Park 51: The Hate Turns Violent

31 Aug

For months, the right wing has been leading a hateful campaign against the proposed Park 51 Islamic community center that will be built two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. Many prominent conservatives like disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have even gone as far as to claim that Park 51 will act as a launching pad for the introduction of “Sharia law” to America. These top conservatives have claimed that they aren’t opposed to all mosques, but rather just one near Ground Zero. Gingrich, for example, said he would not be offended by a mosque near Central Park or Columbia University. However, the culture of hate these right wingers are fomenting against Muslims is spreading all over the country. Mosques in locations as far apart as Madera, CA, and Murfreesboro, TN have faced hateful protests and angry threats. And unfortunately, in recent weeks, the hate has turned violent. Between a violent attack on a Muslim cab driver in New York City and an arson attempt against a mosque in the heart of the American South, the far right’s toxic rhetoric is starting to have very real, very dangerous consequences.

Fig (1): Anti-Islam

HATE-INSPIRING RHETORIC: In campaigning against Park 51 and other mosques across the country, conservatives have escalated their rhetoric to hateful levels. Gingrich compared building Park 51 to the Nazis putting a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove compared the organizers of Park 51 to “skinheads” showing “up at a Black sorority convention” and screaming bigoted remarks and to “Neo-Nazis” showing up “at the B’na B’rith hotel and” having “their meeting in the next meeting room.” Hate radio host Neal Boortz earlier this month called Islam a “gutter religion” and a “cult.” Boortz may be picking up his smear against Islam from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R), who openly wondered aloud about whether Islam is “actually a religion or is it a nationality, way or life, or cult, whatever you want to call it.” The American Family Association’s Director of Issues Analysis Bryan Fischer even went as far as to say that the United States should have “no more mosques, period” because each “mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.” The rhetoric of these major conservative figures stands in stark contrast to President Bush’s rhetoric following the 9/11 attacks. The former president said just “days after the Twin Towers were destroyed in 2001” that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. … Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace.”

Fig (2): Anti-Semitic

HATE TURNED VIOLENT: When a minority group like Muslim Americans are demonized in this fashion, it is only a matter of time before paranoid individuals turn to violence. This past May, a pipe bomb was set off at the site of a protested Jacksonville, FL mosque. Early this month, a playground at an Arlington, TX mosque was torched. Last week, Bangladeshi-American New York City cab driver Ahmed Sharif picked up an intoxicated 21-year-old man. The man, Michael Enright, began to ask Sharif questions about his personal life. At one point, Enright asked Sharif, “Are you Muslim?” When Sharif replied that he was, Enright replied with the Muslim greeting, “Assalamu alaikum,” then yelled, “Consider this a checkpoint!” and stabbed and slashed Sharif with his knife, leading to his hospitalization. Reports later revealed that Enright had served in Afghanistan with an NGO and kept a diary filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric. Sharif, who had been in the U.S. for more than 25 years, suggested to the press that the toxic debate surrounding Park 51 was endangering Muslims in the city. The week before the attack in New York, a brick was thrown at a window of a mosque in Madera, CA. Outside the premises, vandals put up a pair of signs: “Wake up America, the enemy is here” and “No temple for the god of terrorism.” And this past Friday, a suspected arsonist set fire to part of the construction site at a Murfreesboro, TN mosque. Since then, “Muslim leaders in central Tennessee say that frightened worshipers are observing Ramadan in private and that some Muslim parents are wary of sending their children to school.”

HATE’S LASTING EFFECTS: This combination of hateful rhetoric from the right’s leaders and the rise in hate crimes against Muslims unfortunately serves to undermine both Muslim Americans’ image at home and America’s image abroad. A Time Magazine poll released earlier this month found 61 percent of Americans oppose the construction of Park 51. Even more disturbingly, only 44 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Muslim Americans. Only 55 percent of respondents “said they would favor the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from their home.” Almost one-third of respondents thought Muslims should be barred from running for president, and 24 percent of them mistakenly believed that President Obama is a Muslim. There is also evidence that the rise in hatred against Muslims here in the United States is serving to alienate and radicalize Muslims abroad. A Taliban operative going by the name Zabihullah told Newsweek that, by “preventing [Park 51] from being built, America is doing us a big favor.” He explained that the anti-mosque campaign is providing the Taliban with “more recruits, donations, and popular support.” Another Taliban official who “remains active in the insurgency” in Afghanistan told the magazine that he expects the anti-mosque campaigns to provoke a “new wave of terrorist trainees from the West,” similar to suspected Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad. Zabihullah concludes, the “more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.” The irony behind the far right’s campaign against peaceful Muslims is that Muslim Americans have actually been acting as a bulwark against extremism. Researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill concluded in a study earlier this year that contemporary mosques in the United States serve as a deterrent to Islamic radicalism. A handful of conservatives have pushed back against the far right’s rhetoric, however. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) said that the anti-Park 51 campaign is “all about hate and Islamophobia.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he’d be “the first to stand up for [Muslims’] rights” to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Yet, as the American Prospect’s Adam Serwer writes, “Park 51 opponents have been remarkably quiet about [anti-Muslim] incidents. … Either Park 51 opponents don’t care about the larger anti-Muslim backlash, or they don’t want to be seen defending American Muslims in any context.”

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