Why is there so much anti-Muslim sentiment just now, nine years after September 11?
(I was asked this by a Brazilian journalist, Manuela Franceschini, who writes for Veja, a Brazilian magazine. I have been working on politicized religion for many years. This is how I answered her.)
I cannot know for sure because I have not seen any survey data, but I suspect there are a number of reasons. Most importantly, I think there is a perception that large numbers of Muslims hate America and wish to do us harm. We perceive ourselves as a country that has sought to liberate Muslims from brutal dictatorship in Iraq, to counter and undermine a repressive theocracy in Iran, to broker peace between Israel and Palestine, to save the Albanian Muslims of Kosovo and feed them in Somalia, to liberate Afghanistan from the radical Islamism of the Taliban. The endless attacks abroad, and more recently the two attacks by Muslims on Americans in Times Square and at Fort Hood have made many Americans hateful, condemning an entire religion based on the actions of its jihadist and radical stream.
We are just now drawing down our troops from Iraq. In Iraq we expected that the Iraqis would receive us as the Europeans did with the defeat of the Nazis. That so many Iraqis treat America as an occupying force after so many American soldiers have given their lives for their country is deeply offensive. In Pakistan, that we have poured resources into the state hoping to help build democracy and protect it against radical Islam and they for so long refused to vigorously pursue Talibani and Qaeda forces, and indeed publicly could not acknowledge our contribution, has been deeply offensive to Americans. There are hundreds of thousands of American troops who have returned from these military theaters with their stories, their frustrations, their angers, their sense of, "What was it all for in the end?"
American foreign policy is in part built around the universal mission of bringing liberty to the world. Crippled and distorted as that mission has been by corporate and geo-political interests, particularly regarding oil, this has been a critical vector. That our efforts are failing, that the people themselves we are seeking to help have not risen to the challenge with American backing, is understood as a repudiation of our mission, of ungratefulness and of an incapacity and unwillingness to reach for freedom. Americans look for a reason, and many of them conclude that Islam must be the explanation. They do not want us there, so why should we welcome them here? And why should we allow them to build a mosque so close to the site of our collective wound, the place where we learned that a few of their angry men infused with a sense of divine mission could attack the very centers of our land? I can understand the rage, but from my point of view, the building of a mosque dedicated to liberal Islam and inter-religious dialogue would be a testament to the best that America represents, a defiant realization of what al-Qaeda and the Islamist movements around the world are fighting against.
Is there a problem in how the U.S. government is conducting itself?
Yes, there is a problem, and that is our sense that we can most effectively counter these movements with massive military force. Much of the Islamic world understands these interventions as humiliations in which they see us as killing large numbers of Muslims. Remember that Saudia Arabia expelled Americans from bases on their soil in the lead up to the Gulf War. We have allowed a theater of terrorism to become a theater of war with disastrous results. We must operate with arms and aid, intelligence and targeted undercover operations. We must learn the lessons of Afghanistan when the mujahadeen pushed the Soviet forces from their land. Only people willing to die for their land, for their principles, for their lives, can realize political change. Clearly many of our allies are willing to die for their people, but not for our principles.
And then there is the question of Israel and Palestine, in which the United States is not understood in the Islamic world as an honest broker. The relentless attacks by the Hamas regime in Gaza finally lured Israel into a disastrous and brutal war, which has undercut the legitimacy of Israel in the world, and, by implication, our legitimacy. The enemies of peace -- radical religious Muslim among the Palestinians and radical religious Jews among the Israeli settlers -- have been allowed to win. But rather than put the pressure on both parties, particularly Israel, the United States backed away under President Bush. Our government allowed Israel to continue to expand its settlement of the West Bank. If the United States does not intervene more forcefully, the West Bank may become another Gaza. Both Israel and Palestine, and importantly America, will be tested in these coming months.
What is your sense of the future of this intolerance?
If Islamist radicals continue to attack America on its own soil, I am very worried about our capacity to withstand the forces of exclusion and hatred. But I also think you need to put the hostility to Islam in context. This is the same year in which we elected a Muslim woman as Miss America, in which there are two Muslims sitting in Congress. There are pockets of hate and intolerance. They are real and dangerous, but there are also millions of cordial, generous and intimate encounters that go on all the time. Hopefully we will be able to build on those. It is a very dangerous time, in part because we are living through the eclipse of American hegemony, when Americans feel the limits of our power, our wealth, the capacity of our vision to animate the world. There is a way in which Osama bin-Laden has won, weakening our country more than military battalions ever could. We have been drawn into his war on his terms. And we cannot even find him. That sense of helplessness is crippling a giant who is capable of great things in this post-Cold-War period.