Extremism at Ground Zero (Again)

Daisy Khan, co-founder of the Cordoba Initiative, speaks at a rally in support of an Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
AP Photo
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books). This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.  The angry "debate" over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.

It's not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a phony "Mosque at Ground Zero" shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death, and evildoers). Many have pointed out -- futilely -- that the complex will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting space, 9/11 memorial, and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The shorthand still sticks.

Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Midland Beach, Staten Island, in New York City.  Such protests are emerging with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders -- from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls -- have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin demanded that "peaceful Muslims" step up and "refudiate" the plan; Newt Gingrich denounced the building of such a "mosque" as long as Saudi Arabia bars construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers "to feel safe and be safe.")

No, it's the déjà-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles special unease, the sense that we've been here before as a country, and the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation's political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative which fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.

The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it's about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation's psyche. The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as Bridgeport, Connecticut, police discovered last week.  Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California, are all in this together. And it is not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission gave its unanimous blessing to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it's worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.

Panic in the Streets

In the panicked wake of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims (and dark-skinned people mistaken for Muslims) swept the country. Hundreds of beatings and even some random reprisal killings were reported coast to coast.
On Sept. 17, 2001, the day after he told the nation that a "crusade" against terror was in order, President Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and piously proclaimed that "Islam is peace." At virtually the same moment across town, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III were at a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into their ballooning 9/11 investigation, an undisclosed number of immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were being hauled into custody, Arabic and Farsi speakers were suddenly in demand at the FBI, and major legislation was already in the works to beef up government surveillance, immigration, and anti-terror capabilities. But no, Mueller said, there was nothing at all to complaints of ethnic targeting from Arab-American communities.

After the Patriot Act became law that October, Ashcroft launched a nationwide program of 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with Muslims from the Middle East. Internal Justice Department memos instructed interviewers to detain anyone suspected of immigration violations. "Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa -- even by one day -- we will arrest you," Ashcroft proclaimed.
When that initial set of 5,000 interviews was deemed complete (leading to no terrorism arrests of any kind), Ashcroft announced that another 3,000 would be conducted. He vowed to find anyone who had skipped out on the previous "voluntary" round.

By the end of 2001, a minimum of 2,000 Middle Easterners and South Asians had been taken into custody, the vast majority without criminal charges of any kind being lodged. Arrests were often highly publicized; the aftermaths of those arrests were shrouded in secrecy as court and immigration hearings were closed to family, public, and press. Vague color-coded attack alerts were announced by federal officials, and citizens were instructed to be prepared for a second 9/11 at any time. In 2004, another round of 5,000 voluntary interviews with Arabs and Muslims was announced.

The FBI began toting up the number and location of mosques around the country. The Census Bureau was drawn into a scheme to identify and enumerate areas with large Middle Eastern populations. The Energy Department was engaged to monitor mosques for suspicious levels of radiation.

A year after the 9/11 attacks, a special immigration program was instituted that required men from two dozen predominantly Muslim nations (and North Korea) to register with immigration authorities. Nearly 84,000 did so, with about 3,000 abruptly detained and over 13,000 promptly subjected to deportation proceedings. Muslims began to "disappear" from the streets of America. Lawyers wearing yellow shirts with "Human Rights Monitor" written on the back sought to keep track of individuals heading into registration centers in New York and Los Angeles -- and never leaving again.

Not surprisingly, this frenzy of law enforcement activity led many Americans to believe that there must be a dark reason so much attention was being paid to so many Muslims. By 2003, announcements of elaborate terror "plots" and investigations had already taken over the news.  These would regularly serve, like booster shots, to revitalize public suspicions that foul things were afoot. Muslims in Lodi, California, were plotting to blow up supermarkets. In Columbus, Ohio, they were targeting malls. In New York City, it was the Herald Square subway station.

Dozens and dozens of such cases have been reported over the past decade.  Virtually all of them involved Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims.  Virtually none of the supposed plots had any chance of happening, and many were, in fact, fueled by zealous government informers and covert agents. As with the numerous immigration detentions and deportations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much publicity surrounded announcements that violent and deadly "jihadist" plots had been thwarted. Often, when the suspects finally came to trial, charges and evidence amounted to something far less ominous (and so, far less publicized).

Nevertheless, the threat, said authorities, was everywhere -- even if it couldn't be seen.