Intolerance is tearing apart America's social fabric

The longer we are plagued by this bigotry, the longer young Muslims will feel that the 'promise of America' does not include them, and they will feel like aliens in their own country.

Let me state quite directly: Islamophobia and those who promote it are a greater threat to the United States than terrorists like Anwar al Awlaqi.

From his hideout in Yemen, the American-born Mr al Awlaqi can only prey off alienation where it exists. Like some parasites, Mr al Awlaqi cannot create his own prey. He must wait for others to create his opportunities, which until now have been isolated and limited - a disturbed young man here, an increasingly deranged soldier there.

Islamophobia, on the other hand, if left unchecked, may serve to erect barriers to Muslim inclusion in America, thus increasing alienation, especially among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to one of the fundamental cornerstones of America's democracy; it would also rapidly expand the pool of recruits for future radicalisation.

I have often remarked that America is different in concept and reality from our European allies. Third-generation Kurds in Germany, Pakistanis in the UK, or Algerians in France, for example, may succeed and obtain citizenship, but they do not become German, British, or French. Last year, I debated with a German government official on this issue. She kept referring to the "migrants" - a term she used to describe the many generations of Turks living in her country. Similarly, following their last election, a leading British newspaper commented on the "number of immigrants" who won seats without noting that many of those "immigrants" were third-generation citizens.

America has prided itself on being different. Being "American" is not the possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any group define "America". Not only do new immigrants become citizens, they also secure a new identity. More than that, as new groups become American and are transformed, the idea of "America" itself has also changed to embrace these new cultures.

History has demonstrated that, in the end, newcomers have been accepted, incorporated and absorbed into the American mainstream. This defines not only our national experience, but our core narrative as well.

It is because new immigrants have found their place in the American mainstream that the country, during the last century, survived and prospered despite being sorely tested with world wars, economic upheaval and bouts of internal strife. During all this time we had to contend with anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-Japanese movements.

While such sentiments inevitably die down, they do not always go away. The Islamophobia we are witnessing today is the latest campaign to tear apart the very fabric of America, and we know the groups promoting it. First, there is the well-funded right-wing "cottage industry": groups and individuals with a long history of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim activity. Some of the individuals have been given legitimacy as commentators on "terrorism," "radicalisation" or "national security concerns" despite their obvious bias.

If these "professional bigots" have provided the grist, the mill itself is run by the vast network of right-wing radio, TV and online content who have combined to amplify the anti-Muslim message nationwide.

In just the past two years, we have seen a dramatic upsurge in the activity of these bigots. More ominously, their cause has been embraced by national political leaders and by elements in the Republican Party who appear to have decided in 2010 to use "fear of Islam" as a base-building theme and a wedge issue against Democrats for electoral advantage.

In the past, only obscure or outrageous members of Congress were Islamophobes: North Carolina's Sue Myrick - who expressed nervousness and insecurity because of "who was owning all those 7/11's", or Colorado's Tom Tancredo, who once warned that he "would bomb Mecca".

But after the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee embraced opposition to Park51 as a campaign theme, it is hard to find a leading Republican who has not railed on some issue involving Islam or Muslims in the US.

This current wave of Islamophobia has played well to the Republican base. The polling numbers are striking and deeply disturbing. Fifty-four percent of Democrats have a favourable attitude towards Muslims, while 34 per cent do not. Only 12 per cent of Republicans hold a favourable view of Muslims, with 85 per cent saying they have unfavourable views. Additionally, 74 per cent of Republicans believe "Islam teaches hate" and 60 per cent believe that "Muslims tend to be religious fanatics".

This issue will not go away soon, and the longer we are plagued by this bigotry, the longer young Muslims will feel that the "promise of America" does not include them, and they will feel like aliens in their own country.

It is this concern that has prompted many inter-faith religious groups and leaders and a diverse coalition of ethnic and civil rights organisations to vigorously oppose Congressman Peter King's hearings that will deal with the radicalisation of American Muslims later this week. They know, from previous statements that Mr King harbours personal hostility towards American Muslims. They also know that what Mr King is doing will only aggravate matters, creating greater fear and concern among young Muslims who have already witnessed too much bigotry and intolerance.

What they should also know is that in the process of targeting a religion in this way and engaging in this most "un-American activity", Mr King and company are, in fact, opening the door for increased alienation and future radicalisation.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute