However improbable, over the past month the single dominant political issue in America has been the proposed creation of an Islamic cultural center near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. Far too much has already said about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque", somehow ridiculously conflated to constitute a threat to American values and an affront to victims of 9/11. Enough people have tried to point out the folly in denying this high-profile opportunity to display our country's tolerant and pluralistic virtue and prove that we recognize that Islam is not our enemy. I would also add that it is sad that many political leaders do not have the clarity on our country's principles, and the courage to speak out against hysteria fueled by misinformation and bad intentions.
Public opinion polls show the project is opposed by a large majority of Americans. The same polls indicate that an unfavorable view of Islam may not be confined just to a handful of bigoted (or opportunistic) politicians, but that it is reflective of a significant part of the population at large. This raises the troubling question of whether the Muslim-American community has in some way failed to be accepted as part of the broader mainstream American culture in general.
Typically, such a problem would be associated with one of several European countries who have had difficulty assimilating their (immigrant) Muslim populations, and have thus dealt with racial/religious tensions and social unrest. But this would not be true of the U.S., where we have a long tradition of successfully incorporating people of all races and religions into our fold, right? Well, if the tone of discussion that has prevailed in the past month--one marked by bigotry, misinformation, and ignorance--persists, I worry that the Muslim-American community could justifiably feel unfairly singled out, targeted, and persecuted.
How are we in danger of getting to a point where an entire group of people could feel so alien or detached from the broader, diverse American community? Ross Douthat of the New York Times had a great column earlier this week entitled "Islam and the Two Americas" where he discussed how the U.S. has successfully assimilated other religious segments, even those with illiberal tendencies or practices outside of typical American norms. Today, people of Catholic or Mormon faiths are an inextricable part of American society, whether making up a majority on the Supreme Court, or being titans of politics, business, and sports. That, then, is the goal for Islam in America as well. Douthat argues it will take more vocal and demonstrative Muslim American leaders to convince Americans that they are on the same page when it comes to liberal democratic, secular, and moderate views.
I would argue humbly, too, that a major aspect is cultural--the truest way to be identified as part of the American way of life is to share in common experiences. Now, I am not Muslim, nor do I come from a Muslim family, so I can understand that some Muslim-Americans may bristle at the suggestion that they have to "try harder" to fit in. They should not be blamed for the ignorance and bigotry of others. Yet I noticed that when a Muslim friend of mine posted a link on his Facebook page to the TIME poll I cited above, it drew a sobering comment from a fellow Muslim friend of his. This guy wrote that given events of the past decade and "Muslims not doing much to connect with the country at large", the unfavorable public sentiment could have been worse. He added that for Muslim-Americans "mosques are badly functioning social clubs for specific ethnicities" and "they don't do outreach", so "what exactly should we expect?"
The fact of the matter is, the easiest path to mainstream acceptance (similarly with any minority group) is for more Muslim-Americans, especially young people and women, to be involved in public life in positions of prominence--such as more roles government and administration; more participation in the arts, entertainment, and sports; achieving distinction in the business world--and to be involved with and in popular cultural trends. (Heck, even having a Lebanese-American new Miss USA is a nice step, if only for showing that a range of orthdoxy of belief exists, much like any other religious tradition in the U.S.) Furthermore, a greater initiative to explain religious and cultural traditions is needed, so that "halal" is as recognized a term as "kosher", and the details of the annual Ramadan fasting period understood as well as Lent.
Given our country's ever-progressive track record, I have every confidence that the recent spate of anti-Islamic sentiment is a brief, ugly flare, whose significance has been over-amplified in a freak political debate. Also, several years from now when we look back, the idea of Muslims not being fully accepted in America will seem as quaint an idea as voters mistrusting John F. Kennedy for his Catholic faith.