Let me state quite directly: Islamophobia and those who promote it are a greater threat to the United States of America than Anwar al Awlaqi and his rag-tag team of terrorists.
On one level, al Awlaqi, from his cave hide-out in Yemen, can only prey off of alienation where it exists. Adopting the persona of a latter-day Malcolm X (though he seems not to have read the last chapters of the Autobiography or learned the lessons of Malcolm's ultimate conversion), he appears street-smart, brash, self-assured and assertive -- all of the assets needed to attract lost or wounded souls looking for certainty and an outlet for their rage. Like some parasites, al Awlaqi cannot create his own prey. He must wait for others to create his opportunities, which until now have been isolated and limited -- a disturbed young man here, an increasingly deranged soldier there.
Islamophobia, on the other hand, if left unchecked, may serve to erect barriers to Muslim inclusion in America, increasing alienation, especially among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to one of the fundamental cornerstones of America's unique democracy, it would simultaneously rapidly expand the pool of recruits for future radicalization.
I have often remarked that America is different, in concept and reality, from our European allies. Third generation Kurds in Germany, Pakistanis in the UK, or Algerians in France, for example, may succeed and obtain citizenship, but they do not become German, British, or French. Last year, I debated a German government official on this issue. She kept referring to the "migrants" -- a term she used to describe all those of Turkish descent, living in her country, regardless of the number of generations they had been there. Similarly, following their last election, a leading British newspaper commented on the "number of immigrants" who won seats -- without noting that many of those "immigrants" were third generation citizens.
America has prided itself on being different. Being "American" is not the possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any group define "America." Not only do new immigrants become citizens, they also secure a new identity. More than that, as new groups become American and are transformed -- the idea of "America" itself has also changed to embrace these new cultures.
Within a generation, diverse ethnic and religious groups from every corner or the globe have become Americans, dramatically changing America in the process. Problems remain and intolerant bigots, in every age, have reared up against new groups, but history demonstrates that, in the end, the newcomers have been accepted, incorporated and absorbed into the American mainstream.
This defines not only our national experience, but our defining narrative, as well. When immigrant school children in Europe learn French, German or British history -- they are learning "their host's" history. In the U.S., from the outset, we are taught that this is "our new story" -- that it includes all of us and has included us all, from the beginning.
It is because new immigrants and diverse ethnic and religious communities have found their place and acceptance in the American mainstream that the country, during the last century, survived and prospered despite being sorely tested with World Wars, economic upheaval and bouts with internal strife. During all this time we had to contend with anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-Japanese movements. In the end, after creating their moment of pain, these efforts have always lost.
They lose, but they do not always go away. The Islamophobia we are witnessing today is the latest campaign by bigots to tear apart the very fabric of America. We know the groups promoting it. First, there is the well-funded "cottage industry," on the right, of groups and individuals with a long history of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim activity. Some of the individuals associated with these efforts have been given legitimacy as commentators on "terrorism," "radicalization" or "national security concerns" - despite their obvious bias and even obsession with all things Arab or Muslim (in this, they remind me of good old-fashioned anti-Semites who never tired of warning of Jewish threats or conspiracies or who while always claiming to like individual Jews, rallied against any and all Jewish organizations).
If these "professional bigots" have provided the grist, the mill itself was run by the vast network of right-wing talk radio and TV shows and websites and prominent preachers who have combined to amplify the anti-Muslim message nationwide. Their efforts have done real damage. They have tormented descent public servants, created protests that have shuttered legitimate institutions, fomented hate crimes and produced fear in the Muslim community.
In just the past two years, we have seen a dramatic upsurge in the activity of these bigots. More ominously, their cause has been embraced by national political leaders and by elements in the Republican Party -- who appear to have decided, in 2010, to use "fear of Islam" as a base-building theme and a wedge issue against Democrats for electoral advantage.
In the past only obscure or outrageous members of Congress (like: North Carolina's Sue Myrick who expressed nervousness and insecurity because of "who was owning all those 7/11's"; or Colorado's Tom Tancredo who once warned that he "would bomb Mecca") were outspoken Islamophobes. After the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee embraced opposition to Park 51 as a campaign theme, it is hard to find a leading Republican who has not railed on some issue involving Islam or Muslims in the U.S.
The net impact here is that this current wave of Islamophobia has both played to the Republican base, while firming up that base around this agenda. The polling numbers are striking and deeply disturbing. Fifty-four percent of Democrats have a favorable attitude toward Muslims, while 34% do not. Among Republicans, on the other hand, only 12% hold a favorable view of Muslims, with 85% saying they have unfavorable views. Additionally, 74% of Republicans believe "Islam teaches hate" and 60% believe that "Muslims tend to be religious fanatics".
The danger here is that to the degree that this issue has become a partisan and, in some cases, a proven vote getter for the GOP, it will not go away any time soon. The longer we are plagued by this bigotry, and the displays of intolerance it breeds (the anti-mosque building demonstrations or the anti-Sharia law efforts now spreading across the country) the longer young Muslims will feel that the "promise of America" does not include them -- and they will feel like aliens in their own country.
It is this concern that has prompted many inter-faith religious groups and leaders and a diverse coalition of ethnic and civil rights organizations to so vigorously oppose Congressman Peter King's (R-NY) hearings that will deal with the radicalization of American Muslims later this week. They know, from previous statements made by King, of his personal hostility to American Muslims. They also know that what King is doing will only aggravate an already raw wound, creating greater fear and concern among young Muslims -- who have already witnessed too much bigotry and intolerance.
What they should also know, is that in the process of targeting a religion in this way and engaging in this most "un-American activity" King and company are, in fact, opening the door for increased alienation and future radicalization. Al Awlaqi must be smiling from inside his cave.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.