The prevailing disputation over the right of Muslim Americans to build a community centre and mosque a short distance from the site of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks has garnered plenty of headlines in the past few days. The controversy calls for an honest reappraisal of the precise position of Muslim Americans in the United States. The altercation has polarised US public opinion and raised tension in the Arab and Muslim world.
“It saddens me to think that people don’t understand what building this mosque on hallowed ground really represents,” pontificated Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, infamous running mate of 2008 Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain, and an iconic figure of the war-mongering neoconservatives and discredited Republican far-right.
Another icon of the bellicose right, Newt Gingrich, was quoted in Fox News as lambasting the construction of an Islamic centre “right at the edge of a place where, let’s be clear, thousands of Americans were killed in an attack by radical Islamists.”
The irony, wrote Anthony DiMaggio, author of Permanent War and who taught Middle East politics at Illinois State University, is that the brouhaha is “a manufactured controversy”. DiMaggio dismissed the fracas a “racist uproar” and denounced the right-wing radio and television campaign in America for framing Islam as “radical, fundamentalist and a threat to national security”.
Worse, US President Barack Obama was denigrated as a “closet Muslim terrorist” for publicly lending support to the construction of the Islamic centre so close as it is to Ground Zero in New York. “Obama is a non-citizen,” his detractors contended. This latter accusation strikes at the very heart of the concept of citizenship rights and national identity.
The complexities of belonging cannot be relegated to the realm of academic treatises. The vast majority of Muslim Americans are law- abiding citizens intent on exercising their right to freely exercise the tenants of their own religion. This particular right lies at the heart of the perceiving identity — including religious identity — as a political problem in a nation that prides itself in the secular dispensation of its constitution and raison d’être.
Moreover, this particular fundamental right is in accordance with the First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights that has constituted the foundation of American freedom for over 200 years. Be that as it may, religion from the inception of the US has been a major marker of identity.
Gender and race have traditionally been the key prerequisites of identity politics in the US. Since 9/11 religion has become the primary focus of political identity in the US. Shifting criterion for eligibility to a notion of “American belonging” is underway.
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An African-American candidate has, theoretically at least, as much a chance of winning a presidential election as an Irish American. The possibility of a Muslim American winning a landslide victory in any presidential election in the near future is slim, to say the least.
The pertinent question is why? According to Moataz Abdel-Fattah, associate professor of Middle East Studies at Central Michigan University, Obama’s comments must be viewed in context of the forthcoming congressional elections. The growing schism between conservatives and liberals in the US undermines the political stability of the country, the world’s superpower. “The impediments to the rights of Muslims in the US tend to be cultural rather than political or legal. The curtailment of the freedoms of Muslims is two-fold. First, the theological bias of the Judeo-Christian tradition prevalent in the US perpetuates the myth that Islam is an exotic religion, alien to the American people and culture and there is a widespread belief that Mohamed is not a prophet”.
“Moreover, Muslims tend to adopt more conservative lifestyles and rarely intermingle with non-Muslims. This insular aspect of Muslim culture in predominantly non-Muslim America, coupled with taboos on preaching Islam has traditionally worked to isolate Muslims in America and perpetrate stereotypes about Islam.”
Abdel-Fattah, however, noted that one positive side effect of 9/11 was the increased curiosity of ordinary Americans about Islam. “I personally meet hundreds of people who ask me about Islam as a religion and there has been an increase in the number of Muslim faculty members at Michigan University. Indeed, Muslim Studies departments in institutions of higher learning have replaced the Black Studies departments as the new novelty in American academia.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American Muslim community was in disarray. Their reticence was only part of the problem. Into the breach stepped President Obama, the first African-American to hold America’s top job. He was also the first US president whose father was a Muslim and whose sister is a practising Muslim. His middle name is Hussein.
It is not unusual for Americans to speak frankly about their presidents’ foibles. Obama isn’t quite the secular saint of legend. Nor is he a liberal per se. Obama’s defence of building a Muslim community centre in lower Manhattan was applauded as a “brave step”.
It is astonishing to recall how little was known publicly about Islam as a world religion, or about America’s Muslims before 9/11.
Far from undermining the myth of Muslim Americans as fifth columnists, Muslims in America were dismissed as self-serving, conniving and exploitative.
This year, Eid Al-Fitr coincides with the ninth anniversary of 9/11. This brings the story up to date through the post-Bush years when the Obama administration set the tone of the new face of America. An African-American president of partially Muslim familial background led America from the front and championed the rights of the underdog, or so he was celebrated. “We understand that he wants to change the agenda. We also understand the constraints, tremendous pressures and limitations he must labour under,” noted Abdel-Fattah. “Obama’s message that America is not at war with Islam was well-received.”
* Khalid Amayreh a journalist based in the Occupied Palestinian town of Dura. He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Southern Illinois in 1983.