Bigotry and the dark side of American society

In the US today, Islamophobia is in. Political correctness, along with respect for others who embrace a faith different from yours, is out.

‘If it’s Tuesday, then it must be Belgium”, guileless American tourists, wearing Bermuda shorts and ordering burgers and cokes in Parisian restaurants, were spoofed as saying during their whirlwind, two-week tours of Europe in the 1950s. Several decades on, their progeny, equally unsophisticated oafs wearing tattoos, are proclaiming that if you’re a Muslim, then you must be a terrorist — except this time these folks are too sinister to spoof. Islamophobia, let’s face it, no more takes to lampooning than anti-Semitism.

It is sad but true that Islamophobia is alive and kicking in the United States. And it’s not thanks just to President-elect Donald Trump, for this insidious form of racism preceded his rants that he had brazenly and with impressive ease verbalised during the primaries and the presidential campaign, when he pledged to ban Muslims from entering the US and to order those already in it as citizens to “register”.

In the US today, Islamophobia is in. Political correctness, along with respect for others who embrace a faith different from yours, is out. And never mind that Muslim Americans, like you, drive to work every day, take their children to soccer practice, head on to a beach for summer vacation every year, replenish their children’s college funds and struggle to pay their credit card bills, federal taxes and house mortgages, like everybody else.

But unlike everybody else, these Muslims go to a neighbourhood mosque every Friday, not to a neighbourhood church every Sunday. And that’s where this story begins.

The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (Adams), which has 11 chapters around Northern Virginia and the capital, wants to build a 22,000-square-foot mosque in Prince William County — a few kilometres from where this columnist lives in downtown Washington — as a place for prayer services, Sunday school, interfaith gatherings and other events. So the group went ahead and bought a site in 2014, for which they paid $500,000 (Dh1.83 million), on top of $200,000 for the plan. Then Adams representatives worked with county officials in several meetings, in order to vigorously address concerns about traffic, lighting, height and the rest of it.

Then the area bigots came out of the woodwork and began to attend town hall meetings in inordinately high numbers to oppose, and finally sabotage, the project, ingenuously claiming that they “had no problem with Muslims” and are concerned only with the integrity of the protected area they live in and with maintaining a quiet rural lifestyle, meanwhile invoking sewage lines and zoning ordinances. (No one could recall these people evincing the same concerns when several churches and synagogues were seeking permits in the same area.)

Such town hall meetings are not always so polite. One earlier this year, in Fredricksburg, also in Virginia, ended up as an openly anti-Muslim slanging match, where a man, allegedly a former marine, yelled at the project’s trustee, Samer Shalaby, a civil engineer who was there to present the building plan for a mosque: “You can smile at me, you can say whatever you want, but every Muslim is a terrorist. Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this country.” He received a round of applause.

Sadly, what’s been happening in Northern Virginia is being replicated virtually in every state of the US these days. But, wait, all this bigotry precedes Trump, precedes 9/11.

So, while we’re in Virginia, let’s stay in Virginia and rewind back to 1997, when the Islamic Saudi Academy wanted to expand its campus and move from its former location to a newly-built, $50 million school on 100 acres of land in Loudon County, north of Dulles airport. The school would have accommodated 3,500 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The students, mostly born in the US, had ethnic roots in 35 Muslim countries.

The academy applied for a permit from the County Board of Supervisors to build the new school. And, again, the bigots came out of the woodwork. In December that year, an unsigned flier appeared on doors in Ashburn Village, close to the site where the school was to be built, warning homeowners that the school “would bring Muslim and Arab terrorists to Loudon” and that “thousands of Middle Eastern strangers would be roaming our streets while we worked”.

And all that laughable brouhaha was about a school that over the previous 13 years, in its previous location, saw 96 per cent of its graduates go on to college and later become productive members of the community, engaged in the arts, the sciences, business and the world of academics.

So make no mistake about it, there will be more of where that came from after Trump shows Obama the door two weeks from now, when these bigots, now emboldened, will launch themselves head-first with greater zeal than that shown by their predecessors in the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s — except that this time, their bigotry will be directed not at Catholics but Muslims.

The more things change … well, you know the rest of the story.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile

This post was originally featured here.