For almost a decade, the annual commemoration of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been seen as a day of national unity and sober remembrance. This year, contentious issues of religious freedom and national identity threaten to color the ninth anniversary of those tragic events.
Controversies over calls to burn the Quran, and an ongoing debate over a proposed Islamic cultural center – which includes a mosque – near ground zero in New York drew particular attention as the anniversary neared.
The reality is that, with rare exceptions, the meaning of those attacks has rarely been free of political overtones or debate. Common ground in the months after the attacks quickly gave way to partisan division over combating terrorism.
What might be different this year is that earlier debates about who was strong and who was not have been supplanted by questions about Islam and religious freedom.
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Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Florida, wants to build a bonfire out of copies of the Quran today. That has brought condemnation across the spectrum.
But experts on public opinion say the controversy does not represent a significant shift in attitudes. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said fresh signs of a backlash against Muslims are not showing up broadly in national surveys.
“Attitudes are mixed and not as positive as they were eight years ago,” he said, “but there’s no sign of an upswing in anti-Muslim fervor.”
Jones might epitomize the ease with which someone on the political fringe can draw attention and spark controversy. The debate over the proposed Islamic center represents more genuine divisions in the country over the limits of religious freedom and the sacred nature of the ground around where the World Trade Center once stood.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans oppose building the Islamic center near the site of the twin towers. Four in 5 of those opposed say their opposition is strictly because of the location. But 14 percent of the opponents (or 9 percent of all Americans) say they would oppose building it anywhere in the country.
The Post-ABC News poll found that roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view. That is little changed over the past few years but is slightly more negative than eight years ago. In October 2002, 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam and 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.
About one-third of the country now believes that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, while 54 percent see the religion as peaceful. The percentage seeing it as peaceful has varied little over the past nine years, but those saying they believe it encourages violence is about double what it was in 2002.
This year’s controversies could be different in tone and content from those of the past, but the idea that 9/11 has always been a unifying moment is overdrawn. For a time, the attacks sparked a change in the national mood, a coming together across party lines. That quickly gave way to a return to partisan politics – a time with terrorism at the center of a harsh and sometimes raw debate.
Depending on one’s views, that was a testament either to the resilience of Americans to absorb the worst and keep going or a depressing indicator that the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in history could be so easily set aside in the face of partisan politics.
The events themselves appear to have receded further and further in the public’s consciousness, even as the country prepares to mark another anniversary of them. Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who has tracked attitudes on the attacks closely, said 9/11 “is becoming a distant historical marker,” akin to Veterans Day.
The new Post-ABC News poll highlights just how much 9/11 has receded. Just 14 percent of Americans now say they think about what happened on 9/11 every day, down from 23 percent four years ago and 40 percent the year after the attacks.