There can be no question that we, as a nation, are racing toward the edges of a massive chasm. One seemingly being approached from either side by two very distinct groups, each believing astoundingly different versions of reality, and wholly convinced of the evil intent of the other side. Our approaches to the edges have accelerated in the last year with the onset of a global pandemic, the inflection point in white awareness of systemic racism that was the police murder of George Floyd, and the storming of the US Capitol building by a mob of white supremacists. All enhanced by the infinite quantity of information and misinformation flooding the Internet channels at light speed.
Historically, Salaam came into existence to address the fear of Muslims in the United States – a fear that welled up in many after 9/11. Even though the fear of Muslims is being displaced by a recognition of the threat of radicalized white supremacists, our mission is still very relevant. Because, it was America’s response to 9/11 that planted the seeds of the overflowing harvest of hatred we see in this moment.
This happened in two important increments:
1. The re-invigoration of hate speech and white supremacy.
In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the United States entered a period in the early 70s that might be described as one of “Political Correctness.” Political correctness was characterized by a “desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred.”(1) Though the merits of political correctness may be debated, when viewed through the lens of today’s reality, it had a major regulating effect. I remember watching news analysts during that time dissect the words of political candidates searching for traces of political incorrectness and discussing whether a miscue during an interview or a debate spelled the end of a hopeful’s candidacy, or even career.
After 9/11, things changed drastically. Any sense of the need for political correctness when speaking about Muslims went completely out the window. Evangelical figureheads led the way. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, evangelical Protestant leaders had shown themselves to be among the most caustic critics of Islam in the U.S. Within a few months of each other, evangelist Franklin Graham and Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines created headlines by preaching things about Islam and Mohammed that I refuse to repeat in print because what they said could very well be classified as hate speech. (2)
And now it was definitely OK for politicians, talk show hosts, clergymen, supremacist leaders — and the general public — to speak openly about their hatred for Muslims.
I contend it was this ground zero, like a meteor falling into the ocean, that is still sending out waves of hate in all directions. Hate is not selective. With permission granted for open hate speech, it was only a matter of time before emboldened white supremacists re-hoisted their Confederate flags and came back out into the open with new energy for reclaiming a white supremacist America.
And this unrestrained hate has spread like wildfire and become a national crisis
2. The birth of internet-proliferated misinformation for political and monetary gain
In the years following 9/11, right wing influencers strategized that they could capitalize on the American populace’s fear of Muslims to their political advantage. Public records reveal that, between 2001 and 2009, seven conservative foundations contributed over $40 million to a handful of think tanks that were responsible for orchestrating the majority of anti-Islamic messages.
They rolled out their powerfully messaged, anti-Muslim misinformation campaign in a three-pronged approach – to grassroots organizations, to the media, and to cooperative politicians. Dozens of anti-Muslim groups sprung up nationwide, from single-minded Islamophobia groups such as ACT!, to religious right groups, to state and nationally networked grassroots political organizations such as the Tea Party.
The think tank misinformation experts and grassroots and religious right organizations developed a symbiotic relationship with multiple right-wing blogs, magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and television news shows to spread their anti-Islam messages and myths. The media outlets, in turn, gave members of this network the exposure needed to amplify their message and grow their membership bases. Key players are the Fox News Empire, the influential conservative magazine National Review and its website, a host of right wing radio hosts, the Washington Times newspaper and website, and the Christian Broadcasting Network and website.
The ability of this tightly-knit network to drench the public with misinformation is greatly enhanced by elected officials at the state and national level—politicians who rely heavily on these myths, push them as “facts,” and then craft political fundraising campaigns and get-out-the-vote strategies based on debunked information about Muslims and Islam.
Even though this campaign of misinformation was funded by only seven foundations, it was hugely successful in affecting the national discourse. Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, surveys showed that there were 20% more Americans who held an unfavorable view of Islam then there were even during the first year after 9/11. We had been flooded by misinformation.
The misinformation tactic picked up steam during the Obama presidency – much of it directed at the president himself. But, name a marginalized group and name a message, we can all remember, I’m sure: black permanent welfare recipients are draining our economy, immigrants are stealing our jobs, etc, all of it carefully designed and deployed, and almost always reinforcing a white supremacist narrative.
Misinformation became a lucrative currency. We can all see how it has spiraled out of control. But it’s important to realize that the seeds were planted by tolerating hate speech against Muslims in the weeks and months after 9/11.
And so we continue our important work, bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together, at the grassroots level, for meaningful interaction. We believe there is still considerable healing and reconciliation work to do. And we believe that this will contribute the healing of our nation.
We are confined to virtual meetings for the time being, but we are launching a couple of exciting new programs as we kick off 2021:
Muslim Awareness Events
We invite Muslim speakers to give talks about their faith and their lived experiences and give the audience an opportunity to ask questions. Click here to learn more, or contact us if you’re interested in having an event for your community group or organization.
Real Friends, Real Community
Intentionally diverse small groups that come together around our personal stories to find meaningful connection. Learn more here.