by Lawrence Wright
SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
In THE NEW YORKER
When a dozen cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed appeared in the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, in September, 2005, there was only a muted outcry from the small Danish Muslim community, and little reaction in the rest of the Muslim world. Six months later, however, riots broke out and Danish embassies were burned; more than a hundred people died. Assassination threats were made, and continue to this day.
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Last year, when plans were announced for Cordoba House, an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of Ground Zero, few opposed them. The project was designed to promote moderate Islam and provide a bridge to other faiths. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Sufi cleric leading the effort, told the Times, in December, “We want to push back against the extremists.” In August, the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted Park51, as the center is now known, unanimous approval. A month later, it is the focus of a bitter quarrel about the place of Islam in our society.
The lessons of the Danish cartoon controversy serve as an ominous template for the current debate. One reason for the initial lack of reaction to the cartoons was that they were, essentially, innocuous. There is a prohibition on depictions of the Prophet in Islam, but that taboo has ebbed and flowed over time, and only two of the twelve published cartoons could really be construed as offensive in themselves: one portrayed the Prophet as a barbarian with a drawn sword, which played into a racial stereotype; the other showed him wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. Newspapers in several Muslim countries published the cartoons to demonstrate that they were tasteless, rather than vicious. The cartoons, in other words, did not cause the trouble.
So what happened? A group of radical imams in Denmark, led by Ahmed Abu Laban, an associate of Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist organization, decided to use the cartoons to inflate their own importance. They showed the cartoons to various Muslim leaders in other countries, and included three illustrations that had not appeared in the Danish papers. One was a photograph of a man supposedly wearing a prayer cap and a pig mask, and imitating the Prophet. (He turned out to be a contestant in a French hog-calling competition). Another depicted a dog mounting a Muslim in prayer. The third was a drawing of the Prophet as a maddened pedophile gripping helpless children like dolls in either hand. The imams later claimed that these illustrations had been e-mailed to them as threats—although they never produced any proof that they hadn’t made the drawings themselves—and so were fair representations of European anti-Muslim sentiment. The leaders saw them and were inflamed. The Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi demanded a Day of Rage. So far, we have had five years of rage.
In the dispute over Park51, the role of the radical imams has been taken by bloggers and right-wing commentators. In this parable, Pamela Geller, who writes a blog called Atlas Shrugs and runs a group called Stop Islamization of America, plays the part of Ahmed Abu Laban. Geller has already contributed to the phony claim that President Obama is a Muslim (which twenty per cent of the American public now believe is true), by promoting a theory that he is the bastard son of Malcolm X. Because of Park51’s location, Geller compares the community center (or the “9/11 Monster Mosque,” as she terms it) to Al Aqsa, the ancient mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—a flash point for Jewish extremists in Israel.
Geller framed the argument for the New York Post, which added the false information that Park51 was going to open on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Deliberate misrepresentations of Imam Abdul Rauf as a supporter of terror further distorted the story, as it moved on to the Fox News commentariat and from there to political figures, such as Newt Gingrich, who compared Abdul Rauf and his supporters to Nazis desecrating the Holocaust Memorial Museum by their presence. These strident falsehoods have undoubtedly influenced the two-thirds of Americans who now oppose Park51. The cynicism of this rhetorical journey can be traced in the remarks of Laura Ingraham, who interviewed Daisy Khan, Abdul Rauf’s wife and partner in the project, in December. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham told Khan then. “I like what you’re trying to do.” Ingraham has since been brought into line. “I say the terrorists have won with the way this has gone down,” she said last month, on “Good Morning America.” “Six hundred feet from where thousands of our fellow-Americans were incinerated in the name of political Islam, and we’re supposed to be considered intolerant if we’re not cheering this?”
Culture wars are currently being waged against Muslim Americans across the country. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Muslims have been worshipping for thirty years, a construction vehicle was burned at the site of a new Islamic center. Pat Robertson, the fundamentalist Christian leader, warned his followers on the “700 Club” that, if the center brings “thousands and thousands” of Muslims into the area, “the next thing you know, they’re going to be taking over the city council. They’re going to have an ordinance that calls for public prayer five times a day.” As in the Park51 controversy, fearmongering and slander serve as the basis of an argument that cannot rely on facts to make its case.
The most worrisome development in the evolution of Al Qaeda’s influence since 9/11 is the growth of pockets of Islamist radicalism in Western populations. Until recently, America had been largely immune to the extremism that has placed some European nations in peril. America’s Muslim community is more ethnically diverse than that of any other major religion in the country. Its members hold more college and graduate degrees than the national average. They also have a higher employment rate and more jobs in the professional sector. (Compare that with England and France, where education and employment rates among Muslims fall below the national averages.) These factors have allowed American Muslims and non-Muslims to live together with a degree of harmony that any other Western nation would envy.
The best ally in the struggle against violent Islamism is moderate Islam. The unfounded attacks on the backers of Park51 and others, along with such sideshows as a pastor calling for the burning of Korans, give substance to the Al Qaeda argument that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, rather than against the terrorists’ misshapen effigy of that religion. Those stirring the pot in this debate are casting a spell that is far more dangerous than they may imagine. ♦
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