But the world cringed five days later, on September 16, 2001, when President George W. Bush reacted to the attacks with the dreaded theopolitical "C-word": "This crusade," he said, "is going to take a while."
That unfortunate choice of words brought to mind, of course, the Christian aggression against Muslims in the so-called Holy Land in the Middle Ages. You know, the capital-C Crusades you learned about (probably in a biased manner) in fourth-grade history class.
Nevertheless, Bush being Bush, the world cringed again when he repeated that C-word. On February 16, 2002, Bush said, "I want to tell you something, we've got no better friends than Canada. They stand with us in this incredibly important crusade to defend freedom, this campaign to do what is right for our children and our grandchildren."
Bush's handlers saw to it that he made clarifying statements recognizing Islam as a peaceful religion. But did those statements come from the heart?
The fact remains that Bush used that C-word repeatedly, and we know from experience that his damage-control efforts are not to be trusted. More importantly, al-Qaeda knows that, too.
And, since then, the American people seem to have caught the crusade fever.
Racism and xenophobia are nothing new in American culture. But the Islamophobia that began with some racial profiling and suspicious looks directed at Middle-Eastern-looking persons after the 9/11 attacks has grown into a dangerous new culture war that threatens our national security.
The escalation seems to have begun with the successful presidential campaign of Barack Hussein Obama. The right-wing talking heads went to town, emphasizing Obama's middle name and the fact that he spent some of his growing years in Indonesia, which claims the world's largest Muslim population. They did it in such a way as to imply that "Muslim" equals "terrorist" (or at least "terrorist sympathizer").
To further scare the white sheep, the right-wing press falsely reported that Obama was educated in a radical Muslim madrassa. Again, they seemed to suggest that anything Islamic, anything Muslim, equals "terrorist".
Then the so-called "birther" movement took conspiracy theories to a new level by refusing to believe that Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate was good enough to prove his U.S. citizenship. And to this day I continue to receive email from birthers who still cling to their long-debunked theory even after the Roberts-led Supreme Court upheld sanctions against birther queen Orly Taitz for filing frivolous lawsuits challenging Obama's citizenship. It's the same kind of thing. The right has stopped at nothing to present Obama as something exotic, not American enough, not Christian enough, and not the kind of person whom the average voter in Kansas can relate to. And, again, they suggest he's a Muslim, as if that means he's in cahoots with Osama. (Oh, yes, the right didn't let that one-letter name difference go unnoticed, either.)
And the propaganda has worked.
United Church of Christ Pastor Jeremiah Wright notwithstanding (apparently he's a Muslim, too), a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that an alarming 18 percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. That's up from 11 percent in March 2009. Even more disturbing is the explanation offered by Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. According to the ultra-conservative Washington Times, Kohut alleges that the poll results reflect "the intensification of negative views about Obama among his critics." By citing "negative" views in that breath, Kohut clearly implies that being a Muslim is a bad thing. That sort of bias is particularly shameful for a leading poll taker.
Still, it doesn't take a poll to know that Islamophobia is rampant. And the latest proof of that is the recent hysteria over the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan.
First of all, the Center has been wrongly described as a mosque. While it would include a prayer space, it would primarily look just like a YMCA, with a fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, culinary school, and food court. What's so threatening about that?
Furthermore, while it has been described as the "Ground Zero Mosque", it sits two large city blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. Within those two blocks between the controversial "mosque" site and Ground Zero sit some strip clubs, fast-food restaurants, check-cashing agencies, and bars. Are those businesses more worthy of their location near that hallowed ground than a gym and a cooking school?
Those questions, of course, are rhetorical ones. But, for al-Qaeda, it all validates their perception that the so-called "war on terror" really is a war on Islam. It validates their perception that this really is a crusade. And that validates their jihad.