Feisal Abdul Rauf gave an unfortunate interview today in which he complained that the protests against his proposal to build a community center, with a prayer site included, near the Twin Towers site in New York City, were essentially political in nature -- which is to say implicitly partisan. "There is no doubt," he told an Arab newspaper, "that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse." The comments are unfortunate because Rauf is currently traveling in the Middle East on the State Department's dime as part of an "educational and cultural program." That will make his comments appear to be those of a political hireling. If anything, that will do more to politicize an issue that has cut across partisan lines. I've seen Democratic elected officials speak out against building the "mosque," and I've read Republican columnists writing in favor of Rauf's project. Even someone as partisan as Mr. Right observed that the issue was not a partisan one when he had an occasion to comment on the subject last week. Islamophobia is not an exclusive tendency of the Republican party, the Christian right, or any of the usual bad guys. It's an all-too reflexive response to the irrefutable fact (conspiracy theorists notwithstanding) that the September 2001 terror attack on New York was perpetrated by a group of Muslims, acting as self-appointed defenders of their faith. Many Americans who hate Republicans probably hate Muslims as well. Many Americans who despise Christianity automatically despise Islam as well. To the extent that they accept that the terrorists attacked New York because they were Muslims -- and their religion is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of the attacks -- all these Americans feel that each and every Muslim is a proper object of suspicion. It's the same mentality that condemned Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, and that cut across party lines as well. It's simply wrong to suppose that this anti-Muslim sentiment depended on partisan instigation by "very small [yet] loud and vociferous voices] to flare up as it did this summer.
While Rauf should not have to answer for the 2001 terrorists and doesn't need to prove that he disagrees with their motives and goals, he could have gone further to acknowledge that the terror attacks have something to do with the opposition to the Park51 plan than he did in the interview excerpts I've seen. He's quoted saying that "we have radicals in the other faith traditions as well" while acknowledging that "the issue of radicalism is a threat to us all." But the problem isn't "radicalism" but terrorism, the fact that certain Muslims feel entitled to commit mass murder. All I'm asking is that Rauf say something as simple as "people are angry at Muslims because of 9/11" before explaining why they shouldn't be angry at all Muslims.
Rauf also noted that Muslims aren't the first religious group to fall under widespread suspicion in American history. He's absolutely right on that. Roman Catholics, in particular, were accused of conspiring to subvert American democracy in favor of papal hegemony, and to the extent that Catholic immigrants were blamed for incidents like the New York Draft Riots of 1863 we can say that Catholics were blamed for mass murder as well. American anti-semitism, which Rauf also mentions, never came close to the fear felt toward Catholics in the past or the fear felt toward Muslims today. Like Islam now, the Catholic version of Christianity was widely assumed to be incompatible with the values of a democratic republic. It took the fear a long time to die, and a search on the internet might reveal that it isn't completely dead, but the Catholics simply overwhelmed the old suspicion by settling here in numbers that could not be repelled by nativists or ignored by politicians. On that model, the remedy for Islamophobia should be more Muslims and more mosques in America. We have no more reason to assume that they'd impose the Sharia if they got the chance than Protestant morons had reason to assume, for instance, that a Catholic President would take orders from the Vatican. But if that's a chance you're not willing to take, you don't really believe in democracy. You either welcome Muslims and trust them to become Americans like every other immigrant group, or you don't. That's the political dividing line in New York City and the rest of the country, and Imam Rauf misses the point of the moment if he tries to draw the line somewhere else.
For the record, here's the full text of Imam Rauf's interview with the English-language Abu Dhabi paper.