For Muslim Americans, this year's anniversary of September 11 may have been the most stressful and most consequential yet. The confluence of events and political developments produced a situation more volatile than any since the immediate aftermath of the horrific terror attacks of 2001. Back then, with the United States in shock, it was to be expected that some might react in anger or out of fear. There were marches on mosques (I was struck by one in Chicago, where protesters carried Confederate flags while incongruously chanting "USA"); acts of violence including the murders of Sikhs, whose assailants thought they were Arabs; and a flood of vile threats. I received many threats myself, including one from Zachary Rolnik who called me a "rag head" and threatened to "slit your throat and murder your children". It was a hate crime for which he was sentenced to prison.
But something else happened in the days after September 11. While some reacted in anger, others reached out to Arab and Muslim Americans offering understanding and even protection. It was important that the then-president, George W Bush, set a positive tone by going to a mosque and, with other elected officials and prominent entertainers, challenged Americans to remember that if they struck out blindly against Islam or blamed all Arabs and Muslims, then they were letting the terrorists win.
The tide began to turn. Hate crimes, which had spiked in the first month following the attacks, showed a significant decline. And across the country change was evident. Churches offered protection to neighbouring mosques; the Ad Council of America sponsored TV, radio and newspaper ads urging Americans to reach out to support their fellow citizens; other firms in my downtown Washington building offered to make lunches for my staff, knowing that some were afraid to leave the office; and the flood of e-mails and letters we were receiving changed in tone from accusation to support.
In a way, although welcome, these developments were rather bewildering. As unwarranted as the attacks had been, we felt undeserving of the gestures of support. What we came to realise, however, was that it was all part of a healing process, as the values of goodness and generosity at the heart of the US national character were reasserted. Now, nine years later, the hate and anger are back and it is not only Muslim Americans who are at risk, but the very soul of America. I've written before about the precipitators of this transformation: economic stress and social dislocation; preachers of hate; irresponsible mass media (including Fox News and a whole host of talk radio shows); and politicians, some of who are eager to exploit fear for political advantage and others who are too afraid to demonstrate leadership.
What is most disturbing is not just the current state of affairs. Rather, if left unchecked, it is what all this portends for the future of the country. About five years ago, I was invited to speak in a number of European capitals about the differences between the experiences of Arab and Muslim immigrants in America and Europe. What has made the United States unique is that, despite the periodic rants of bigots, it is not a nation defined by a single ethnicity or faith. Rather, it has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb the millions of immigrants who come to its shores and embrace them as Americans.
On the other hand, I have spoken to third-generation Kurds in Germany, Pakistanis in the UK and Algerians in other European countries who have complained that while they may, with difficulty, become citizens, they remain "Turk", "Ay-rab", or "Paki" immigrants. In the US, it is a different story. Not only does one become a citizen but one becomes fully American and, in the process, the very concept of "American" is transformed.
This is what has defined its character and made it the vibrant nation it has been - though not without a struggle as it confronted its demons. It was born with the "original sins" of slavery, the dispossession of indigenous peoples, and the conquest of the southwest. It endured waves of anti-Asian backlash and campaigns of discrimination against new immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and the southern Mediterranean. But through it all, the genius of America was affirmed and it became a better, stronger and more unified nation.
The election of Barack Hussein Obama for many represented the triumph of this vision. Racism had not been defeated, but the United States that promised E Pluribus Unum had asserted itself. What we did not know then was that this victory would only add fuel to the fires of discontent. And so here we are, nine years after a devastating attack that shocked and then unified the nation. We are engaged in a debate not about building a mosque or its location, but whether or not Muslims will find a place in America.
Some may argue that is not their intention. But reading the responses to my past columns and the signs of protesters, listening to the vile rhetoric of shameless politicians and the disgraceful discourse that fills the airwaves, and one might easily conclude otherwise. The United States is facing a critical choice and needs leadership, now more than ever, to remind Americans of who they are as a nation and the consequences in store should they forget.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute