Sabeeha Rehman remembers walking through the crowds of angry protesters in downtown Manhattan as she made her way to a public hearing that would decide the fate of the Park51 construction project—better known in the news as the “Mosque at Ground Zero.”
“A what? At where?” she remembers thinking when she first heard the term. “Where did that phrase come from? It’s not a mosque we are building, and it’s not at Ground Zero.”
She was right. Park51 wasn’t meant to be a mosque. It was intended to be a Muslim community center—a place for “faith, fun, fitness, R&R, and interfaith gatherings,” as she describes it in her book. And it wasn’t at Ground Zero, but two blocks north of where the World Trade Center had once stood. But that didn’t matter to the protesters who clogged the streets of Lower Manhattan, carrying signs with anti-Islam slogans, as Rehman made her way to the meeting hall. She kept her head down as she walked.
The hearing was packed with people, most of whom were carrying signs similar to those of the protesters outside. “We are not trespassers,” Rehman wanted to tell them. “Ground Zero is sacred to us, too; it is our tragedy, too . . . . Don’t they see that we are not those people?”
Even though the Park51 project was approved and a temporary Islamic prayer space opened in September 2011, full construction was never completed. Last year, the owner was persuaded to take advantage of the thriving real estate market in lower Manhattan and convert the building into luxury condominiums. This victory of prejudice over pluralism reinforced the devastating effects that 9/11 had, and continues to have, on the American Muslim community.
“All of those efforts to build mosques, Muslim community centers, raising the profile of Islam, getting our children to feel comfortable and confident as Muslims, all smothered in the rubble of the towers,” writes Rehman in her new memoir, Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim.
The book is a strikingly honest account of Rehman’s experience as a Muslim in America. Born and raised in Pakistan, Rehman came to New York City in the early 1970s following an arranged marriage to a Pakistani doctor. Threading My Prayer Rug chronicles her adjustment to life in America, the challenge of raising Muslim children in a non-Muslim society, and the heartbreaking tribulations that befell American Muslims following the 9/11 attacks.
Rehman’s memoir juxtaposes American attitudes towards Muslims before and after 9/11, a date she says was life-changing for every Muslim living in the United States at the time. In describing events prior to the attacks, she uses the phrase “only in America” time and again to convey her astonishment at Americans’ capacity for open-mindedness and respect for religious diversity. She uses this phrase after her coworkers rescheduled lunch meetings to accommodate for Ramadan; after the Cub Scouts awarded her son the Bismillah Award, given to Muslim scouts who “advance in the knowledge and practice of Islamic religious living”; and after her husband was asked to perform a weekly Muslim prayer over the intercom at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York.
But for Rehman and her family, everything changed after 9/11. “The towers fell and the world was never the same again. The horror, the loss, the grief, and the pain consumed us . . . . Islamophobia reared its ugly head, and Muslims found themselves encircled by lions,” writes Rehman. “They ran for cover: women uncovered their heads, men shaved their beards, children refused to go to school, and the ten-year-old Osama became Sam, Mohammed became Mo, and Salman became Sal. An eerie silence stunned the Muslim community.”
A disturbing political trend, reminiscent of the bitter sentiments which ultimately smothered Park51, has resurfaced during this election season. Throughout the presidential primaries, Republican leaders used the national stage to reinvigorate anti-Islam attitudes in the American public. This hate-filled rhetoric, spearheaded by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, has serious consequences.
Saba Ahmed, president of the Republican Muslim Coalition, said she received hate mail after she wore an American flag hijab during a television interview with Fox News last November. Shortly after, a Muslim sixth grader was attacked during recess at her middle school in the Bronx by three boys who attempted to remove her hijab and repeatedly called her “ISIS.” Just days later, gunshots were fired at the car of a Muslim woman as she left a local Islamic Center in Tampa, Florida. In December, Trump stoked anti-Islam attitudes even further by proposing to ban all Muslim immigration into the United States.
In the month after the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, rates of suspected hate crimes against Muslim Americans and American mosques tripled, a California State University study found. American Muslims are increasingly exposed to scorn and violence at the hands of their fellow Americans.
Arsalan Iftikhar also acknowledges the challenges faced by American Muslims in recent decades in his new book, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms. His book offers several explanations for the increase in Islamophobia in the United States, and how it ultimately harms both the American public and homeland security objectives.
To explain the unyielding persistence of anti-Islamic sentiments among the larger American community, Iftikhar quotes fellow Muslim public figure Reza Aslan. “Bigotry is not a rational response but an emotional one—a result of fear, not ignorance,” says Aslan. “As every social scientist knows, it is not data that will change people’s minds. What will change people’s minds about disenfranchised groups are human relationships.”
But this poses an entirely new challenge to the American Muslim community, which comprised only 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2014. Despite the efforts of Muslims across the country to open their doors and organize interfaith information sessions, only 38 percent of Americans say they personally know a Muslim.
As a result, the majority of Americans have to rely on the media to get their information about Islam and its practices, which offers a pretty bleak outlook for those working to strengthen interfaith relations. To better understand American media portrayals of various faiths, the research institute Media Tenor analyzed more than 43,000 televised reports from CBS, NBC, and Fox News between January and November of 2013. Over 70 percent of the coverage on Islam was determined to have a negative tone, and less than 5 percent had a positive tone.
According to Media Tenor, the long-term trend of portraying Islam in a negative light reached an all-time high in 2014, when media stories about Islam, Muslims, and Muslim organizations focused almost entirely on the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram. Stories about Muslim contributions to society, both in America and abroad, were virtually nonexistent.
Iftikhar criticizes those who exploit “most Americans’ ignorance about Islam,” including the media. As Aslan writes in the book’s foreword, “The media is in the consumer entertainment business. They actively portray tiny fringe elements within Islam as representative of all Muslims because fear sells their products.”
Of the more than 350 mass shootings (defined as four or more people injured and/or killed) committed in the United States in 2015, Iftikhar writes, 99 percent were committed by non-Muslims. Yet American media, he argues, is reluctant to attach the “terrorist” label to mass murderers unless they are Muslim, even when their actions are religiously motivated.
Iftikhar cites Robert Dear as a prime example of this double standard. Dear was known for strongly advocating fundamentalist Christian beliefs long before he shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado—incidentally around the same time as the Paris and San Bernardino attacks—and killed three people, including a police officer.
“TV news producers did not feel compelled to book Christian preachers or prominent Protestants and Catholics on their shows and ask them to condemn the Planned Parenthood attack as an act of Christian terrorism,” writes Iftikhar. “When irresponsible political leaders and media talking heads rush to demonize Islam and lump all Muslims—all 1.7 billion of us—with murderous terrorists, it falls to a few ‘go-to’ professional Muslim public intellectuals like me to try to talk America down from that precipice of hysteria.”
In Scapegoats, Iftikhar explains that there are “literally millions of dollars” to be made from pedaling anti-Islam bias. Iftikhar points to a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress which found that, over the past decade, seven wealthy American individuals and foundations gave over $42 million to anti-Muslim political activists such as Frank Gaffney, David Yerushalmi, and Robert Spencer. Some of the donors named in the report include the Bradley Foundation, Donors Capital Fund, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Anchorage Charitable Fund, and the Fairbrook Foundation.
And yet other politicians are working hard to ensure that Muslim Americans are able to enjoy the religious liberty and sense of security that are the inalienable rights of all Americans. Earlier this year, Obama visited and spoke at an American mosque for his first time as President. In his speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he condemned the Republicans’ “inexcusable political rhetoric” against Muslims. His message was simple:
“Let me say this as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here, right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
In their books, Iftikhar and Rehman call on the American Muslim community to do its part to curb the proliferation of misinformation surrounding Islam in the West.
“As America continues to learn and grow in the direction of pluralism, so will we,” writes Rehman. “Together we will change the discourse, quell violence with knowledge, and banish phobias to the fringes.” w
Haloren Mellendorf is an editorial intern at The Progressive.