Here is the order of events producing this bizarre “controversy.”
2009: A Muslim organization having arranged to purchase an abandoned Burlington Coat factory on Park Place in Lower Manhattan plans to build a 13-story Islamic community center. It will feature a culinary school, conference hall, basketball court, swimming pool, and place of worship among other things and while principally servicing the Muslim community be open to all. It is to be called the Cordoba House, an apparent allusion to Muslim Spain in which Islam flourished alongside Christianity and Judaism from the eighth century up to the “Reconquest.”
In its mission statement the group says the center “will be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet. [It] will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry. With world-class facilities, a global scope and strong local roots, [the center] will offer a friendly and accessible platform for conversations across our identities.”
It will be four big city blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood (“Ground Zero”). But since there are already about eight mosques in Manhattan, and a significant Muslim population in that highly diverse section of New York City, there is nothing remarkable about the group’s application to tear down the old factory building and construct the center.
The key organizer, Kuwait-born Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an imam of the Sufi school of Islam, generally described as “moderate” and mystical. He holds a degree in physics from Columbia University, had been hired by the FBI to conduct sensitivity training among their agents, and had worked with the U.S. State Department. He had met New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who strongly supports the plan for the center.
In December 2009 the New York Times runs an article on the project. It is generally positive, citing two Jewish leaders and the mother of a 9-11 victim in support. In the same month conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, guest-hosting FOX News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” interviews Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan. The interview is as Salon’s Justin Elliot later notes “remarkable for its cordiality.” “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with [the project], declares Ingraham. “I like what you’re trying to do.”
On May 6, 2010, after a public hearing in which New Yorkers express strong feelings pro and con, the New York City community board committee unanimously votes to approve the project. Enter Pamela Geller, who maintains a blog called Atlas Shrugs. She has written a book about Barack Obama in which she alleges his real father was Malcolm X. She leads an apparently tiny wacko group called Stop the Islamization of America. Seeing the opportunity to have her moment in the sun (and she is soon interviewed by FOX News and CNN), she lashes out at Cordoba House. She declares on her blog, “this is not about religious liberty. No one has suggested abridging the First Amendment to stop the mosque, and to oppose the Ground Zero mosque is not to oppose the First Amendment. There are hundreds of mosques in New York, thousands in America. This is not a religious issue. This is an issue of national dignity and respect for those who were murdered at that site in the name of Islam.” She begins to organize a protest at the Park Place site.
Soon New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser references Geller’s group, falsely describing it as a “human rights group.” This brings the movement against the “Ground Zero mosque” out of the blogosphere and into the mainstream press. She sensationalizes the issue, falsely reporting that the center is to open on Sept. 11, 2011. A “controversy” erupts.
On July 16 Sarah Palin weighs in. Addressing not Muslims specifically but “Peaceful New Yorkers,” Sarah Palin twittered: “ pls refudiate [sic] the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” She adds two days later (after ammending “refudiate” to “refute”), “Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. . .” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich expresses outrage in multiple statements over the next month: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” “It’s not about religion,” he insists, “and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.” He says the center will be a symbol of Muslim “triumphalism,” and that building the mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”
He writes, “‘Cordoba House’ is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain–the capital of Muslim conquerors, who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex… every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.” In response to this absurb allegation the center organizers change the name to “Park51.”
(Gingrich who postures as an historian and scholar might have noted the Visigothic church was purchased by the conquering emir after 718 and that the Arabs during their rule in Spain pursued a policy of far greater religious tolerance than the Christians had before them. They allowed churches and synagogues to operate freely. When the Christians regained power, they expelled all Jews and Muslims, or forced them to convert, and conducted the Spanish Inquisition.)
Republican politicians smelling blood and opportunity continue to lash out. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty says, “I think it’s inappropriate… From a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that. We shouldn’t have images or activities that degrade or disrespect that in any way.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee asks on his FOX program August 4, “Even if the Muslims have the right to build it, don’t they do more to serve the public interest by exercising the responsible judgment to not build it?” “The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do,” echoed Ohio Rep. John Boehner.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s spokesman adds: “Governor Romney opposes the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero. The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site.”
On August 13 President Obama hosts representatives of the Muslim community at the White House. “As a citizen,” he tells them, “and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
A Republican running for Congress in Maryland, Andrew Harris, denounces the statement: “He is thinking like a lawyer and not an American, making declarations without America’s best interest in mind.” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also responds immediately: “President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero.”
Bob Schieffer, CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent observes that Obama’s attention to the mosque issue “elevates it to a national issue. Clearly, Republicans are trying to take every advantage of this they can… every single Democratic candidate now running for office is going to be asked about it.”
Democratic Party leaders quickly distance themselves from the president’s remarks. . “The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” says a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid adding that the senator “respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.”
Obama himself, startled by the response to his comments, has to elaborate almost immediately. “I was not commenting, and I will not comment,” he said, “on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
A CNN poll published in August 11 shows 68% of Americans opposed to the center, and a FOX poll published August 13 shows that 61% of U.S. residents support the legal right to construct Park 51 but 64% don’t want the Muslim group to construct it. This becomes the mandatory position of all politicians: they’ve got a right to do it, but they shouldn’t. It would not be politically wise to suggest a general ban on mosques or Islamic community centers. But everyone has to say, this particular project is wrong because it shows insensitivity to the feelings of “Americans” particularly family members of the 9-11 victims. Justin Quinn, who maintains the “U.S. Conservative Politics Blog” for example, justifies his disapproval by suggesting the building will hurt “thousands of people who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones who were turned to dust in the attacks.”
But there is another issue as well. New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, Gingrich, and Quinn all call for an investigation of the center’s funding, suggesting that some of it might come from “Islamic terrorists.” Lazio speaks ominously about the “the questionable backers of the Cordoba Mosque at Ground Zero” and calls for a public investigation. Quinn says, “let’s at least find out where the money is coming from to pay for this thing.” Soon House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on board the program, although, alarmed at the backlash from Obama’s remarks, she suggests the “anti-mosque” movement should also be investigated.
By innuendo they assert that Rauf is linked to international terrorism. That seems unlikely since he’s been hired by the FBI since 2001 to offer sensitivity training to agents and has also just been asked by the State Department recently to tour the Middle East to “foster greater understanding” about the U.S. and its Muslims.
The charge seems based solely on the fact that in a June 2010 interview with Aaron Klein of New York’s WABC Radio, he declined to say whether he agreed with the listing of Hamas as a “terrorist organization.”
He declined to do, replying, “I’m not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question…. I’m a bridge builder. I define my work as a bridge builder. I do not want to be placed, nor do I accept to be placed in a position of being put in a position where I am the target of one side or another.”
(I see nothing damning here. Hamas, initially promoted by Israel as an alternative to secular Palestinian nationalism, has resisted Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. It maintained long-term ceasefires with Israel ended due to Israeli action. It won a fair election in 2006. The U.S. State Department has considered it a “terrorist organization” since at least 1994 but the European Union only added it to its blacklist in 2003 under U.S. pressure. Many people including former President Jimmy Carter have asked that it be removed from that list, which is highly political and arbitrary and under no meaningful Congressional oversight. A U.S. Appeals Court recently ruled that the State Department must review its decision to list the People’s Mujahadeen Organization of Iran as “terrorist.” These things are very political, and no one should demand that Rauf endorse the listing. Certainly not those opposed to “Big Government” and its expectations of passive obedience from the citizenry.)
There are also wild accusations (aside from Gingrich’s cited above) that the center is designed to rub 9-11 in our noses. “The mosque at Ground Zero,” Quinn insists, “is being pursued to prove a simple political point — that Islamic fundamentalists can knock our buildings down, murder our citizens and then use our own laws against us so they can laugh in our faces.”
There are also hateful, provocative comments. Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams blogs his followers: “The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god (repeat: ‘the terrorists’ monkey-god.” if you feel that fits a description of Allah then that is your own deep-seated emotional baggage not mine, talk to the terrorists who use Allah as their excuse and the Muslims who apologize for and rationalize them) and a ‘cultural center’ to propagandize for the extermination of all things not approved by their cult. It is a project of American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, essentially the same group of apologists (but under 2 different names) for terrorists and the animals who use it as a terrorist ideology. They cloak their evil with new age gibberish that suggests Islam is just misunderstood.”
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Thus by mid-August a modest project by a mainstream U.S. Muslim group backed by the New York City mayor and unanimously approved by the New York City community committee has been transformed into a general attack on Muslim rights in this country. The scary thing is that disapproval is so widespread, bipartisan, and driven by irrational fear if not hatred.
What does this tell us about this country? It tells us that nine years after 9-11 (and nice centuries after the First Crusade), Islamophobia is rampant and politically useful. Even though U.S. troops are supposedly fighting to help Muslims in two countries and both Bush and Obama have officially (for whatever reasons) emphasized that the U.S. is not against Islam, Islam is a religion of peace, we value our Muslim citizens, etc. the “us vs. them” mentality remains strong.
The prevalent argument against the center—that it may hurt people’s feelings—is an argument that people should be hurt by the mere existence of an Islamic site near “Ground Zero.” That they should feel hurt at the site of a Muslim establishment as they walk around Lower Manhattan, associating it with the 9-11 hijackers. That they should conflate Mohamed Atta and Rauf, or that at least if they do, their feelings should be respected. Of course Rauf’s hope is to counter precisely such feels by encouraging understanding and dialogue. (The fact in any case is that according to an August 10 Marist poll only 31% of Manhattan residents oppose the center!)
What about the feelings of U.S. Muslims, including those who had family members perish in the 9-11 bombing? They read about the plans of the “Dove World Outreach Center” in Gainesville, Florida—a “New Testament church, based on the Bible”—to promote an “International Burn a Quran Day” this September 11. They read about anti-mosque campaigns in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Temecula, California; Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The Tea Party movement and mainstream politicians enthusiastically embrace the anti-mosque movement. I imagine there are some hurt feelings among people unfairly associated with terrorism just because a handful of Saudis attacked the U.S. nine years ago. To be told “this sacred ground—our American ground” so we don’t want your Muslim center here “degrading” and “disrespecting” it (Pawlenty’s terms) is to be told you’re not really a full citizen and your religion (as opposed to, say, Catholicism) isn’t an American one. It must be insulting.
The notion that “they attacked us”—that the whole Muslim world attacked “us”—is so preposterous that only the simplest minds can believe it and the most devious exploit their ignorance for political gain. The U.S. has attacked Muslim countries, or intervened to impose regime change, repeatedly in the post-war period. Since 1967 it has provided nearly unconditional support to Israel, inevitably endorsing or accepting its grotesque mistreatment of the Palestinians. It cruelly maintained sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s, resulting in at least half a million children’s deaths. It provides massive aid to hated dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. It has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in its latest attack on Iraq. It maintains an increasingly unpopular occupation of Afghanistan and by its drone attacks on Pakistan has thoroughly alienated the Pakistani people. It is natural for Muslims globally to see themselves under U.S. attack. That a few have responded with terrorist attacks is unsurprising; the CIA calls it “blowback.” It is also natural for most, like Rauf, to want to respond to all this with peaceful education and dialogue.
The problem isn’t limited to the U.S. Other western countries are also manifesting Islamophobia, placing Muslims on the defensive. In March 2005 the French parliament voted to ban Islamic head scarves in public schools. This has forced French Muslim schoolgirls to choose between following rules set down in the Qur’an and receiving public education. In 2005 the Danish right-wing newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten “invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.” Since Muslim teaching forbids depiction of the prophet, and since it was assumed many cartoons would depict him a terrorist, this was a deliberate provocation. In December 2009 Swiss voters voted in a referendum to ban further construction of minarets in the country. There are only four.
There are a lot of hurt feelings about violent attacks, and Muslims in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere frankly have more cause for them than the people of New York City. The loss of 2976 people on 9-11 was tragic. But more than that number of civilians were killed by U.S. bombing between October 2001 and March 2002, and the loss of life in Iraq due a war based on lies (including the Islamophobic conflation of al-Qaeda and Saddam) has been catastrophic. And there are lots of hurt feelings over discrimination, experienced throughout the western world.
The controversy over the Islamic center shows us that neither the politicians nor pundits nor people in general understand that, and so seem hell-bent on generating more Muslim resentment. Nothing good can come out of that.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.