On August 25, 2010, a New York City cabdriver was slashed and stabbed by a drunken passenger who allegedly accompanied his assault with anti-Muslim remarks. The driver, Ahmed H. Sharif, a native of Bangladesh, survived the attack, and the accused assailant was quickly arrested and faces a stiff prison sentence. Attacks on New York cabdrivers are not unheard of, but this incident quickly assumed the nature of a symbol of American intolerance for Muslims because of the contentious national debate over plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero—the site of the former World Trade Center destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Polls consistently showed that the majority of New Yorkers and Americans thought the placing of the planned 13-story Islamic center and mosque on the site of a building that was among those devastated by debris from the 9/11 assault on the towers was, at best, insensitive and, at worst, an affront to the victims. But after months of debate, much of the public discussion about the topic had by the time of the attack on Mr. Sharif come to be centered on a different question altogether: the peril faced by American Muslims.
Indeed, many in America's political and media elite had come to characterize virtually any opposition to the planned Islamic center, no matter how finely nuanced and devoid of prejudice against Islam, as more a product of bigotry than concern about the propriety of such a scheme. In a speech given with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, the city's mayor,Michael Bloomberg, proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake. Later he would say that all critics of the so-called Cordoba Initiative (a name that was quickly changed to the more neutral Park51 from one that invoked the era of Muslim rule in Spain) "should be ashamed of themselves" and that any compromise about the site of the project was out of the question, since to oppose the presence of a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero was a form of bigotry that must be defeated at all costs. The cover of Time asked, "Does America Have a Muslim Problem?" The New York cabbie attack was seen as the culmination of weeks of contention that was concrete proof that it does.