by Conor Friedersdorf

On a recent evening my girlfriend and I tried a Burmese restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard, arriving just before 9 pm, and hungry as two foxes. A sign on the door noted that during Ramadan, the establishment would be closing an hour early. Disappointed, we began to leave, but the owner rushed out, insisted that he'd cook for us anyway, and wouldn't take no for an answer. Inside we interacted with his warm family as they took our order, and exchanged friendly glances with other patrons. As we left, the owner thanked us profusely for coming, and encouraged us to return.

This small encounter happened as I was writing about the controversy over the mosque near Ground Zero. It isn't entirely rational, I know, but interacting with this Muslim family, a small part of their community, and their small but intensely offered acts of kindness made me even more angry than before about the demagoguery of some project opponents. This anecdote isn't an argument for the mosque, any more than a story about a negative interaction with a single Muslim would be an argument against it. But just as I am sure that my Muslim friends cause me to picture individuals when I think of anti-Muslim discrimination, affecting the intensity of my writing against it, even a brief positive interaction with strangers at a restaurant wound up influencing my worldview in some small way.

Scanning the news today, I see that someone near Nashville, Tennessee visited the construction site of a mosque, poured gasoline on the construction equipment, and lit it on fire. This is terrible in its own right, and upsets me, as I'm sure it upsets many of you. But I can't say that I react with the vulnerability that restaurant owner in California must feel as he reads the news, and how much worse to be a member of that Tennessee congregation, knowing someone in your own community carried out that hate-filled act. Just as small, chance interactions can increase the empathy people in a diverse country have for one another, these kinds of bigoted transgressions engender mistrust: despite them, the vast majority of affected Muslims will go on being peaceful citizens and kindly neighbors, but insofar as any of them are being recruited into radicalism, hate crimes against their community can only hurt their ability to resist, and wind up abetting the jihadist cause.

Since the controversy over the mosque near Ground Zero began, I've been fretting about the danger of stirring up resentment at a visible religious minority, especially when we're at war against a radical subset of their co-religionists. Historically, majority groups don't behave well in these circumstances. Other writers have busied themselves insisting, contra the evidence, that there is no backlash against Muslims in America.

I'd ask that everyone reevaluate that judgment. Besides the mob antagonism directed at people in protest zones who didn't even turn out to be Muslims, we've recently had protests at mosques in California and Tennessee, an arson at the site of the latter, and a Muslim cab driver stabbed, among other anti-Muslim acts. One way to prevent this from getting worse without abandoning legitimate debates about Islam in America is to forcefully push back against irresponsible elites (honorable mention goes to Adam Serwer and Outside the Beltway, among others, for doing this kind of work) rather than pretending that their incitement is without consequence.

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