March 7th, 2011
01:36 PM ET
Editor's Note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt. “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door”, airs Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. E.T.
By Dave Schechter, CNN Senior National Editor
The inference in the rabbi’s question could not be missed.
“I know that, at the Olympics, when I see the American get a gold medal and they play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ I cry,” the rabbi said. “So my question is, if an American Muslim sees somebody getting a gold medal for the United States and they play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ do they cry?”
The rabbi was one of 200 or so people who came to an Atlanta temple for an event titled “Understanding the Quran,” sponsored by the Southeast Branch of the Anti-Defamation League and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. The question was directed to the guest speaker, an American Muslim professor who teaches about Islam at a highly regarded university near Boston.
Looking around the sanctuary, I saw more than one person among the 200 or so present had arched an eyebrow and displayed a look of amazement that such a question would be asked; some with the particular knowledge that American Jews have faced questions of whether their loyalty is divided between the United States and Israel.
The American Muslim answered politely, telling the rabbi that, yes, he roots for the American athletes to win at the Olympics. “I cry,” the visiting scholar assured him.
I recalled witnessing this exchange back when thinking about the upcoming hearings organized by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee on whether American Muslims pose a threat to the United States.
“My first goal is just to have people even acknowledge this as a real issue," King told The Washington Post. "This politically correct nonsense has kept us from debating and discussing what is one of this country's most vital issues. We are under siege by Muslim terrorists."
“Siege” is a strong word. The American Religious Identification Survey conducted in 2008 estimated there to be nearly 1.35 million Muslims in the United States. Community activists believe this figure too low. Nonetheless, out of a population this large, the number of Muslim Americans who either perpetrated or were arrested for terrorist crimes in 2010 was . . . 20, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (a consortium of Duke University, the University of North Carolina and RTI International, a think tank).
American Muslims are concerned about the tenor and direction of these hearings. Since 9/11, they have felt a heavy gaze directed at them even as they go about their daily lives. At the extreme, they have been the victims of violence, ranging from physical attacks to vandalism at the mosques where they worship. On the margins, there has been verbal abuse, some of it directed at their children. Consider for a moment, what it must feel like to a Muslim born in the United States, particularly to a child, to bear the brunt of this abuse. So, what good can come to our lives from these hearings, they ask.
On the other side, those who feel that American Muslims constitute a fifth column within the larger American population see these hearings as shining a spotlight where light is needed.
Further evidence of the heat the issue provokes was on display recently at a forum in South Florida hosted by Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.
Among those who took a turn at the microphone was Nezar Hamze, South Florida executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, viewed as a leading activist organization by the Muslim community and as an arm of militant Islam by its critics.
Hamze went to confront West about the congressman’s previous statements that the Quran directs Muslims to kill non-Muslims and that this is what lies behind radical Islam’s hatred of the United States.
In their exchange, West cited several incidents over the history of Islam, including 9/11 and the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. For good measure, he told Hamze, “Don’t blow sunshine up my butt,” to cheers from the audience.
“Congressman, I am ashamed. I am ashamed to be here with all these people when you attack Islam,” Hamze said. Catcalls already directed at Hamze from the audience only grew louder.
West, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, a decorated soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, retorted, “You attacked us. You attacked us,” in effect making Hamze the embodiment of the Islamic terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. “I went to Muslim countries to defend the freedom of Muslim people. Don’t come up here and try to criticize me.”
Hamze, with something of a bemused smile on his face, turned and walked away from the microphone.
Writing about the experience later, Hamze, a native of Fort Lauderdale, said: "Mr. West, you have brought great shame to the United States House of Representatives. Your behavior that evening represents the antithesis of our democratic republic. We look to our leaders to answer difficult questions with dignity and composure. Your behavior represented that of a military commander barking orders at a soldier. Mr. West, you are no longer a military commander, and I am not your enemy. You looked at me and said, 'You attacked us, you attacked us.' I didn't attack anything, and for you to accuse me of such horrific events is just as baseless as your knowledge of Islam. Terrorists attacked us on 9/11, Mr. West. Terrorists attacked us!”
Whether it is a rabbi questioning the loyalty of American Muslims to the U.S. Olympic teams, epithets shouted at Muslims by protesters outside a community event, or the director of an American Muslim organization questioning a congressman and, in turn, being rebuked, it is clear that what another congressman sees as hearings that will shine light, the targeted community is worried about the heat that will be turned on as a result.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.