A Chinese-American View of the 'Mosque' and the Muslim Menace

Among the thousands of reasons I have valued living outside the U.S. for extended periods: having a chance to observe controversies whose intensity is obvious but that turn on issues (and passions) that don't really engage me. As the "mosque" controversy seethes on in America, a note from someone who feels a similar inside-but-outside perspective on the anti-Muslim hysteria gripping parts of America now:   

As a 20-something first-generation Chinese-American, I have a hard time understanding 'American' sentiments. For me, studying the Civil War is no different from studying the Franco-Prussian War. I find them equally fascinating, and equally remote. America's issues with race are equally unfathomable. That and its penchant for being stirred up by irrational fears--over religious difference, immigration, Communism, liberals, etc. It's not that I'm more open-minded. That race, gender, or religion being an issue never crosses my mind is due, rather, to my family background and education (successful Texas public schooling!).

Getting to my point, I used to always consider the crazy excesses of history to be the crazy excesses of, well, history. The hysterics that fed the Salem Witch Trials, Yellow Fever, Segregation, Apartheid, the Holocaust-- we've certainly progressed beyond all that! All of those things were (and remain) awfully unfathomable to me, the antiquated irrationalities of an older, insular, homogenous generation. Studying in Paris this spring, I found it unimaginable that only 70 years ago Germans marched through Paris as vanquishers, that Jews were packed off in train cars, and that Allied soldiers crossed the channel while being strafed by German machine gunners. Unimaginable.

That Jews might be ghettoized in part because Jews crucified Jesus-- how silly! But now because professed Muslims attacked the US in 9/11, we shun Muslims. 
More and more, the fear of terrorism with all its irrational consequences (security theatre!) seems to be joined with an irrational fear of all things that might seem Middle Eastern or Muslim. My Indian friends can attest to that, with good-humored irritation about airport security. Progressive American Muslim (like the wife of the imam who's leading the project) are challenged with self-righteous questions like, 'Weren't the 9/11 attackers Muslim? Why are there no cathedrals or churches or religious freedom in Saudi Arabia? In Iran?" as if they are closely associated with terrorists via common religion.

It's increasingly disturbing that it's taken for granted that 'Muslim' denotes 'un-American' thus one must compensate for the 'Muslim-ness' somehow. Conservatives suggest that President Obama is a Muslim as a slur. True, the FOX people are raising hell for political gain, but that's how it's always been, right? And the leaders can't guarantee the thoughts or actions of their followers.

There is something terribly, terribly wrong with the opposition to the Cordoba House project that I can't quite articulate. I know that it's nothing as extreme as the historical moments I've mentioned. That we are not about to register Muslims who live in suburban neighborhoods, that even those who oppose Cordoba House generally get along with their Muslim colleagues (my Conservative parents, for instance). Perhaps my stomach curdles because through this debate, I've seen a shadow of that type of hysterics I've always associated with history. I suppose it's still around, and seeing it gives me a great shock.

In conclusion, the only people I can think of who might have good reason to object are the prospective neighbors of the community center, for the same reason that I might object to living near schools or the YMCA-- noise complaints.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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