In February, Bill Cosby endorsed Katie Couric’s call to model a television show about a Muslim American family after The Cosby Show. On March 10, Representative Peter King opened Congressional hearings about radicalization in the Muslim American community. Which narrative will win out—one based on the true story that ordinary Muslims are simply trying to go about their daily lives as US citizens or the other, fabulous story that American Muslims are radical terrorist sympathizers bent on a “stealth jihad” to usurp the Constitution and impose Islamic law on the land?
The supposed widespread radicalization of American Muslims and their “stealth jihad” are paranoid fantasies. But because they are now being paraded about as political truths, it’s important to respond to these myths and the King hearings not defensively but judiciously and historically. A study last year by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that the number of Muslim Americans involved in terrorist activities is minuscule compared with the size of the community, labeling Muslim American homegrown terrorism “a serious, but limited, problem." Forty percent of Muslim domestic terrorism suspects since 2001 have been turned in by fellow Muslims, and law enforcement officials from across the country are vocal in contradicting King’s claim of Muslim noncooperation.
But still the story of a “stealth jihad” in particular continues to gain ground, fueling last summer’s opposition to Park51 (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque) and pushing voters in Oklahoma, with its tiny Muslim community, to vote overwhelmingly in November in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would ban the use of Sharia law in their courts. One Oklahoman Republican state representative called the vote “a war for the survival of the United States.” (A federal judge has temporarily blocked Oklahoma’s amendment as unconstitutional.) A dozen other states have since followed suit.
Meanwhile, the Pew Center on Religion published a report in September that found that at least thirty-five mosques across the country have faced opposition over the past two years. In Temecula, California, mosque opponents were advised to bring dogs to their demonstration because, as the leader of their group stated, Muslims “hate dogs.” A fringe religious leader in Florida garnered international coverage for his plans to burn Korans on September 11 last year and was talked out of the idea by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, no less. Conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly appeared on the popular daytime television show The View on October 14, where he stated that “Muslims killed us on 9/11” (causing two of the hosts, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, to walk offstage in anger). And during the 2010 election season, the Tea Party Nation called on its supporters to oust African-American Congressman Keith Ellison from his seat because he is Muslim. (Ellison has offered powerful testimony refuting the King hearings.)
It would seem that the fear of terrorism, commonly (and regrettably) associated with Islam, is being usurped by a very popular fear of Muslims generally. Acceptance of Muslim Americans, a counterweight to these suspicions for many years, may also be receding. The question is not just why has this happened but why has it taken nine years for this dramatic change to occur, and will it remain?
King’s answer seems to be that the Muslim American community has itself become increasingly radical. The lunatic ravings of Yemeni-American firebrand Anwar Awlaki, telling Muslim Americans to rise up against their government, certainly don’t help, and popular suspicion may also be stoked by a few high-profile arrests of “homegrown” terrorists.