By Peter Beinart
When muslim extremists attacked their third American church in three days, the cable networks cut away from regular programming to cover the news. When militants vandalized a Christian school in Illinois two days later, both presidential candidates issued statements denouncing the wave of jihadist violence. When terrorists shot up another church the day after that, President Obama flew to comfort the parishioners. By the sixth attack, Rush Limbaugh was demanding that the Obama administration ditch its politically correct pussyfooting and acknowledge the Muslim fifth column in our midst. After the seventh attack, lawmakers introduced legislation giving the feds additional powers to detain American citizens suspected of extremist views. After the attack, a group of congressmen suggested that the U.S. halt immigration from Muslim countries.
None of this happened. But in recent weeks, here’s what has. On Aug. 4, teenagers pelted a mosque in Hayward, Calif., with fruit. On Aug. 5, Wade Michael Page murdered six congregants and wounded a police officer at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, quite possibly because he thought the Sikhs were Muslim. That same day, a man vandalized a mosque in North Smithfield, R.I. On Aug. 6, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground. On Aug. 7, two women threw pieces of pork at the site of a proposed Islamic center in Ontario, Calif. On Aug. 10, a man allegedly shot a pellet rifle at a mosque near Chicago while people prayed inside. On Aug. 12, attackers fired paintball guns at a mosque in Oklahoma City, and a homemade bomb filled with acid was thrown at an Islamic school in Lombard, Ill. On Aug. 15, assailants threw a Molotov cocktail at the home of a Muslim family in Panama City, Fla.
Except for the Sikh temple attack, little of this has made the national press (other than Salon.com, which has chronicled it well), in part because it doesn’t fit the prevailing media narrative. At least since 9/11, “terror” and “homeland security” have been terms that connote the danger that Muslims pose to non-Muslims, not the other way around. But this very fear of Muslim violence may be sparking anti-Muslim violence, and hysteria-peddling politicians bear some of the blame.
During the Republican presidential primaries, Herman Cain said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet. Newt Gingrich warned incessantly about Sharia being imposed upon the United States. In July, Michele Bachmann and several other members of Congress insinuated that Huma Abedin, one of the few American Muslims in a high-level government job, was an agent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. John McCain, Marco Rubio, and John Boehner criticized Bachmann’s smear campaign, but Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Eric Cantor, and Romney adviser John Bolton defended it. Romney, predictably, tried to have it both ways, saying that Bachmann’s attacks “are not things that are part of my campaign,” but that “I’m not going to tell other people what things to talk about.” In other words, I won’t defame American Muslims myself, but if other prominent Republicans want to, go ahead. After receiving threats, Abedin now receives FBI security protection.
Obviously, jihadist terrorism still exists. (As does anti-Christian violence by the secular left, as evidenced by last week’s shooting at the offices of the Family Research Council.) But more than a decade after 9/11, the overwhelming evidence suggests that the jihadist threat has diminished dramatically. Yes, Islamists are gaining power in parts of the Middle East, but “Islamism” has become the same kind of catchall phrase that “communism” was in the 1950s, which means it ranges from people who want to kill Americans to people who just hold a different vision of society. The Muslim Brotherhood may be bad news for Egypt, and perhaps Israel, but it’s hardly planning attacks on U.S. soil.
In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy—believing that it was too difficult to fight communism abroad—declared that the real threat came from communists at home. In so doing, he fueled a hysteria that ruined the lives of countless Americans who had dabbled in leftist politics but never remotely posed a threat to their fellow citizens. Today, with the Bush era’s epic “war on terror” ending with a whimper, a new generation of anti–Muslim -McCarthyites is doing something similar. The more American politicians insist that Islam is inherently hateful and violent, the more hate and violence they foment against Muslims in the U.S. Maybe if the media covered the attacks American Muslims endure as vigorously as they cover the attacks American Muslims commit, more people would realize that.