Photo Gallery: Muslims in America
The Terrorist Next Door American Muslims Face Growing Prejudice
Even on hot summer days in Virginia, Brigitte Gabriel receives visitors looking as if she were dressed for the opera. She has her hair teased up, copious amounts of pearls adorning her neck and arms, and her feet clad in rhinestone-studded sandals. This is her uniform in the war against what she sees as the barbarians of radical Islam. On three occasions, Gabriel has been the subject of declarations by al-Qaida, she says, and her name is probably on various death lists. Indeed, Gabriel, who emigrated to the US years ago from Lebanon, is America's siren on all things Islamophobic, and her speeches are one indication of how the country may have changed since the attacks of September 11.
Gabriel's position can be summarized as follows: The US is suffering from terminal cancer and is infected with rampant Islamist cells that are eating away at the country, its liberties and its constitution. "Our enemy," writes Gabriel, "is not an organization of people living overseas plotting to attack. Our enemies are the neighbors next door, the doctors practicing in our hospitals, and the workers who share our lunch break. Our enemies are terrorists driven by a dangerous ideology and clothed in deception who operate under cover and laugh about the advantages our sensitivity training, gullibility, and political correctness give them."
Some 300,000 copies of Gabriel's first book, which contains these sentences, have been distributed. TV stations now set aside ample airtime for her and her ideas. She has been invited to give presentations to US Senate committees, the FBI, the US Special Operations Command, the Joint Forces Staff College, the Republican Party, the Tea Party movement and Christian conferences. Brigitte Gabriel, who pronounces her name as if it were French, is an idol in the conservative half of America's deeply divided society -- but remains a reviled figure in the other half.
On the Death Lists
Speaking face-to-face, she seems much nicer than the woman who she is on TV, where her interviews often sound like fanatical yapping. The interview with SPIEGEL took place in a palatial home on the Atlantic coast, with windows that look out over a finely manicured lawn.
She is staying here with friends, she says, but it feels as if she has invited us into her own home. The living room matches her style, with cathedral ceilings and expensive furniture made of chrome and leather, but the question of where she lives remains open. Her whereabouts have to be kept secret, she says, because of al-Qaida -- and the death lists. A man with a revolver is standing guard at the door.
By way of introduction, Gabriel recounts the story of her childhood. It is the story of a Christian family that survived the mayhem of civil war in Lebanon. She talks about the ordeal of a young woman who watched helplessly as her home fell into the clutches of Muslim fanatics. She recounts how Lebanon, which once had a Christian majority, became a Muslim country. Her point is that the same thing cannot be allowed to happen to America.
Gabriel contends that until Sept. 11, 2001 she was an apolitical woman who wanted to enjoy life. But the attacks of that day reopened old wounds, she says. "I was sitting here," she recalls, as her eyes turn a steely gray, "in America, 8,000 miles away, 20 years later, and I had to answer the same question from my own children that I had asked my father: Why are they doing this to us?" Her father's answer, slightly modified, became the title of her first book: "Because They Hate."
She founded the organization ACT! for America, which was initially called the American Congress for Truth. Today, she says, it boasts 170,000 members across the country: "We are the largest grassroots movement for national security." Local groups are encouraged to take action against overly politically correct teachers, excessively tolerant members of Congress and local newspapers that publish "derogatory" articles about the US or Israel. ACT! for America, says Gabriel, is a rallying point for "people who are fighting to save America."
Asleep at the Wheel
There is no shortage of such people. Republican Tom Tancredo from Colorado is one of them. He ran for president in 2008 on a platform that included the idea of thwarting future terror attacks by threatening to carry out retaliatory air strikes against Mecca and Medina. Saxby Chambliss, now a senator, is also one of these fighters. During his election campaign, he voiced support for arresting every Muslim right at the border of his home state of Georgia. The list also includes Newt Gingrich, the perpetual contender for the Republican nomination to the White House, who deliberately uses unfortunate choices of words to equate Islam and Nazism. Leading the struggle against Islam is Fox News' star presenter Bill O'Reilly, the most venomous pundit on the American right, who appears to see the Koran as nothing more than a type of "Mein Kampf."
To support her ideas, Gabriel jumps from the 7th to the 21st century and back, from the suras of the Koran to Europe's transformation into "Eurabia," from the Islamic militant group Hezbollah to American textbooks, and from the Crusades to the massacre of Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics (which she seems to think took place in 1971, rather than 1972). She juggles Hitler and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and explains why each and every devout Muslim is a potential terrorist, and how all the pieces fit together in one grand scenario of doom: America is being infiltrated. Sharia law is coming soon. The government is looking away. Government agencies are asleep at the wheel.
The problem has less to do with the fact that nothing, or next to nothing, of what Gabriel and her disciples are spreading among the American people is actually true. The problem is that many Americans -- perhaps half, perhaps the majority -- see the world today in a very similar way. This is an ideological delusion that often surfaces in countries where there are rampant fears of social decline and economic crises are underway.
Scapegoats are needed. It is necessary to invoke America's powerlessness to more energetically rally the people to action. But the mere assertion that the US government and its agencies are unprepared to meet an Islamist threat is a grotesque piece of misinformation, one which is constantly repeated by America's conservatives. In fact, the opposite is true. America is actually running the risk of becoming a police state.
In its series "Top Secret America," which was published in July 2010, the Washington Post has done remarkably meticulous research that shows how the government has expanded the US domestic and foreign security apparatus since 9/11. The newspaper reported that 263 new agencies have been created over the past decade to help fight the war on terror, and that today a total of 1,271 government organizations are more or less directly involved in protecting the country against attacks. This has resulted in an apparatus with 10,000 branches throughout the country that employs 854,000 people and occupies three times more office space in Washington than the Pentagon.
Working in close cooperation with the CIA, the New York City Police Department has established a type of intelligence service, which is right on the verge -- or beyond -- of what is legally permissible because it specifically targets Muslims in surveillance operations. In neighborhoods with large Muslim populations, undercover agents have been placed to keep their ears open in bookstores, mosques and even ethnic beauty salons, without any prior suspicion that preparations are being made to commit a crime. This means that the simple fact of being a Muslim constitutes just cause for suspicion these days, at least in the eyes of New York's finest. That is a far cry from the good old America that liked to see itself as "the land of the free and the home of the brave," in the words of its national anthem.
It seems almost embarrassing to have to point out that Muslims in America are doctors and taxi drivers, waiters and mathematicians, dancers and soldiers, ice cream vendors and teachers. They have families, take picnics in the park on Saturdays, and only want the best for their children. Many of them are fans of the New York Yankees or ardent supporters of the Boston Celtics. Miss USA 2010 was Rima Fakih, a Muslim woman in a bikini; she is also a good indication that the world might be very different from what Gabriel and her followers imagine.
The US's Long Muslim History
You would think that in a modern country like the US it would be patently obvious that all this crude talk about "the" American Muslims is completely groundless in view of the complex social fabric of this country, which still absorbs a million immigrants every year. The US also has a long Muslim history of its own, which includes such great Americans as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Muslims can now expect to be regularly subjected to special treatment at checkpoints in airports, and sometimes they have to comfort their children after they have been called terrorists by their school classmates. They are shocked when, for example, a Muslim taxi driver is murdered in New York, when a plastic pig is placed in a mosque in Madera, California, or when building materials for a mosque go up in smoke in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
It is odd that today's anti-Islamic sentiment, which now often feels like the social mainstream, did not ignite until long after 9/11. During the first few years after the attacks, even while former US President George W. Bush was still in office, there may have been the occasional verbal slip in the "marketplace of ideas," which Americans hold sacred. But an overwhelming majority of Americans, including Bush and the conservatives, did its best to avoid any knee-jerk equating of Islam and terrorism, and of American Muslims and al-Qaida.
This consensus came to an abrupt end almost exactly one year ago. It didn't come in response to a new terror plot or a successful attack, but rather to a plan presented by an imam, known for his enlightened views, who wanted to build an Islamic cultural and community center modeled after the YMCA -- located two blocks from New York's Ground Zero.
Disregard for Truth
Initial reports on "Park 51" were released in December 2009, but escaped the attention of conservative firebrands. It wasn't until months later that influential bloggers like Pamela Geller (who writes the blog "Atlas Shrugs") and Robert Spencer ("Jihad Watch") recognized the issue's potential for their websites, and Gabriel inevitably joined the chorus of protests. Thanks to their efforts, this so-called desecration of the site of the attacks by a so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" was elevated to the national agenda.
At the time, the number of clicks on the corresponding websites went through the roof. Not long thereafter, on the ninth anniversary of the attacks, the first noisy demonstrations were held in front of the building that housed the old Burlington Coat Factory in Lower Manhattan, at 51 Park Place.
Even today, groups and clusters of individuals still gather in front of the building, carrying signs with messages like: "All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11." Sometimes relatives of attack victims mingle with the crowd, sometimes politicians from Washington put in an appearance. These are street festivals of patriotic fervor, with a total disregard for substance and truth.
Although Islamophobic bloggers and their followers claim that militant Islam intends to build a place of worship at the site of its greatest triumph, there are a plethora of reasons why this assertion has been wrong right from the start. The plan is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Rauf, who is known for his determination to engage in an intercultural dialogue. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the project, as does President Barack Obama, at least halfheartedly, and it is interesting to note that opinion polls show that the majority of the residents of Manhattan are also in favor of the cultural center.
Rubbing Shoulders in the Sandwich Shop
It's a different story, though, beyond the East River and the Hudson, and even more so in the distant cities and regions of this vast country. People across America have allowed themselves to be swept up by the controversy that a mosque built on the mass grave of Ground Zero is an affront. Amidst all the commotion, the critics conveniently overlook the fact that a mosque was never planned in the first place. Instead, the organizers say that it was always intended to be "a platform for multi-faith dialogue" -- with a prayer room, yes, but there were also Muslim prayer rooms in the towers of the World Trade Center.
Park Place, the street in which the cultural center is to be built, is a perfect showcase of how tolerant New York has been for many years. The two direct neighbors of the building that is destined to house the center -- and in which Muslims have been praying for over two years -- are the Amish Market on the corner, where religiously prepared gourmet food from Pennsylvania is sold, and the Dakota Roadhouse bar, where patrons already start enjoying large glasses of dark beer before noon.
Kitty-corner to this building, preparations are underway for the opening of an Anne Frank center. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to envision that one day Jews, Muslims and Amish, along with a few drunken Christians from the Dakota Bar, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the Pret A Manger sandwich shop on the corner of Church Street. Life could be easy in New York if fewer people waged their private wars.
But the wars continue, and they have long since found their way from the virtual to the real world. One of the latest battles was instigated by Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York and the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security in Washington, when he convened a series of hearings on the danger of a radicalization of the American Muslim community. The topic alone was a provocation, and that was the purpose of the hearings. Indeed, no factual evidence could be expected to emerge at these events.
'We Failed the Test'
This can be expected to continue, now that the campaign for the 2012 US presidential election has begun. American's right-wing politicians have discovered an issue: They are questioning Muslim attitudes toward the country and the Islamic agenda in America -- and they are asking how Islam can be contained. It is a virulent issue that galvanizes voters into action, gets them up in arms and motivates them to go to the polls. And it drives American Muslims even deeper into social isolation.
"September 11 was a test of American values in the face of a crisis," says Eric Vickers, a spokesman for the Muslim community. "And we failed the test."
Vickers was in Washington on 9/11. Ironically, on the morning of the day of the attacks, he and other Muslim officials had an appointment with the president at the White House. The delegation was still eating breakfast at the Washington Plaza Hotel when the TV networks began broadcasting an endless loop of images of the disaster and the hotel was sealed, then evacuated. Vickers recalls how the police ushered people on foot across the Mall, and how he was stuck in Washington for a week with only one suit to wear.
No one, says Vickers, was more afraid of further attacks than Muslims in America. As sirens wailed in the background, he and his colleagues talked about the history of World War II, and how after the attack on Pearl Harbor, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned in camps, which Vickers refers to as "concentration camps." If the series of attacks had continued after September 11 and there had been more murders, he contends, "then we would have had concentration camps for Muslims, I have no serious doubts about it."
Peace Is Nowhere in Sight
The planned meeting with Bush actually took place two weeks later. The president sat and mostly listened, Vickers recalls, and it seemed to him that Bush was still in a state of shock. The Muslim leaders in America were promised that no one in the government intended to casually equate Islam with extremism. In fact, Bush even visited a mosque shortly thereafter and called Islam a religion of peace, which was more than could be expected from him.
"Americans don't differentiate," Vickers says, speaking in his decrepit office in the town hall of East St. Louis, the poor neighboring city of St. Louis, located directly on the other side of the Mississippi River. He is a close adviser to the mayor even though -- or perhaps because -- he has a criminal record as a human rights activist. In 1999, he organized a spectacular blockade of an interstate highway because the construction company was refusing to hire black workers -- and it wasn't the only time that he landed in jail because he fought for the dream of Martin Luther King, which, he says, "has never been realized."
Vickers was born in 1953, "as a second-class citizen," he says. Back then, St. Louis was still a city with racial segregation laws, and Vickers had the wrong skin color. He was gifted, though, and he persevered doggedly. He studied law at the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law, where Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was a college friend.
From there he could have proceeded to work on Wall Street or for a large law firm, but Vickers preferred to be a teacher, then a lawyer. Somewhere along the way, he converted to Islam. Many black Americans pray to Allah, and not just because Malcolm X was a Muslim. The Koran gives strength, Vickers says.
On Its Way to Acceptance
Islam was actually well on its way to becoming accepted in America when 9/11 happened. Muslims were not perceived as a threat at that time, says Vickers, and people could distinguish between Osama bin Laden and their family doctors who had immigrated from places like Iran and Indonesia.
Before the attacks, 2.5 million American Muslims were accepted without question as Americans, or simply ignored, and the political parties had begun to take a modest interest in this minority and their votes.
Then the planes flew into the World Trade Center, and their world caved in around them. Vickers' experience as a black civil rights activist has taught him that only strength counts in America, and that you only get respect if you earn it -- "if you move forward, if you make yourself heard." However, instead of being strong, he says that in the wake of 9/11, and throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim religious communities and organizations showed themselves to be weak.
They withdrew, they treaded softly, "they wanted to act like American model students," says Vickers. He would have preferred that they take clear positions, predominantly against the Iraq War, but also against new laws that were directed specifically against Muslims and immigrants. He would have also liked to see them object to the creation of a police apparatus that has eroded civil rights in America on the pretext of defending national security.
He also could have imagined a debate on why terrorists primarily attack the US. "Because they hate us?" asks Vickers. "Or because we send combat troops to their countries? Or because they hear that American politicians want to bomb Mecca? Or that a pastor in Florida has the Koran burned in public?"
Locked into War Mode
It is a paradoxical realization -- and one that is too complex for the crude debates during primary election campaigns in America -- that all those who fight so fervently for the security of their beloved nation ultimately end up making their country more susceptible to attacks.
The ongoing battle cries of the conservatives, the polemics of Pamela Geller and Brigitte Gabriel, and the half-baked opinions of Republican politicians frustrate the country's Muslims, whose hearts beat just as strongly for America -- and perhaps they rouse a terrorist sleeper here and there who has merely been waiting for the last shred of evidence that America is an enemy of Islam.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American government has reportedly spent $1 trillion (€732 billion) on counterterrorism measures -- and this sum does not even include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Police forces have grown exponentially in a manner that would be the envy of many dictators. Is this the price that had to be paid to ensure that no major attacks have been carried out since 9/11? Wouldn't it have been better to invest, say, half of that money, $500 billion, in schools, daycare centers, sports stadiums and playgrounds? And wouldn't these also have been investments that serve to defend against threats?
It is a sad truth that the US has been locked into war mode for the past 10 years. In the country itself, in New York, this was barely noticeable for a long time. But for the past year, ever since a trumped-up debate erupted over a supposed mosque, it has become apparent that the constant stress of counterterrorism has been gnawing at the entire country -- and that achievements such as the rule of law have been sacrificed and terror has dominated political debates.
Ten years down the road, the country needs peace -- but it is nowhere in sight.