From New York to Tennessee to California, mosques and Muslim community centers are meeting a small but fierce swelling resistance from an increasingly vocal minority of local citizens' groups who charge that mosques represent a major threat to America's way of life and central values. Such baseless and hateful attacks are at the heart of a dangerous miscalculation, particularly since many mosque founders and leaders today share a common commitment to promoting an authentic and mainstream vision of Islam that coexists with other faiths in America. In a mid-term election year, and as presidential candidates get ready for 2012, anti-Muslim prejudice is ripe for political pickings.
The anti-Muslim rage-aholics, however, feel that Islam cannot exist within America's pluralism. Ironically, their view is shared by Al-Qaeda -- making right-wing groups and former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich closer to the Al-Qaeda narrative than the local Muslim communities they are fiercely protesting. The vitriol from these anti-Muslim groups plays right into the hands of Al-Qaeda, a group that works tirelessly to prove that America is at war with Islam.
Here's the paradox I and many other Muslim Americans are living. We have to demonstrate our efforts against extremism by amplifying our mainstream majority voice, yet when we build institutions to help expand our capacity, we become targets of virulent and bigoted xenophobes who characterize any and all Muslims as extremists and radicals.
Secondly, when we meet with policy makers in the Obama administration and both federal and local national security teams at the White House and within law enforcement agencies, we are told that a counter-narrative to the "West is at war with Islam" is critical to winning against Al-Qaeda. So how can we defeat Al-Qaeda when these anti-Muslim groups within our own country have subscribed to this narrative of a war against Islam? Recently, I was on a talk show by a local NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, and I debated a pastor of a Riverside, CA church who was protesting the expansion of a local mosque because he had problems with the "nature of Islam," which he described in cult-like terms as a force that is antithetical to Christianity.
In Tennessee, groups carrying American and Israeli flags recently protested the development of a new mosque in Nashville. And this weekend, the state's Lieutenant Governor said "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it."
When segments of other Abrahamic faith communities would like to see the marginalization of Muslim Americans, then we're faced with our real problem in defeating Al-Qaeda, in preserving our pluralism, and in preserving our freedoms.
Yet we Muslim Americans are struggling just to keep up with the internet war against Al-Qaeda. For example, the Muslim Public Affairs Council recently released a video that is gaining praise from Congresswoman Jane Harman, a member of the House Homeland Security subcommittee. The video is entitled "Injustice cannot defeat Injustice."
Any time a group of people represent change in their society, they are branded radical, extremist, fringe or -- one of my favorites -- suspect. Outside of criminal courts and without probable cause, there is no national security value in labeling someone a suspect, but it sure does delegitimize whole groups and whole communities.
Such is the central challenge for Muslim Americans today; labeling Muslim American a suspect community goes hand in hand with excluding Muslim Americans from a place in the public square.
So we have a choice: do we succumb to intolerance and ignorance or do we embrace Muslim Americans as full and equal partners in our communities and our country? Muslim American successes count for America, not against her. Alienating them from mainstream America is propaganda feed for Al-Qaeda. And our collective national silence on open bigotry toward Muslim Americans and their institutions will be a stain in our history books -- one which we cannot afford. Take your pick.