Spreading racist fear about the “Muslim threat”

December 2, 2015

Fabricated claims that Muslims in America "celebrated" the 9/11 attacks are being used in the wake of the Paris attacks to promote Islamophobia, writes Nicole Colson.

NEVER ONE to let the facts stand in the way of the garbage spewing from his mouth, Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, is doubling down on the racist lie that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center came down on September 11, 2001.

"I have a very good memory, Chuck," Trump boasted to Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press. He added, "I saw it somewhere on television many years ago, and I never forgot it--and it was on television, too."

"I saw clips, and so did many other people--and many people saw it in person," Trump continued. "I've had hundreds of phone calls to the Trump organization saying, 'We saw it. There was dancing in the streets.'"

Well, with evidence like that, who could disagree?

Actually, the rumor that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11 was thoroughly debunked immediately afterward. As the Newark Star-Ledger wrote in an article on September 18, 2001, "rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims here proved unfounded."

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Contacted recently by the Washington Post about Trump's latest claims, Jerry Speziale, police commissioner of Paterson, New Jersey--which has the second-largest Muslim population per capita in the U.S.--was about as unambiguous as one can be: "That is totally false. That is patently false. That never happened. There were no flags burning, no one was dancing. That is bullshit."

But that won't stop Trump, who seems to think that all it takes to establish something as fact is his assertion that he saw it--and anyone who dares ask for proof is bowing to "political correctness," as he charged of This Week host George Stephanopoulos.

So why can no one produce video of this footage of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey? Trump had an answer for MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, "Don't forget, 14 or 15 years ago, it wasn't like it is today, where you press a button and play a video. They didn't put it in the files, they destroyed half the stuff."

Trump isn't alone among the Republican presidential field on this question. Ben Carson--whose issues with the "truthiness" of his life story have been causing more than a few problems for him--jumped in to say that he, too, saw the nonexistent news footage.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie--a supposed "moderate" among the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination--pulled the old "not to the best of my recollection" defense. "I think if it had happened, I would remember it, but, you know, there could be things I forget, too," he told reporters.

Interviewed on CNN, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani backed up his claims about 9/11 celebrations by pointing to the example of a Muslim candy store owner who was assaulted after allegedly provoking young people with his anti-American attitudes. Only what actually happened was a completely unprovoked hate crime, as the far-from-radical New York Daily News acknowledged:

Tiny store owner Muhammad Chaudhry stood in the doorway. One of the teenage boys asked him, "Do you feel sorry for America?"

The kid then gave Chaudhry a knockout punch in the face that sent him reeling backwards and onto the floor. Blood spurted all over his plaid shirt, the linoleum floor and a pair of sneakers left by a man who was praying. Chaudhry's dentures cracked in two.

THE RECYLCED paranoia about Muslims in America supposedly cheering on terrorist attacks is being rehabilitated in the wake of the recent Paris terrorist attacks for a specific ideological purpose.

The years after 9/11 produced a veritable cottage industry of Islamophobia--led by people like Pam Geller (of "Stop the Islamization of America) and Robert Spencer (of "Jihad Watch"), and bolstered by the "new atheists" like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, as well as ostensible liberals like Bill Maher.

Islamophobia Inc. has relied on the implicit and explicit support of politicians who used the threat of the supposed "Muslim menace" in America to whip up support for war and empire abroad and an expanded security state and attacks on civil liberties at home. The Republicans have led the charge--but these policies have been embraced wholeheartedly by Democrats, too.

At one level, it's astounding that such rank bullshit as Trump's claim about 9/11 celebrations can pass as legitimate discourse from candidates running to be the "leader of the free world." But it's a tried-and-true strategy of American politicians to stoke bigotry in the hopes of winning votes at election time--especially for Republicans appealing to their party's right-wing base.

Thus, Trump's fabrications about 9/11 are connected to his call--echoed by many other Republicans and quite a few Democrats in the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris--for the Obama administration to stop plans for a token number of 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. (never mind that all of the Paris attackers were European nationals, not refugees).

Not only did Trump claim that he has "a certain amount of knowledge" about Obama's supposed "secret plan" to allow in up to 250,000 Syrian refugees, but he also suggested that Syrian refugees in particular, and possibly all Muslims in the U.S., should be forced to register for a government database. Trump also talked about "warrantless searches of Muslims" and "surveillance of certain mosques."

"We're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago," Trump warned.

THIS TOXIC rhetoric has had real consequences.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the group "has received more reports about acts of Islamophobic discrimination, intimidation, threats and violence targeting American Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) and Islamic institutions in the past week-and-a-half [after the Paris attacks in November] than during any other limited period of time since the 9/11 terror attacks."

Across the U.S., several mosques have been vandalized or subjected to serious threats, including a St. Petersburg, Florida, mosque that received a voicemail in which a caller threatened to "firebomb you and shoot whoever is there in the head." "I don't care if they are fucking 2 years old or 100. I am over your fucking bullshit and our whole country is," the caller said.

Similarly, the Islamic Center of Lexington in Lexington, Kentucky, recently received an e-mail reading, "I'm going to kill everyone I there [sic] you Muslim fucks.

At the Islamic Center of Pflugerville, Texas, the door of the mosque was covered in feces, and feces-covered pages of the Koran littered the grounds.

In Portland, Oregon, during the weekend after the attacks, anti-Muslim protesters turned out at a local mosque to chant slurs at worshippers arriving for Sunday prayers.

David Wright III, self-declared spokesperson for the anti-Muslim Bureau of American Islamic Relations, organized a group of bigots armed with assault weapons to intimidate those attending the Islamic Center of Irving, Texas. Wright then took a page out of the McCarthyite playbook from the last century and published online the names and addresses of Muslims and so-called "sympathizers" who had signed up to speak against an anti-"sharia law" bill at a March City Council meeting.

At the University of Connecticut, student Mahmoud Hashem found the words "killed Paris" written underneath his name on the door of his dorm room. "It's not my fault. [The terrorists] are the killer, not me," Hashem, who is originally from Egypt, told a local television station.

There has also been an increase of incidents of "flying while Muslim"--people forced to leave flights after complaints about their presumed ethnicity or religion. Case in point: Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, who were initially told they couldn't board a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia after another passenger complained about the two speaking Arabic to each other.

On the same night as the Paris attacks, in San Diego, a pregnant woman wearing the hijab--a headscarf worn by some Muslim women--was pushing her child in a stroller when a man began to follow her, yelled racially charged threats and pushed the stroller into her.

In perhaps the most horrifying incident to date, a 38-year-old Moroccan taxi driver in Pittsburgh was shot in the back on Thanksgiving Day by a passenger who "began asking the driver about his background, including asking whether he was a 'Pakistani guy,'" according to CAIR.

THERE IS a direct connection between the rhetoric of political figures like Trump and attacks on Arabs and Muslims. And in Trump's case, it isn't only Muslims who made his target list.

In August, two men in Boston brutally assaulted and urinated on a 58-year-old man sleeping outside a subway station. One of the men later told police that the two committed the assault because "Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported"--a reference to Trump's assertion over the summer that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug traffickers.

Trump's response: "I will say that people who are following me are very passionate," he told reporters, adding, "They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it."

And at a Trump campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama, last month, Black Lives Matter protester Mercutio Southall Jr. was kicked, punched and choked by Trump supporters as he lay on the ground. Southall had chanted "Black lives matter" in a challenge to Trump's racist rhetoric.

Trump told Fox News: "Maybe he should have been roughed up. It was disgusting what he was doing."

THAT SUCH a bigot can not only run for president, but be the runaway leader in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, might seem like cause for despair.

Trump does appeal to the hard-core right-wing base of the Republican Party. That he gets a larger hearing is a result of several factors, including his money, his celebrity stature, the weakness of the rest of the Republican presidential contenders and America's seemingly endless election season.

As Lance Selfa wrote at SocialistWorker.org, "In the aftermath of the Great Recession, when American family income in real terms remains below what it was in 2000, American voters are in a foul mood--despite an economic 'recovery.' That's why a demagogue like Trump, who has based his campaign on bashing Mexican immigrants and China, can gain a hearing in conservative America."

Trump's popularity is a prime example of one side of an increasingly polarized political scene--but we shouldn't let this development, as ugly as it is, blind us to the other side of the story: It's important to take note of and celebrate the examples of Muslims defying the Islamophobic tide, and of ordinary people standing in solidarity with the oppressed in their communities.

After the anti-Muslim rally outside the Islamic Center of Irving, for example, more than 100 people came out for a "peace rally" in support of Muslims on November 28. "I am tired of being represented by hate groups, and I just want to let people know that not all of Irving is like that," protester Jeremy Michell told Fox 4 News.

In Pflugerville, Texas, where the Islamic Center was vandalized, more than 200 protesters rallied. "It's not healthy to live in fear," Mohamedumer Esmail of the Center told TWCNews. "When we see a crowd like this, it removes that fear. It makes us feel much better."

A 10-year-old protester named Emily put things differently when she talked to a local TV reporter about the signs that she and other kids were holding. "My sign says stop hating," Emily said. "His sign says keep your poop and hate to yourself."

A good lesson for Donald Trump and friends to learn--and one that it will be up to ordinary people to teach them.

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