September 23, 2010
One day after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. security specialist Richard Clarke asked, “Why do they hate us?” Nine years later, with global and American opinion of Muslims sinking to modern historical lows, it’s time for the Muslim world to overcome its aversion to introspection and ask the same of itself.
Muslims might have little to worry about if anti-Muslim sentiment in America were limited to the small segment of the public predisposed to bigotry and roiled by hard times. It isn’t. In a country renowned for tolerance and pluralism, resentment toward Muslims now extends far beyond the conservative right.
A Gallup poll in January found that 43 percent of Americans have a “little,” “some” or “a great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims (compared with 18 percent toward Christians, 15 percent toward Jews and 14 percent toward Buddhists). And another poll conducted in late August found that even in the cosmopolitan capital of the world, New York City, one-fifth of respondents said they felt animosity toward Muslims, and nearly 60 percent said their friends held negative views toward them.
What’s behind these disturbing attitudes?
Lately, a good part of it is the provocative proposal to build a mosque and cultural center two blocks from where Muslim terrorists crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center. The imam behind the center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, may be considered a hero to some in the Muslim world, but he’s done more than any single individual of late to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.
Another factor: the recent instances of homegrown terrorism, from Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan to Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Prior to this wave, most Americans made a relatively clear distinction between the Muslims “out there” and those down the block. Now they have been forced to confront the “Americanization” of the terror threat.
While President George W. Bush’s bellicose policies gave rise to legitimate Muslim grievances, they also allowed the Muslim world to put off the urgent need to work on itself. Muslims asserted their identity and faith but grew more irrational and weaker in the process.
Instead of unambiguously showing that the intolerance displayed that September morning had nothing to do with them, many Muslims grew more hostile. They spewed more venom. Radicalism grew. Moderates remained mostly mum; on the rare occasions they did speak up, it was only against injustices toward Muslims, conveying an indifference to the other five-sixths of humanity.
Leaders of nations wishfully labeled moderate, such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, took blinkered aim at Jews and went so far as to pin 9/11 on Hollywood, thus damaging the reputation of both their countries and their faith. From Britain to Indonesia, Muslims hunkered down, embraced a victim mentality and failed to produce inspiring global leaders or even credible, persuasive spokespeople.
All the while, Muslims were sure, thanks to reassuring distortions in the Arab media, that America was losing, which meant the Muslim world must be winning. They missed that the Bush years represented a bad inning (or two) but didn’t reflect the overall score. They overlooked the unflattering opinions slowly being formed among the many Americans who had mindfully reserved judgment, or were striving to hold positive opinions of Islam.
Recently Americans have become more familiar with the Muslim world and the Quran, and they see correlations between the two. Violent verses of the Quran — now widely circulated on the Internet — are being conflated with the actions of extremists and, more presumptuously, with the thinking of moderates.
Many Americans feel they have witnessed one too many double standards from the Muslim world, which asks for sensitivity but fails to deliver the same in return, as demonstrated most recently and vividly with the proposed Islamic center near Manhattan’s ground zero. (This is not to ignore that America has dished out a fair share of double standards to Muslims.)
What’s more, Americans are rightly tired of cowering in the face of terrorist threats. Every time Gen. David Patraeus or President Barack Obama says you shouldn’t burn a Quran out of fear of violent retaliation, a portion of America is going to defy these pleas, or secretly cheer on those who do.
The sad truth is that the Muslim world has few modern accomplishments to speak of, feeding suspicions that Islam itself is the cause of underdevelopment. Wrong as that may be, the Muslim world has to understand that the perceived nature of any faith is decided largely by what people witness of it in the present.
There is a real danger that Muslims will react to this wave of anti-Muslim sentiment as they so often have when confronted with what they find disagreeable: to play the victim, cling to deep denial and fail to adopt proactive ways to positively alter their destiny.
In our most action-oriented of nations, which rejects reactive self-pity and honors industrious self-improvement, that is sure to obliterate the remaining goodwill Americans feel toward Muslims.
A more constructive course would start with the question Clarke sought to answer that chilling September morning nine years ago.
* This entry ran on AOL News