By Rafia Zakaria
On Aug 3, 2010, the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of New York voted unanimously against allowing historic protection status to a building at 45-47 Park Place in Lower Manhattan. In this way, the plan for constructing an Islamic Community Centre, which would include a mosque, cleared the final hurdle so that its planners could proceed with its construction.
In the days preceding and following the vote, the issue of the “mosque at ground zero”, as the centre is referred to in the popular media, has garnered increasing controversy. Right-wing critics such as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have asked peace-loving Muslims to denounce the mosque as an “unnecessary provocation”. A New York Times article published on Aug 8 detailed how mosques in Florida, Tennessee and California are all facing opposition from right-wing groups.
The controversy over the mosque at ground zero reflects the noose of scrutiny that has gradually tightened its hold over American Muslims. What began in the months and years following 9/11 as changes in immigration laws and national security policy seems to now be extending itself into questions of fundamental rights of freedom of religion and association. The USA Patriot Act signed into law in the immediate aftermath of the Sept 11 attacks singled out men of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin for a national registry. In the years since, hundreds of Muslim men have been interrogated and often harassed by the FBI for alleged involvement with terror groups.
Similarly, Muslim charities have been singled out for prosecution by federal agencies anxious to demonstrate their vigilance in pinpointing possible sources of terrorist funding. While few of these cases have resulted in convictions, mainstream Muslim organisations such as the Islamic Society of North America have been unduly labelled “un-indicted co-conspirators” in legal proceedings without any proof regarding their involvement in the charges.
The larger point behind this emerging regime of discrimination demonstrates a tacit if not explicit political acceptance of treating American Muslims as a legal underclass whose harassment does not enrage or even alarm the American public. While the mosque in New York is likely to be constructed, owing in part to the active lobbying of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the national debate on the issue suggests far more unfavourable outcomes for those in other parts of the country.
In areas such as Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a Christian conservative area in the Bible belt, detractors will likely win as they couch their argument in opposing the noise and increased traffic brought by the construction of the mosque instead of an outright opposition of Islam. Cumulatively, these developments represent the extension of legal discrimination from immigration and national security to the fundamental area of freedom of religion, a core founding principle of the United States. With the normalisation of religious discrimination, even when it appears under the pretext of zoning regulations, the casting of American Muslims as a religious underclass to which even fundamental rights such as freedom of religion may be denied, will be complete.
It is difficult to discern at this point whether the recent wave of Islamophobia seen in the wake of the decision to allow the construction of the mosque is a truly independent phenomenon directed particularly against Muslims or part of a larger pattern of emerging xenophobia in the United States.
Last week also saw a grisly battle between Arizona state officials over the implementation of the Arizona State Bill 1070 that would have allowed police in that state to require all immigrants to carry their citizenship papers and show them to the law enforcers if they were questioned. State officials were planning to round up hundreds of undocumented Latino immigrants in special tent prisons that had been specially created for just this purpose. While the most controversial provisions of the Arizona law were enjoined by a judge as unconstitutional, widespread support for the bill among Arizona voters suggests that most Americans did not find it problematic that the only people likely to be targeted under the law and asked to prove citizenship would be Latino immigrants.
Unlike American Muslims, however, Hispanic and Latino Americans have burgeoning numbers on their side with their emerging voting power being a possible foil against future discrimination. Muslims are powerless on this account, their small numbers not posing enough of a challenge to Republican strategies to castigate them as potential terrorists undermining American security.
Adding to the American Muslims’ burden is the fact that their Muslim identity is used to connect them with the many acts of religious discrimination against religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. While American Muslims may have little control over Taliban militants that choose to kill medical aid workers in Afghanistan or mobs in Pakistan’s southern Punjab that kill Christians, they are still accused of lacking tolerance.
The fact that few Muslim countries can point to similar acts of religious tolerance, such as allowing the construction of temples or synagogues, further adds credence to the charge that Muslims are thus undeserving of tolerance. Adding fuel to this fire are groups of mercenaries who are happy to latch on to any opportunity to make a quick buck by affirming the ill-founded suspicions and fear-mongering of those that wish to criminalise an entire faith.
The ninth anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks is likely to be an ominous event for American Muslims. Already, a non-denominational church in Gainesville, Florida wants to draw attention to the victims of 9/11 and take a stand against Islam. The proximity of Eid-ul-Fitr is also a matter of concern, given that any Muslim celebration around Sept 11 is likely to be taken as a sign of solidarity with terrorists. The planners of Islamic events which take large parties to amusement parks to celebrate Eid have come under attack by the right-wing Tea Party movement. Ironically, the organiser of these events is himself a survivor of the 9/11 attacks but this, along with the fact that the American Muslims, like all other Americans, have as much of a right to practise their faith as any other American, is often conveniently forgotten.
(The writer is a US-based attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy).
NOTE: This is a cross post from Dawn Newspaper.City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, fourth from left, and members of local religious institutions stand in front of the Statue of Liberty for a news conference in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010. The political and religious leaders were there to show their support for a mosque and Islamic cultural center planned in lower Manhattan. - Photo by AP.