The Daily Star: Strategic Issues; September 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam
President Obama has seriously failed to imagine that his support for the Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero would create such repulsion and hatred. Since the President's support based upon the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all religions, conservative groups and the families of 9/11 victims have raised hell to stop the proposed centre. It has led to renewed hate campaign and attacks on Muslims. A priest in Florida has called for burning of the Koran to mark the 9/11 anniversary and led General Petraeus to warn that such an act would seriously harm US efforts in Afghanistan and President Obama to describe it as a “recruitment bonanza “ for Al Qaeda. Another group has called for denying Muslims the right to build new mosques unless they renounce the Koran!
The anti-Muslim hate campaign has brought to surface the ugly face of America as a nation that also harbours racial and ethnic hatred that was almost forgotten. First, the falsehood; the project on which the latest hate campaign is based is not a Mosque but a cultural centre that would have a basketball court and a culinary school where only the top two floors of its 13 floors would be used for Muslim prayers. The rest is for use of all New Yorkers. Second; there are two Churches literally few feets from Ground Zero. Third, the project is a few blocks away from Ground Zero and 4/5 blocks from the planned September 11 memorial and would not be visible from the hallowed place because of high rise buildings in between. Four, the project has been renamed Park 51 to calm the hate mongers who have claimed that it would be a training ground for terrorists! Five; in the vicinity of Ground Zero, there was Masjid Manhattan that was established in early 1970, months ahead of the World Trade Center. It lost its lease two years ago to a big building project and now Muslims pray in a relocated Masjid nearby in a basement where only 20% of the devotees can pray at a time! Six, the hate campaign reveals a strange contradiction about America. While America has spent such huge sums of taxpayers' money and sacrificed lives of over 4000 of its soldiers for democracy in Muslim Iraq; it is carrying out an unprovoked hate campaign against the Muslims in the country. Seven; attacks on Muslims have increased significantly under President Obama than his predecessor and even Mosques have been bombed. Finally, the unprovoked hatred against the Muslims is unbelievably vicious!
In fact, the vibes that history conscious people get are ominous. They are reminded of the fate of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor attack and of the alleged communists during the era of McCarthyism. The holocaust started with steps like the current anti-Muslim hate campaign. When Hitler was leading his people to commit history's worst crime against humanity, educated people followed him in stages before they realized what monstrosity they had supported but when they realized, it was too late for them to stop the holocaust. Those who are caught in the frenzy against the Muslims should pause and read Pastor Martin Niemoler's famous statement in Frankfurt in 1946 when he admitted how as a German conservative, he had no problem with the beginnings of the holocaust till he himself was arrested for insufficient enthusiasm. Perfectly rational and educated men like him were also caught in the fray and supported Hitler's rise till it was too late. Since 9/11, in USA the Muslims have been systematically attacked at work; on the streets and in the Mosques and the issue of the so-called Mosque near Ground Zero have been taken totally out of context by those leading the hate campaign, to add fuel to the fire. The pattern is deeply disturbing.
These events have demoralized the Muslims in the USA. A recent New York Times story headlined “American Muslims ask, will we ever belong?” has highlighted the anxiety among Muslims who are concerned that the hate campaign against them is increasing, not diminishing. They have been particularly flabbergasted by the threat of a pastor of a small Church in Florida to burn Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 and dismissal by Christian groups of this as a stunt has not allayed Muslim fears. Muslims, who before 9/11 had believed that they had assimilated more successfully in the American society than Muslims in Europe, are now worried about their future. According to Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University; “there is hopelessness…helplessness…real grief” among Muslims in USA. Such feelings have forced some Muslim leaders to ask their community to shun Eid celebrations this year that coincides with 9/11 and instead give time to community service but these efforts may not halt the hate campaign unless America as a nation sees the monumental mistake they are making.
The Muslims in the USA are the “collateral damage” of the war on terror; like the many hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim men, women and children killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, it is America's credibility as a leader in world affairs that is being tested. Despite the feeling of gloom that has descended upon the Muslims, it is not doomsday yet and American democracy and its legal system are still stronger than the bigots who are leading the hate campaign. There is nevertheless great concern in minds of Muslims that even people like Newt Gingrich, once the Speaker of the House, has lent his name in this hate war by liberally misrepresenting Muslim history to incite more hatred and no significant leader of the conservative groups in USA has come up to stand against the tide of hatred against the Muslims.
President Obama faces Congre-ssional elections later this year that could make or break his presidency. But he has a greater responsibility to reassure Muslims that in the land of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, they have as much right to live with the same freedom as believers of other faiths because the hate campaign has the potentials to destroy US's democratic roots. The President has disappointed Muslims and rational Americans by failing to condemn the pastor's threat to burn Koran unequivocally instead of pointing to him the danger his action would bring for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would do better if he reflected on Pastor Niemoler's historic words before this hate war gets out of control. If Americans do not stand up against this war of hatred, then what would be the difference between them and the Taliban? Meanwhile the Pastor has “suspended” his pledge to burn the Koran to the relief of all rational Americans but the hate war against the Muslims is far from over.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.