For Muslim Americans, this year’s anniversary of September 11, may be the most stressful one yet, and possibly the most consequential. A confluence of events and political developments has produced a situation more volatile than any since the immediate aftermath of the horrific terror attacks of 2001.
Back then, with our nation in shock, it was to be expected that some might react in anger or out of fear. There were marches on mosques (I was struck by one in Chicago, where protesters carried Confederate flags while incongruously chanting “U.S.A.”), acts of violence (including the murders of Sikhs, whose assailants thought they were Arabs) and a flood of vile threats (I know because I received many, including the one from Zachary Rolnik who called me a “rag head” and threatened to “slit your throat and murder your children” – a hate crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to prison).
But something else happened in the days after 9/11. While some reacted in anger, others recoiled from these acts of hate reaching out to Arab Americans and Muslim Americans offering understanding and even protection. It was important that President George W. Bush helped set a positive tone by going to a mosque and, together with other elected officials and prominent entertainers, challenged all Americans to remember that if we struck out blindly against Islam or blamed all Arabs or Muslims, then we were letting “the terrorists win.”
The tide began to turn. Hate crimes, which had spiked in the first month following the attacks, showed a significant decline. And across the country change was in evidence. Churches offered protection to neighboring mosques, the Ad Council of America sponsored TV, radio and newspaper ads urging Americans to reach out to support their fellow citizens, other offices in my downtown Washington building offered to make lunches for my staff, knowing that some were afraid to leave, and the flood of emails and letters we had been receiving changed in tone from accusation to support.
In a way, though welcome, these developments were rather bewildering. As unwarranted as the attacks had been, we felt undeserving of the gestures of support. What we came to realize, however, was that it was all part of a healing process, as the values of goodness and generosity at the heart of our people were reasserted, defining our national character.
Now, nine years later, the hate and anger are back, and it is not only Muslim Americans who are at risk, but the very soul of America. I’ve written before about the precipitators of this transformation: economic stress and social dislocation; preachers of hate (both neo-conservatives with their anti-Muslim and anti-Arab axes to grind); irresponsible mass media (including Fox News and a whole host of talk radio shows); and politicians (some eager to exploit fear for political advantage and others too afraid to demonstrate leadership). All have combined to create the current situation described in a recent New York Times story headlined “American Muslims Ask, Will We Ever Belong?“
What is most disturbing is not just the current state of affairs; rather it is what, if left unchecked, all this portends for the future of our country.
About five years ago, I was invited to speak in a number of European capitols about the difference between the experiences of Arab and Muslim immigrants in America and Europe. What I observed, in my remarks, was that what has made America unique is that, despite the periodic ranting of bigots, we are not a nation defined by a single ethnicity or faith. Rather we have, in our history, demonstrated a remarkable absorptive capacity that has brought scores of immigrants to our shores making them all Americans. On the other hand, I have spoken to third generation Kurds in Germany or Pakistanis in the U.K. or Algerians who have complained that while they may, with difficulty, become citizens, they remain “Turk”, “Ay-rab”, or “Paki” immigrants. In the U.S. it is a different story. Not only does one become a citizen, but one becomes fully American, and, in the process, the very concept of “American” becomes transformed.
This is what has defined our character and made us the vibrant nation we have been – though not without a struggle as we confronted our demons. We were, for example, born plagued by our “original sins” of slavery, the dispossession of indigenous peoples, and the conquest of the southwest. We endured waves of anti-Asian backlash and campaigns of discrimination against new immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and the southern Mediterranean. But through it all, the genius of America was affirmed and we became a better, stronger and more unified nation.
The election of Barack Hussein Obama for many represented the triumph of this vision. Racism had not been defeated, but the America that promised “e pluribus unum” had asserted itself.
What we did not know then, was that this victory would, when combined pressures resulting from the ongoing pressures confronting the electorate, only add fuel to the fires of discontent.
And so here we are, nine years after a devastating attack that both shocked and then unified our nation and we are engaged in a debate, not about building a mosque or its location, but whether or not Muslims will find a place in America. Some may argue that that is not their intention. But reading the responses to my past columns and the signs of the protesters, or listening to the vile rhetoric from shameless politicians (some “respected” national leaders with aspirations for higher office) and the disgraceful discourse that fills the airwaves – and one might easily conclude otherwise.
We are, in fact, facing a critical choice and need leadership, now more than ever, to remind us of who we are as a nation and the consequences in store for us should we forget.