Why Islam is now America’s burning issue

In lower Manhattan last weekend, an internet evangelist named Bill Keller held a meeting in a makeshift church, not far from what used to be the World Trade Center. He called upon the gathered faithful to help him in his great task: The construction of a “9/11 Christian Centre at Ground Zero”, a counterweight to the Islamic cultural centre which is being planned in the same part of town, and which has been the central topic of an angry and unfocused national conversation all summer.

Rev Keller, who became a preacher after serving a federal sentence for insider trading, was clear about his own intentions, however. As he explained to the New York Times, Muslims “can go to their mosque and preach the lies of Islam and I’ll come here to preach the truth of the Gospel”. He also opined that the people worshipping in the lower Manhattan mosque – if it ever gets built, which seems unlikely – would be guilty of murder by association. After all, it was “their Muslim brothers” who “flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and killed 3,000 people”.

Meanwhile, down in Gainesville, Florida, another preacher, the Rev Terry Jones, has also made international headlines by threatening to hold a ceremonial burning of the Koran. In fact, he announced his plan to celebrate “International Burn the Koran Day” last July, but nobody noticed until this week. Somehow, his plan made the national news – and all hell broke loose, as they say down in Florida.

Within days, President Obama had condemned the burning as a “recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda”; the Secretary of Defense had personally called the Rev Jones and asked him to desist; and a raft of other politicians from the Left, Right and centre had criticised the plan in no uncertain terms. There were rumours of riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan; American Muslims bemoaned the events. Finally, on Thursday, the Rev Jones appeared to reconsider his plans, or at least to postpone them – although it still isn’t clear whether his mind was changed by all the high-profile pleading or by his apparent conviction that his threat to burn Korans has helped block the construction of that mosque in New York.

Today, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there is only one relevant question to ask about this sudden outburst of anti-Muslim rhetoric: why now?

Nine years have passed – nine years during which the public discussion of Islam has in fact been rather subdued, even non-existent. There was fear of repercussions against American Muslims in the autumn of 2001, but the repercussions never materialised. No political opposition to Islam, as such, ever emerged either. President Bush made a very public visit to a mosque in Washington, and declared Islam “a religion of peace”. American Muslims joined the American military in unusually high numbers. A number of prominent Muslims played important diplomatic and political roles in post-9/11 politics. Zalmay Khalilizad, for example, served as US ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

But nine years is a long time, in both war and politics. And though it sounds counter-intuitive, the renewal of anti-Muslim anger is surely happening now, not despite the passage of time but because of it. In the wake of mass tragedies, it often happens that the children of survivors – or even the distant acquaintances of survivors – are angrier than the survivors ever were themselves. Note, please, for the record, that neither the Rev Keller nor the Rev. Jones was present in New York or Washington on the day the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They did not suffer personally. They probably do not know anyone who suffered personally. And thus they find it easier to manipulate the memory of that tragic day for their own political and commercial ends.

It is also true that the past nine years have been unsatisfactory for many Americans, in many different ways. This summer, President Obama declared an official end to the war in Iraq. But it was a cheerless, unenthusiastic, unvictorious end. The war is over, but we still have 50,000 troops on the ground, we still have high oil prices, and we still have a pretty shaky government in control of the country. The Iraqi war may still be remembered, ultimately, as a success. But even so, Americans are no longer sure that a weak Iraqi democracy was worth the price, in money (trillions of dollars), lives, and national prestige.

The same is true of Afghanistan, where a frustrating war against medieval tribal leaders still seems to lead nowhere. The Bush administration failed to recognise the complexity of Afghanistan, the Obama administration is just coming to terms with it, and the American people are already tired of it. Nobody ever explained to them that it would take up to a decade to complete – on the contrary, following the initial victory over the Taliban in 2001, it seemed to be almost over – and nobody seems able to say when, exactly, it will finally end. That isn’t a very satisfying response to the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Economic woes are also a part of the explanation, but only indirectly. Frustrated by high unemployment, sinking living standards, and a sense that the optimism of the long economic boom has turned into permanent pessimism, Americans have been listening in ever larger numbers to demagogues of a sort we haven’t heard for decades.

On the mainstream, Murdoch-owned Fox News television channel, pundit Glenn Beck rants and raves about the secret cabal of Weathermen – violent, bomb-toting, Sixties’ radicals – who allegedly control the Obama administration. On the internet, ludicrous theories gain legitimacy through constant repetition. Nearly one in five Americans now believes that President Obama is a Muslim, a number which has been steadily rising since his election. The “birther” movement – people who are convinced that the president was not, in fact, born in the United States – seem to have a permanent foothold in cyberspace. Anti-Obama bloggers regularly describe the president as “pro-jihad” or just plain “anti-American”.

The president himself seems unable to cope with the torrent of vitriol, even when it comes from his own party. Even his attitude towards the Manhattan mosque was oddly equivocal. At first he made a clear statement: Americans believe in religious freedom and Americans believe in private property. If someone wants to build a mosque, they cannot legally be prevented from doing so. (He might also have added that there are plenty of mosques in Manhattan, some not too far from Ground Zero, already).

But then he seemed to waver, as if unsure whether the opponents of the mosque might not in fact have a point, and that there might not be some delicate issues of “sensibility” to consider. Regardless of what you think about this whole issue, wavering was a mistake. It gave the demagogues another opening, and another round of attacks and discussion began. Instead of dying away, as these stories tend to do, the president’s comments helped revive discussion of the mosque, Ground Zero, and Islam. And thus we now have the phenomenon of the Rev Jones and the Rev Keller and their weird, attention-grabbing crusades.

As ever, it is important to take all of this with a grain of salt: we are talking about pretty marginal people – a Florida preacher? An internet evangelist? – and I doubt that the majority of Americans feel any differently about Muslims now than they did on September 11, 2001. Generally speaking, in the US there is a certain amount of wariness about the Muslims who live abroad, mixed with a large dose of tolerance for the Muslims who live next door.

Still, anger is a popular emotion at the moment, and those who cultivate it can receive a lot of attention, as well as material rewards which follow. Attention brings book contracts, book contracts bring lectures, lectures bring money. Now it is the turn of the anti-Islamic preachers and their friends in politics and the media to benefit from those links – but I’m sure it will be someone else’s turn next.

Scroll to Top