Editor’s note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.
(CNN) — Almost everybody has heard about the protests against the mosque and Islamic center planned to be built about two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan. But most people are still unaware that these anti-Muslim political campaigns are spreading throughout our beloved country as a new wave of Islamophobia hits.
Debate over the Islamic center has become ridiculously absurd. An ad objecting to the mosque depicts a plane flying toward the World Trade Center’s towers as they burn on the left, with a rendering of the center on the right, and is set to run in New York buses.
Far away from New York, some right-wing Republican political candidates in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have denounced plans for a large Muslim center proposed near a subdivision and hundreds of angry protesters have subsequently turned out for a march and a county meeting on the matter.
A few months back, members of a tea party group in Temecula, California, took barking dogs and anti-Muslim picket signs to Friday prayers at a neighborhood mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby. A few Christian ministers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, led a noisy fight against a Muslim group that sought permission to open a mosque in a former health-food store bought by a Muslim doctor.
More recently, American Muslim leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, eventually had to ask police and elected officials for security so they could worship in peace after an angry mob protested outside a mosque.
About a dozen members of a Texas-based group self-righteously calling itself “Operation Save America” confronted other peaceful American worshippers at the Masjid An-Noor mosque a few weeks ago; yelling what mosque members described as “hate-filled slogans” against Muslims.
Simply put, Islamophobia has become ridiculously out of hand. For those who argue that mosques are somehow inherently breeding grounds for extremism, a two-year joint study by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina concluded that American “mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism.”
The professors in the joint study further highlighted that “many mosque leaders had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring anti-violence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.”
Let us go back to the Manhattan mosque dispute for a moment.
Certain vocal right-wing national critics of the project — a coalition that includes Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and members of the tea party movement — have assailed it as an unnecessary provocation. Palin has infamously asked people to “refudiate” (sic) the mosque project. Some protesters, including right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson, have pledged to organize legal efforts to block its construction.
On the other side of the debate, many brave supporters of the mosque project, including New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have championed the center as a symbol of religious tolerance.
During an emotionally stirring and teary-eyed press conference on the mosque, Bloomberg said: “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question — should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion?
“That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another. There is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy.”
First of all, the Manhattan building in question already includes a prayer space for Muslims. That building is what they will actually tear down in order to build a larger $100 million community center for New Yorkers of all religions; where there will be bookstores, restaurants, art galleries and yes, even a Muslim prayer room.
How could any reasonable person be opposed to that?
Another unsung hero in this whole Islamophobia debate has been Newsweek editor and CNN TV host Fareed Zakaria. Without any personal obligation, Zakaria recently returned an award and $10,000 honorarium to the Anti-Defamation League after the civil rights group’s bizarre opposition to the Manhattan mosque project.
In a recent Newsweek column that he wrote on the matter, “Build the Ground Zero Mosque,” Zakaria stated, “If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the U.S. government would be funding it.”
Finally, as author and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic rightfully noted: “Americans who seek the marginalization of Muslims in this country are unwittingly doing the work of Islamist extremists. … We must do everything possible to avoid giving them propaganda victories in their attempt to create a cosmic war between Judeo-Christian civilization and Muslim civilization. …The fight is not between the West and Islam.”
Zakaria and Goldberg are entirely correct. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all of its citizens.”
Sadly, unless we successfully tackle this upsurge of anti-Muslim rhetoric from New York to California, to Tennessee to Connecticut and other places across our great land, it saddens me to think that the infamous lunatic terrorist known as Osama bin Laden may be in a cave somewhere in central Asia laughing at us — and perhaps even mockingly referring to our beloved country as the United States of Islamophobia.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.