In August 2010, the cover of Time asked "Is America Islamophobic?" Bobby Ghosh wrote the featured article in response to the intense and at times ugly debate surrounding the proposed Park51 Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan that engulfed the nation that summer.
Five years later, it's worth revisiting the question. Is America Islamophobic? Better yet, has America become more Islamophobic in the five years since the Park51 controversy? Much of the evidence points to a sobering answer. The Park51 controversy was the beginning of a new phase of anti-Muslim hostility that shows no signs of abating. Consider the following:
- Hate crimes: According to FBI reports, anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than before 9/11, and the average number of hate crimes per year since 2010 has been higher than in the three years preceding the Park51 controversy. This data does not even include some of the horrific violence witnessed in the past year, such as the execution-style murders of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC. It is also worth noting that non-Muslims have also been victimized by anti-Muslim hate crimes. For example, Wade Michael Page likely mistook Sikhs for Muslims as he gunned down six Sikhs at a Milwaukee temple in 2012.
Mosques: According to data provided by the ACLU and the Pew Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, conflicts over mosques, including efforts to prevent the construction of mosques and violent attacks on mosques, have increased since the Park51 controversy. Between 2005-2007, there were nine such conflicts or episodes, a number that increased to twenty between 2008-2010. From 2010-2012, the number of anti-mosque conflicts rose to eighty-nine. That's a 345 percent increase from the preceding period and likely due in part to the orchestrated campaign against the Park51 Center led by the likes of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Surveillance, profiling and entrapment: The FBI continues to rely heavily on the use of informants to infiltrate mosques and communities in an effort to incite Muslims who have done nothing illegal to participate in terrorist activity. A recent case involved the arrest of three Brooklyn men for plotting to join ISIS. Court documents reveal that none of the men would have been in a position to travel to Syria or Iraq without the help of an FBI informant. Last year, Human Rights Watch labeled the FBI use of informants to create otherwise non-existent terrorist plots as "abusive" and bordering on entrapment.
The NYPD's own surveillance program of Muslim communities was made known to the public in 2011. It too relied on informants as well as "mosque crawlers" and various methods of racial and religious profiling to target (if not create) potential terrorists. The NYPD disbanded the program in 2014, but it has not formally renounced some of its dubious surveillance tactics, including the use of informants, the labeling of some mosques as "terrorism enterprises," and the reliance on a theory of radicalization that links almost any devout Muslim man with being on a path toward radicalization.
Presidential politics: The last presidential race witnessed the most prominent examples of political Islamophobia to date. At one GOP debate, Newt Gingrich compared Muslim Americans to Nazis, insisting that just as the latter tried to infiltrate the U.S. during World War II, so might Muslims be trying to do the same today. On another occasion, Gingrich claimed, "Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States." Herman Cain indicated in an interview that, if elected, he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or as a federal judge. He also echoed Gingrich's concerns about sharia, insisting that there was a "creeping attempt...to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government."
The 2016 presidential race already includes a field with a recent history of Islamophobic rhetoric. Rick Santorum accused Presidents Bush and Obama of giving "all Muslims a pass for identifying a cancer within their own body." The disease in question was presumably "Islamic terrorism." Ted Cruz argued that sharia law in the U.S. is an "enormous problem." Rand Paul compared the Muslims who wanted to build the Park51 Center to the KKK. Lindsey Graham suggested that the Charleston shooter's decision to sit in a bible study for an hour before opening fire reflects "Mideast hate" (a euphemism for "Islamic hate" and something that is presumably much worse than "American hate"). Mike Huckabee maintained that Islam "promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet." Based on these sentiments, it's a safe bet that the Islamophobic rhetoric will be amplified for the 2016 race.
Anti-sharia laws: The irrational fear that sharia is taking over the U.S., articulated by some of the current presidential contenders, is more deeply rooted in the country. A movement to ban sharia law in the states, orchestrated by an anti-Muslim lawyer named David Yerushalmi, emerged in 2010 in Oklahoma. In the past five years, eight states have voted to ban sharia law, and a majority of states have seen bills introduced proposing such a ban. All of this in spite of the fact that no instance of sharia law superseding U.S. Constitutional law exists, not to mention that at one percent of the population, Muslims are not in a position to impose any kind of law on any state. Hate rallies: The recent "Draw Muhammad" contest in Garland, TX, attracted considerable media attention for the two extremists who tried to open fire at the event. But the event, led by Pamela Geller, also revealed the attraction of hate rallies that engage in Muslim-bashing under the pretense of defending freedom of speech. The Garland event inspired an anti-Islam rally outside a Phoenix mosque almost a month later. That rally, however, upped the ante by encouraging participants to come armed in order to defend their freedom of speech. Similar rallies are planned for later in the summer. Media: Islamophobia is rampant in all forms of mass media. Oscar-contending films from the past several years have featured hoards of angry, violent, anti-American Muslims who are thwarted by white American heroes, from Argo to Zero Dark Thirty to American Sniper. Muslims prone to violence and terrorism are also central to the plotlines of recent award-winning television shows such as Homeland.
The image of Muslims in the U.S. news media has also declined since 2010. According to a Media Tenor study, just over 40 percent of network news coverage of Muslims was negative in 2010. By 2013, almost three-quarters of coverage depicted Muslims in a negative light and usually in relation to violence or terrorism.
Much more could be added to this list, including Representative Peter King's infamous hearings in 2011 on the radicalization of Muslim Americans, or the recently uncovered plot of a former Congressional candidate to attack Muslims in upstate New York, or the media's ongoing reluctance to apply the word "terrorist" to anyone who is not Muslim. What is clear is that Islamophobia did not fade with the Park51 controversy. If anything, it has intensified. Most polls confirm the persistence of this anxiety in the broader population. For example, a Huffington Post/YouGov poll from this year reveals that 55% of Americans have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Islam.
The hope for a better America exists. After all, the anti-Islam protest in Phoenix was met with a powerful counterdemonstration that rallied behind the hashtag #NotMyAmerica. It's possible that the next five years will be better when it comes to citizens creating an America in which Islamophobia is less prevalent and powerful. But if the past five years are any indication, we have a long road ahead of us.