslim as the external other — the foundations of American culture, notably its insistence on the freedom of belief, and its selective appropriation of the European legacy have enabled it to overcome much of the Old World complexities on the subject of Islam. It is indeed the case that other factors negatively informed the general attitude towards the faith and community of Muslims, not the least of which are the importance of Israel in American consciousness, and the perceived stranglehold of Arabs or Muslims on oil resources. Still, towards the end of the 20th century, mainstream American culture was heading towards recognizing the Muslim component in American life, in a transformation reminiscent of its acceptance, half a century earlier, of its Jewish component. With the turn of the millennium, it was conceivable that the American self-image would be phrased as one built on a Judeo-Christian-Muslim foundation. That is, until September 11th, 2001.
Evidently, the antagonism displayed towards Islam in the post-9/11 period was not born with the tragic event. Anti-Muslim rhetoric predates the terrorist attacks, but was generally confined to the cultural fringe. This rhetoric was amplified and enabled in the new period, crossing over into the mainstream and developing into an incremental narrative of an unresolvable contradiction between Muslim and American identities. In the wider context of the Muslim world, parallel narratives of conflict — also previously restricted to the margins — moved closer to the center, with the respective exclusivist propositions providing mutual confirmation for each other. Over the past few years, the largely un-opposed persistence of the anti-Muslim narrative in the United States has succeeded in making serious inroads into popular culture, by creating the conviction that a state of enmity exists between Islam, as a an over-arching monolith, and the USA. A corollary of this success, itself a further means for its confirmation, was the increasingly reductionist portrayal of individuals, communities, and cultures with an Islamic dimension as mere expressions of the thus demonized Islam. It may be fair to characterize American attitudes towards Islam today as basically consisting of a minority convinced of the enmity between Islam and the United States, and a majority uncertain about it. The minority is however on the increase, while the majority is accepting further grounds to be critical of Islam, even when not in agreement with the proposition of enmity. What does not seem to be an object of debate is the monolithic character of Islam as a rigid defining framework, placing these dominant American attitudes in agreement with ideological Islamism, and in opposition with the lived experience of Muslims across societies and historical eras.
It is clearly the case that the process of transformation in American culture towards confirming the enmity with Islam has benefited considerably from the on-going controversy over the Islamic community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero. The initiative to build this center, presented by its sponsors as an affirmation of good faith and dialogue, has unleashed a flood of attacks on Islam as a faith from many sources, including a malicious diatribe from a "leader" of the Tea Party movement, and defamatory statements from a constellation of political commentators, with virtually no condemnation from their colleagues. In comparison, this same Tea Party "leader" was forced to resign in the aftermath of another (more self-restrained) diatribe against African-Americans. Even among self-styled moderates, the call for a "voluntary" suspension of the project is repeated, in deference to the sensitivity of the victims' families, and that of all Americans. In itself, this self-styled compromise proposition is an indication of the depth of the conviction of the enmity between the United States and Islam. The aggressor, as is implicit in the compromise call, was not a group of terrorists, but Islam the monolith itself; if the United States (as another monolith) has not made that fact explicit, it is out of consideration and sensitivity.
With few exceptions, such as New York City Mayor Bloomberg who took both a legal stand affirming the owners' right to build, and a principled position underlining the right of Muslims to practice their faith unhindered, the anti-Muslim campaign, whether in the name of respecting the sensitivity of the 9/11 families or in the name of defending the homeland against the onslaught of an alien force bent on conquest and forced conversion, was not appropriately rebuked neither by the political class nor the intellectual elite. On the contrary, overbidding seems to have become the order of the day: objections to mosques being built elsewhere were voiced, a candidate for public office in the State of Tennessee even made the acceptance of Muslims in American society conditional on their explicit rejection of extremism. It cannot be expected of President Obama to rectify this prevailing tone. Obama the candidate had gone to great length to establish a distance between himself and Islam. And while his pronouncements in Ankara and Cairo about a new page between the United States and the Muslim world were solemn, he maintained a revealing silence on the subject in addressing American audiences. The looming of the mid-term elections is unlikely to encourage him to alter his approach.
The fact is that the United States is in the midst of a verbal degeneration and moral retreat in the social and cultural treatment of Islamic issues, a situation that calls upon positions similar to that of former Secretary of State Colin Powell on whether Obama were a Muslim (a fact that Obama had repeatedly denied). Powell questioned the validity of the question itself ("So what if he was"), stressing that raising the issue is in contradiction with the American values of pluralism and inclusiveness. Powell's principled remarks, however, did not constitute a turning point in the treatment of Islam in the United States.
It is a fact that Islamic thought, in the broad meaning of the term, faces challenges that necessitate considerable courage and self-criticism at multiple levels. It is also a fact that the counter propositions to these challenges remain rare and timid. These facts, however, do not absolve the United States, in its cultural, social, and political diversity, from adhering to its own values while treating Islamic issues, as it adheres to these values on other issues. Not doing so is a loss for everyone.
Hassan I. Mneimneh is the Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values.