As the news of Osama bin Laden's death spread late Sunday night and into Monday morning, nearly a decade of American anxiety began to spill out, as if a glass so filled that even the slightest nudge would disturb its contents had just been toppled to the floor. There was the frat party outside the White House gates, complete with canned beer, beach balls and Bush-Cheney campaign signs. At the same time, a more somber reflection was taking place at Ground Zero in New York City, where the heinousness of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is still felt most acutely.
We were all processing — instantaneously — the staggering historical moment, and it was clear few of us knew exactly what to do. (Twitter should provide a record of that.) Perhaps it felt right to celebrate the death of America's bogeyman — the face taped to the dartboard that is the war on terrorism, whose humanity seemed to return only in his death. Or maybe the real triumph would've been to convict bin Laden of his crimes in a federal courtroom in Manhattan.
Regardless, the overwhelming relief of the moment still accompanies the idea — now in bloom — that bin Laden's death could be a natural bookend to the debacles of torture, illegal war, spying on our own citizens, and the many other contortions, misjudgments and atrocities we've undertaken as a country since we began to take terrorism personally 10 years ago this fall.
At the very least, though, the death of the man who stood as a symbol of worldwide terror could also begin to neutralize the vicious strain of anti-Islamism that seemed to arrive in America not long after 9/11's new world order — and has hung around stubbornly since.
For a generation of young Americans, bin Laden had become not only the world's pre-eminent terrorist but a face of Islam as well. Wrong as that is, the perception has stuck to American Muslims — particularly those in Middle Tennessee, where the national fear-fever settled in here for a spell during the past year.
The symptoms were glaring. In August, just as worshippers broke ground on a new mosque and community building for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, an arsonist (or -ists) burned excavating equipment at the site. It was the third act of vandalism there since the congregation had purchased the land and been approved to build.
In Nashville, vandals spray-painted "Muslims Go Home" across the front of the Al-Farooq Mosque on Fourth Avenue South near the fairgrounds in February of last year. Two months later, the Islamic Center of Williamson County withdrew its proposal to build a mosque in Brentwood after neighbors erupted with wild prognostications of radicalism amid the cul-de-sacs and chain stores. And it was only after negative publicity that groups in Antioch backed off a more covert campaign against the Islamic Center of Tennessee, which is now renovating the former Carmike Bell Forge 10 movie theater into a mosque and community center.
Whatever deliverance bin Laden's death might offer Muslims fighting the perception that they are all somehow like him, Middle Tennessee's Islamic leaders seem just as relieved and celebratory as the bros hoisting brews at the White House gates early Monday morning.
"We are just thrilled, like every American," says Mohamed-Shukri Hassan of the Al-Farooq Mosque. "As the president pointed out in his address to the nation, the ideology of Osama bin Laden is incompatible with Islam, and he murdered more Muslims than anyone can think of. He's a mass-murderer. His death should be welcomed and should be a relief to any peace-loving human in this world."
In a note posted on its website, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and Sheikh Ossama Bahloul thanked President Obama and the military, calling the killing of bin Laden "a great justice."
Imam Mohammad Ahmed Al-Sherif of the Islamic Center of Nashville, located in the 12South neighborhood, says bin Laden was no die-cast Muslim.
"He never represented us as a Muslim. He never represented Islam. And actually I question if he was a Muslim or not," he says. "We did not see that in him. We did not see any kind of reflection."
Still, the matter of how — or whether — bin Laden's death might change the perceptions of those who believe a Koran and a shoe-bomb are part of the same spiritual advisory kit will take a long time to solve.
"I think we are the furthest people from being helped by bin Laden," even in death, Al-Sherif says. "Our religion had been hijacked by him."
Katherine Carroll, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who spent a year embedded with the U.S. Army in Baghdad as an expert on Middle East politics, says she's skeptical that bin Laden's death will change some Americans' perception of Muslims. She says at this point, he's more like a bit player in the ongoing drama.
"American anxiety is not just about bin Laden, whom even the worst Islamophobes are generally willing to acknowledge is an outlier," she says. "It's about a narrative that comes mostly from conservative media that builds Islam up as an ongoing existential threat to the West. This narrative presents Muslims as the 'other' — dangerous, different, not ready for democracy and not appreciative of freedom."
To the contrary, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and throughout the Middle East have revealed a cast of Arabs — some Muslim, but certainly not all — seeking in their respective countries precisely what the United States is supposed to be: a free and democratic society. That's why Al-Sherif and many other Muslims choose to live here, he says.
"Americans categorized us with bin Laden and associated us with him and his ideology," he says. "But we are not. We are not. We are insisting to be part of this country."
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