US religious leaders condemn Islamophobia
By Jim Lobe and Daniel Luban
WASHINGTON - Leaders of some three dozen mainstream United States religious
denominations on Tuesday condemned what many commentators have called a rising
tide of Islamophobia touched off by the recent controversy over the
construction of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from
the site of the twin World Trade Center towers destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist
"As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our
nation's capitol to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and
outright bigotry being directed against America's Muslim community," the group
declared in a statement.
"We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the
incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the
desecration of Islamic houses of worship," the statement continued, adding, "We
stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to
do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans."
The group, which included national leaders of the Muslim and Jewish
communities, as well as from the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox
churches, singled out the threat by one Florida church to publicly burn copies
of the Koran to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The planned burning, which the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David
Petraeus, warned on Monday could endanger the lives of US troops there and in
Iraq, "is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible
condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the
sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11," the
inter-religious group said.
Also on Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a leading Jewish civil
rights organization, announced the formation of a new Interfaith Coalition on
Mosques to combat a wave of anti-Muslim incidents across the country.
The move by the ADL, which itself attracted intense controversy in August for
opposing the Islamic center's proposed construction in New York, was another
sign of the growing concern among communal leaders that the rise in anti-Muslim
sentiment triggered by the rancorous debate over the "Ground Zero Mosque", as
its critics dubbed it, has reached dangerous heights.
Most mainstream critics of the project, including the ADL, did not deny the
legal right of Muslims to build mosques where they choose. They argued instead
that the location of the center so close to the "sacred ground" of the World
Trade Center site showed insensitivity.
Defenders of the project noted that the proposed location was in a commercial
area that already featured restaurants, bars, and strip clubs - not to mention
other mosques just a few blocks away.
The controversy, however, soon touched off a broader wave of incidents
targeting Muslims and mosques.
In the most notorious case, a New York City cabdriver was stabbed several times
late last month by a passenger who asked whether asked him whether he was
Muslim. Days later, the construction site of a mosque in Tennessee was the
target of what federal investigators have described as an arson attempt.
Vandals also struck against mosques and Muslim congregations in California and
New York State, while plans to build new mosques or expand existing ones have
reportedly been put on hold in a number of communities across the country.
"Having spoken to many families across the country over the last few weeks, I
have heard many Muslim Americans say they have never felt this anxious or this
insecure in America since directly after September 11," Ingrid Mattson, head of
the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), told reporters at the press
conference where the inter-religious group released its statement.
Saturday's 9/11 anniversary is expected to spur more controversy. In addition
to the planned Koran burning, a major rally in Lower Manhattan against the
proposed Islamic center is also planned for September 11, led by Pamela Geller
and Robert Spencer, two bloggers who have been leading critics of the project.
Both have until recently been widely considered "fringe" figures, although
their work has been praised or supported by a number of prominent far-right or
neo-conservative personalities and groups, such as the Center for Security
Policy (CSP), which itself is funded by major US defense contractors and
several wealthy Jewish donors who also have supported radical Jewish settlers
in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; former United Nations ambassador John
Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the David Horowitz Freedom
Center, the Middle East Forum; and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The rally, however, will also feature Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch
politician who has been denounced by the ADL and other groups for Islamophobia,
and members of the English Defense League, a British far-right group. Former
house speaker Newt Gingrich, who is believed to be preparing a run for the
Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and who delivered an incendiary
speech against the proposed Islamic center at AEI, originally agreed to
participate in the rally but subsequently withdrew.
A growing number of foreign policy analysts and officials have warned that the
escalation in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric is rebounding against US national
security interests by fueling perceptions in the Islamic world that the United
States is anti-Islam.
Speaking of the planned Koran burning, Petraeus, widely considered Washington's
most popular military leader of the past generation, warned in an e-mail to
reporters that "Images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by
extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion
and incite violence." He told the Wall Street Journal it could "endanger [our]
troops and the overall effort" - a message that was echoed on Tuesday by both
the White House and the State Department.
Some of the members of the inter-religious group made similar statements on
Tuesday. "If [Petraeus] is correct, then we're really in trouble," said Roman
Catholic cardinal Theodore McCarrick. "The story of bigotry and intolerance
will be taken by others as a statement of America," he noted.
Expressions of hatred for Muslims "do real damage to America around the globe,"
said Rabbi David Saperstein, the executive director for Reform Judaism. "It is
not what our religions are about."
"You may have heard some of the loud voices of those who hate Muslims," Mattson
said, addressing herself directly to fellow-Muslims during the press
conference. "But they don't represent America. Don't use these incidents to
justify any kind of hatred against America or American Christians and Jews,"
Richard Cizik, a former head of the National Association of Evangelicals and
currently president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, was
particularly harsh toward those "mainly conservative Christians who are
responding with open bigotry and hatred" toward fellow citizens because of
their faith. Not only are they rejecting the constitution's first amendment
protecting freedom of religion, but they "bring dishonor to the name of Jesus
Christ", he said.
He also noted that the "principles that protect Muslims today will protect
Christians and Jews tomorrow".
Many religious leaders have noted similarities between the current attacks on
Islam and earlier attacks on US religious minorities, such as Jews and
Catholics, especially during periods of economic distress.
R Scott Appleby and John T McGreevy, two prominent historians of Catholicism at
the University of Notre Dame, recently warned in the New York Review of Books
of "the revival of a strain of nativism" and "a debased effort to whip up
partisan fervor" that echoes traditional attacks on US Catholics.