Countering a Wave of Hate towards Islam
It may only be a small paper in a small American state, but the uproar surrounding the Portland Press Herald clearly illustrates the current mood in the USA.
The newspaper from the state of Maine published a harmless article about 3000 Muslims that gathered in Portland and peacefully prayed together to mark the end of Ramadan. A photo of the event also appeared on the paper's front page. The editor evidently had not expected this decision would lead to the subsequent deluge of complaints from readers.
The article and accompanying photo were published on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and it enraged readers to such an extent that the paper received countless angry letters to the editor. Richard Connor, the paper's editor and publisher, was forced to react. The next day, the newspaper printed an apology in which Connor admitted to having "upset many readers" with his journalistic decision and regretted not having found the "right balance" on a day such as September 11.
Clearly, a prominent front-page story about law-abiding American Muslims celebrating their holiday was not something that the paper's readers wanted to see on this day of mourning. James Poniewozik, a blogger with Time magazine, responded to the newspaper's apology with the caustic commentary headline, "Paper to Readers: Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human."
Muslims as useful scapegoats
Coverage of the New York Ground Zero mosque controversy on conservative media like Fox News or statements by Tea Party politicians might lead many to concur with the views of the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He regrets that Muslims are one of the last minorities in America that can be publicly humiliated without any fear of consequences.
Events like the recent appearance of Mahmud Ahmadinedjad before the UN General Assembly, where the Iranian president elaborated on bizarre conspiracy theories concerning 9/11, have only served to worsen the mood against Muslims.
In fact, the media has reported on a massive number of incidents, indicating rampant Islamophobia throughout the country. American Muslims have not been exempt from this wave of hate. A taxi driver in New York was attacked and slashed across the neck, only because he was a Muslim. A New York construction worker was attacked during an anti-mosque demonstration, because he supposedly looked like a Muslim. A mosque being built in Murfreesboro, Tennessee suffered an arson attack.
Those on the American left have expressed alarm and disgust at the sheer number of attacks while posing the equally disconcerting question as to whether anti-Islamism is the McCarthyism of the new millennium. Back in the 1950s, a hysterical campaign was instigated against supposed communists.
Encouraging signs of resistance
America would not be renowned as a land of contrasts if these vehement actions did not elicit an equally resolute counter-reaction. Resistance against this anti-Islamic mood is growing, even though it has received comparably far less attention in the media.
"It can't be denied that there is an anti-Muslim mood in the country," says Joseph Cumming of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. "But there has also been an almost equally vigorous counter-reaction by those who reject Islamophobia and who have positioned themselves on the side of American Muslims."
In comments to the sueddeutsche.de, the director of the "reconciliation program" at Yale University, which aims to build bridges between Islam and Christianity, expressed concern at developments on the one hand, but also showed some cautious optimism.
"I believe that the topic isn't merely excessively covered in the media, but that the media itself is a contributing factor to events," says Cumming. Statistics indicate that Cumming may not be so far off the mark. The number of reported crimes against Jewish Americans remains far higher than that against Muslims.
Cumming also confidently names those who have raised their voices in support of Muslims in America – the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the umbrella organization of evangelicals in the US that represents some 45,000 churches nationwide. It has loudly protested against the anti-Muslim tirades and stands on the side of Muslim Americans.
Richard Cizik sends out a clear message to all the Islamophobic voices who believe that being American is inextricably tied to being a Christian and for whom Islam is therefore un-American and only worthy of contempt. "I say 'Shame on you!' to all evangelicals who show religious intolerance towards Muslims and who insult or discriminate against them. It brings shame upon all of us who love Jesus and his church."
Work towards reconciliation
Cizik, a former NAE vice-president and founder of the "New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good", sees the root of the problem not in a new racism, but rather in sheer ignorance. This is also confirmed by opinion polls, which indicate that people who don't have any Muslim friends are far more sceptical towards Islam.
Together with Muslim associations, Cizik and his organization have initiated numerous programmes with the aim of combating this ignorance. "These programmes will help us to head off plans by the radical right to label Islam as the new 'evil empire'," said Cizik to the sueddeutsche.de. Cizik is a very busy man.
In April, there was a joint programme with evangelicals and Muslims, and another will follow in November. The reconcilliator Cumming can't complain about having too little work. The furore surrounding Pastor Jones from Florida, who planned on holding a Koran burning event to mark the anniversary of 9/11, also beset the man from Yale, but not as one might think.
Has reconciliation work between the two world religions become more difficult on account of the current public mood? Cumming takes a moment to consider. "Every time when someone does something crazy like Pastor Jones, our telephone rings," he says.
"Christians call up. Pastors and church leaders want suggestions from the director of the reconciliation programme as to how they can establish friendly and good relations with Muslims in their neighbourhood." This counter-reaction, says Cumming, "provides us with great encouragement in our work."
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de