Protesters march during demonstration against a planned mosque and Islamic community center on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Those opposing the mosque circulated a  petition asking the county commission to rescind approval of the facility.  (AP Photo/Christopher Berkey)
Protesters march during demonstration against a planned mosque and Islamic community centre in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Those opposing the mosque circulated a petition asking the county commission to resciShow more

Islamophobia increases since 9/11

NASHVILLE // There was no mistaking the animosity from the burly man with the bullying tone.

Video: The day our world ended

The Chowdhury family talks about losing Mohammed Chowdhury on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

"Do you think apostasy should be punished by death?" he asked, addressing a Muslim member of a panel convened by a local law school last month to discuss the role of Sharia in the US legal system. "Do you accept or reject this teaching of Islam?"

Dressed in khaki shorts, a black T-shirt, white socks and trainers, the man, who identified himself as "Eddie from here", had just finished quoting a passage from an English translation of the Quran.

Eddie's belligerence is not unusual. The decade since the September 11 attacks has seen the United States struggle with Islam in a way that it has never done before, not least here in the so-called Bible Belt, where the church one attends is as much a staple of conversation as the street where one lives.

Ten years later, the face that America sees when it looks in the mirror is sometimes contorted in hate, fear and ignorance of Muslims. At other times, it is gracious, open and inquisitive, in the best tradition of a nation that celebrates itself, sometimes with conspicuous blinders, as a rainbow of peoples, cultures and traditions.

Hard-core activists

Worryingly, the contest to tilt the country one way or the other is being waged with intense fury by a group of hard-core activists like Eddie, intent on injecting their anti-Muslim agenda into mainstream America with the claim that Islam is an ideology masquerading as a religion and is bent on world domination. Their recent success has led to a post-9/11, politically manipulated "second wave of anti-Muslim hatred", says one prominent civil-rights organisation

Others push back. Almost unheard of before 9/11, public debates are arranged. Interfaith prayer groups are organised. And conferences are held to educate non-Muslim Americans about the world's second-largest religion, like "Covering Islam in the Bible Belt", a three-day seminar for journalists held last month at Middle Tennessee State University.

Among the two dozen reporters who attended the conference, Bob Smietana is typical.

A religion correspondent for The Tennesseean, Mr Smietana had not had to deal with Muslim issues for much of his career. After 9/11, he did some work on Muslim charities. In 2007, he moved to Tennessee where a tiny Muslim community hardly provided a promising source of stories.

That all changed in 2010. In May, the growing Muslim community in the town of Murfreesboro, some 40 minutes south of Nashville, gained municipal approval to build a new Islamic centre. The news caused an uproar that still resonates.

Mr Smietana witnessed how local anger turned to vandalism. When the Muslim community erected a sign at the site of the new centre it was painted over with the words "not welcome". A second sign was destroyed. Then in August 2010, fire was set to construction equipment. Contractors were scared off and work remains stalled.

Mr Smietana says the anger must be understood against the background of an ailing economy and a growing influx of foreigners. With a population of nearly 1.6 million people, the number of foreigners in the Nashville metropolitan area has doubled in the past 10 years, and, as in other places, "there's a history of animosity [toward minorities] in bad economic times".

The Muslim community's travails, meanwhile, follow a timeworn pattern, he pointed out. People in Nashville were upset when the Jewish community wanted a bigger synagogue. And when the first Roman Catholic church was built in Murfreesboro, the Ku Klux Klan - a white supremacist, Protestant Christian organisation - rallied in the streets to protest.

The inordinate reaction to the Islamic centre construction is not an isolated incident, either. There is a growing and generalised fear of Islam in America, best illustrated by legislation in 22 states to ban foreign and religious laws, specifically Islamic law, from their court systems.

That Islamic law should command such attention was incongruous to Saleh Sbenaty, a professor of computer-engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of Murfreesboro's Muslim community.

It was Mr Sbenaty who was the target of Eddie-from-here's question about apostasy at last month's discussion about Sharia, which was convened by the First Amendment Center at Nashville's Vanderbilt University.

There have been no proposals put forward by any party to replace any American laws with Islamic laws, he told the audience. It "is just not an issue".

Some listeners begged to differ.

"Why are Muslim women allowed to cover their hair in court?" said Theresa from Tennessee.

"What about the lenient sentence for a Muslim convicted of spousal rape in New Jersey?" asked Tammy from Nashville.

Theory and practice

James, from Tennessee, who referred to suras from the Quran on his iPad, brought up another two examples of where he said courts had "found in favour of Sharia".

Calmly, Mr Sbenaty and the evening's other Muslim speaker, Umbreen Bhatti, a civil rights lawyer, explained differences between theory and practice, contract law and criminal law. Their reasoned approach was finally too much for Eddie to take.

"You people are a joke," he shouted, adding as he turned to other members of the audience: "Their peaceful, tolerant religion is nothing but a military assault."

Mark Potok sees Eddie as more than just a lone, eccentric voice.

Mr Potok is a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights organisation renowned for its work exposing white supremacist groups such as the Klan. Now, the hate directed at Muslims also dominates its agenda.

"Why this upsurge in anti-Islamic sentiment?" he said, noting that it was not until last year that it became an issue.

His answer pointed to Washington.

"It was the politicians," he said at lunch near his office in Montgomery, Alabama. "It was Newt Gingrich."

'Savvy' marketing

In Mr Potok's view, the beginning of a "second wave of anti-Muslim hatred" sweeping the US started over plans to build an Islamic centre near the site of the World Trade Center. Right-wing bloggers successfully managed to describe that centre as a "Ground Zero Mosque" (a "very savvy" piece of marketing, noted Mr Smietana).

It was so adroit that senior politicians from the political right picked up the rhetoric. Mr Gingrich, once the most powerful member of the US House of Representatives and a Republican Party presidential hopeful, compared the proposed centre to building a Nazi monument next to a synagogue, a remark Mr Potok described as "exactly the same as saying that every Muslim is a Nazi".

Mr Gingrich has also asserted that Islamic law was "a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it".

Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who have already declared their candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, have voiced similar sentiments."What was once considered fringe, extremist rhetoric" has been "mainstreamed", the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, concluded in "Fear Inc", a report issued last month.

Opinion polls tell a similar story.

Negative attitudes

American attitudes to Islam are growing more, not less negative ten years after 9/11.

In January 2002, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 14 per cent of Americans believed mainstream Islam encourages violence. By August 2010 that number had risen to 35 per cent, according to a Pew Forum survey.

Mr Smietana, the newspaper reporter, acknowledges that a new wave of Islamophobia is gaining momentum in the run-up to next year's presidential election. Yet he says he does not believe there is any prospect of violence against Muslims.

Perhaps. On August 30, a judge used the US Constitution's guarantee of freedom of worship to reaffirm the building permit for the new Islamic centre in Murfreesboro.

But on September 5, someone left a message on the answering machine of the Islamic centre.

Cursing Islam, the caller said the existing mosque would be blown up on September 11.


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