As my colleague John noted in his post last week, New York isn’t the only place where anti-Islamic sentiment is brewing. Mosques around the country are being protested and vandalized even in the absence of Ground Zero concerns.
One particularly egregious example is happening in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the local Muslim community has faced vehement opposition in trying to build a place of worship. The outrage seems to have taken a violent turn with the news of a fire at the mosque construction site this weekend. The investigation into arson is still pending, but two previous acts of vandalism at the site suggest the fire may be connected to recently escalating protests. In an even more chilling turn, members of the embattled congregation reported hearing gunfire while they gathered at the site yesterday.
Political leaders play an important role in creating conditions that either foster or discourage this kind of violence. Just last month, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsay explained that his opposition to the mosque didn’t violate his support for religious freedom because “you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult.”
At least those who oppose the Park51 project in New York have tried to insist that their stances are not based in Islamophobia. Unintentionally or not however, their nuance seems to be lost on a significant number of Americans who are unfamiliar with and afraid of their Muslim neighbors. Continuing to stoke the fears of the nation with talk of sharia law, “victory mosques” and connections between American Muslims and terrorists will only further incite those who see Islam as a threat and violence the only solution.
It’s time for pundits and political leaders who have spoken out against Park51 to stand up and denounce this rhetoric and violence. Even those who disagree on the particular politics of Park51 should be able to affirm that Islam is a peaceful religion and that we have nothing to fear from our Muslim-American neighbors. In the absence of such statements from leaders, we can only infer that they are happy to use some Americans’ dangerous misconceptions for their own political ends.