Between the two of us, we’ve spent a combined 59 years living, working and learning in the United States. In all that time, including the period immediately following September 11, 2001, this summer marks the worst anti-Muslim backlash we’ve ever seen here.
As the nine years since 9/11 have passed, Americans have forgotten an essential fact: Extremists can use any religion to justify murder, and the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists sacrifices both American values and community safety. While we welcome national leaders condemning not just Quran burning, but all the less obvious forms of Islamaphobia along the way, the daily interruption of hatred is a job for all of us.
There’s no question that attacks on Muslim people have escalated. Opponents of the Cordoba House keep saying that 9/11 was the worst attack ever on American soil, therefore Ground Zero is “sacred” and nothing as profane as a mosque should be built there. The logic is profoundly twisted and most un-American. It presumes that it is impossible that American Muslims, like Mamdouh himself, who worked at Windows on the World, could have been in the World Trade Center, could have lost friends, colleagues or relatives there, could have grieved afterwards.
Attacks on mosques across the country indicate that many people don’t need the hook of Ground Zero on which to hang their hatred. In one of the never ending streams of “regular” Americans interviewed on TV news about the project, one man who opposed the Cordoba House was asked where a mosque could be built. “Nowhere” was his response.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that some Americans—too many—do not consider Muslims part of the country. A recent TIME/CNN poll found that 55 percent thought Muslims could not be patriots. Nearly a third of those polled thought Muslims should not be allowed to run for president or serve on the Supreme Court. Although we won’t have hard numbers on hate crimes for several years, the number of anecdotes is rising steadily.
A brick nearly smashed a window at the Madera Islamic Center in central California, where signs were left behind that read, “Wake up America, the enemy is here” and, “No temple for the god of terrorism.” Police arrested five teenagers after the son of a mosque’s founder in Waterport, N.Y., was sideswiped by a sport utility vehicle. One teen was charged with firing a shotgun in the air near the mosque a few days earlier. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey popularized the notion that Muslims don’t deserve the same religious freedom as everyone else, in his response to a question about the “threat that’s invading our country from Muslims.” Ramsey wondered aloud whether Islam “is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult.” Soon after, some of Ramsey’s constituents set ablaze a planned mosque site near Nashville and fired shots when parishioners tried to inspect the damage.
These anecdotes are telling, but not necessary for us to know that the haters have been emboldened by all their media spokespeople. Last week, in a Queens Dunkin’ Donuts, one of us walked in on a woman who berated the Bangladeshi American staff for five minutes over the supposed wrongness of her coffee. She proceeded to call the server ugly, take a breath—clearly considering her next line for maximum impact—and declare, “You’re all a bunch of terrorists.”
But there was an important lesson for us all in that exchange. A mild, “There’s no need for that” was enough to disrupt the woman’s rant. Maybe that woman won’t change her attitude, but there were a dozen adults and four children there—and they might. The scene said everything: A few loud voices are spewing hate, but unless the rest of us stand up and counter it they will set the tone for us all.
Many people have speculated this week on why we are experiencing this rise in anti-Muslim feeling, and a few have become nostalgic for George W. Bush—who spoke no less than 11 times in the fall of 2001 about Islam being a religion of peace and love and having nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Others have called for President Obama to speak up more often to protect Muslims.
But the real problem is that everyday Americans keep silent about too much of this. America is a land of individual freedom. Now more than ever we need to exercise our freedom of speech, rather than huddling in fear and fascination at the group-think that can so quickly take over our country. We don’t need Bush or Obama to give us a moral compass. This isn’t just about challenging the most extreme versions of Islamaphobia. It’s also about responding when neighbors argue that the Cordoba House should be moved for sensitivity’s sake; challenging colleagues who “ask” whether Obama is secretly Muslim; and questioning popular representations of Muslims even when you’re just watching TV with family. It’s hard to confront bigotry, whether it comes from your uncle or a stranger. Your blood pressure goes up and your heart races. But if we lead with love and acceptance, we will always know the right thing to say, and we will set an example for someone else.
Muslims are Americans and they belong here. When it’s time to pray, they will pray, whatever the circumstances. Mamdouh and his friends used to go into the stairwells of the World Trade Center, laying down a piece of cardboard if they had no rug. They do what they have to do to live out their values. It’s time that we all do the same.