The "Mosque" Debate is Not a "Distraction"
Opponents of the Park51 Islamic community center held a rally
yesterday in Lower Manhattan, and a 4-minute video, posted below,
reveals the true sentiments behind this campaign. It has little to do
with The Hallowed Ground of the World Trade Center -- that's just the
pretext -- and everything to do with animosity toward Muslims. I
dislike the tactic of singling out one or two objectionable people or
signs at a march or rally in order to disparage the event itself.
That's not what this video is. Rather, it shows the collective
sentiment of those gathered, as well as what's driving the broader
national backlash against mosques and Muslims far beyond Ground Zero.
The episode in the video begins when, as John Cole put it,
"some black guy made the mistake of looking Muslimish and was harassed
and nearly assaulted by the collection of lily white mouth-breathers at
the event . . . At about 25 seconds in, he quite astutely points out to
the crowd that 'All y'all dumb motherfuckers don’t even know my opinion
on shit'." As this African-American citizen (whom the videographer
claims is a union carpenter who works at Ground Zero) is instructed to
leave by what appears to be some sort of security or law enforcement
official, the crowd proceeds to yell: "he musta voted for Obama,"
"Mohammed's a pig," and other assorted charming anti-mosque slogans.
I really encourage everyone to watch this to see the toxicity this
campaign has unleashed:
The New York Times article on this rally
describes similar incidents, including how a student who carried a sign
that simply read "Religious tolerance is what makes America great" was
threatened and told that "that if the police were not present, [he]
would be in danger." Does anyone believe that their real agenda is
simply to have Park51 move a few blocks away to less Sacred ground, or
that they're amenable to some sort of Howard-Dean-envisioned compromise
that accommodates everyone?
All of this underscores a point I've wanted to make for awhile.
There's been a tendency, which I find increasingly irritating, to
dismiss this whole Park51 debate as some sort of petty, inconsequential
August "distraction" from what Really Matters. Here's Chuck Todd mocking the debate as a "shiny metal object alert" and lamenting "the waste of time" he believes it to be, while Katrina vanden Heuvel, in The Washington Post last week,
condemned "pundits and politicians [who] are working themselves into
hysteria over a mosque near Ground Zero" on the ground that it won't
determine the outcome of the midterm elections. This impulse is
understandable. If you chose to narrowly define the topic of the
controversy as nothing more than the Manhattan address of Park 51, then
obviously it pales in importance to the unemployment crisis, our ongoing
wars, and countless other political issues.
But that's an artificially narrow and misguided way of
understanding what this dispute is about. The intense animosity toward
Muslims driving this campaign extends far beyond Ground Zero, and
manifests in all sorts of significant and dangerous ways. In June, The New York Times reported on a vicious opposition campaign against a proposed mosque in Staten Island. Earlier this month, Associated Press documented that "Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation's heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive." And today, The Washington Post examines
anti-mosque campaigns from communities around the nation and concludes
that "the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in
communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising
questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted."
To belittle this issue as though it's the equivalent of the media's
August fixation on shark attacks or Chandra Levy -- or, worse, to want
to ignore it because it's harmful to the Democrats' chances in November
-- is profoundly irresponsible. The Park51 conflict is driven by, and
reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority -- one
that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both
domestically and internationally. Yesterday, ABC News' Christiane Amanpour decided to let Americans hear about this dispute from actual Muslims behind the project (compare that, as Jay Rosen suggested, to David Gregory's trite and typically homogenous guest list of Rick Lazio and Jeffrey Goldberg and you see why there's so much upset caused by Amanpour). One of those project organizers, Daisy Kahn, said this during her ABC interview:
This is like a metastasized anti-Semitism. That's what we feel
right now. It's not even Islamophobia; it's beyond Islamophobia. It's
hate of Muslims, and we are deeply concerned.
Can anyone watch the video of that disgusting hate rally and
dispute that? That's exactly why I've found this conflict so
significant. If Park51 ends up moving or if opponents otherwise succeed
in defeating it, it will seriously bolster and validate
the ugly premises at the heart of this campaign: that Muslims
generally are responsible for 9/11, Terrorism justifies and even compels
our restricting the equals rights and access of Americans Muslims, and
more broadly, the animosity and suspicions towards Muslims generally are
justified, or at least deserving of respect. As Aziz Poonawalla put it:
"if the project does fail, then I think that the message that will be
sent is that bigotry and fear of Muslims is not just permitted, it is
That's exactly the message that will be sent, and that's what makes
this conflict so significant. Obviously, not all opponents of Park51
are as overtly hateful as those in that video -- and not all opponents
are themselves bigots -- but the position they've adopted is inherently
bigoted, as it seeks to impose guilt and blame on a large demographic
group for the aberrational acts of a small number of individual members.
And one thing is certain: if this campaign succeeds, it will
proliferate and the sentiments driving it will become even more potent.
Hatemongerers always become emboldened when they triumph.
The animosity and hatred so visible here extends far beyond the
location of mosques or even how we treat American Muslims. So many of
our national abuses, crimes and other excesses of the last decade --
torture, invasions, bombings, illegal surveillance, assassinations,
renditions, disappearances, etc. etc. -- are grounded in endless
demonization of Muslims. A citizenry will submit to such policies only
if they are vested with sufficient fear of an Enemy. There are, as
always, a wide array of enemies capable of producing substantial fear
(the Immigrants, the Gays, and, as that video reveals, the
always-reliable racial minorities), but the leading Enemy over the last
decade, in American political discourse, has been, and still is, the
That's why the population is willing to justify virtually anything
that's done to "them" without much resistance at all, and it's why very
few people demand evidence from the Government before believing
accusaitons that someone is a Terrorist: after all, if they're Muslim,
that's reason enough to believe it. Hence, the repeated, mindless
mantra that those in Guantanamo -- or those on the Government's "hit
list" -- are Terrorists even in the absence of evidence and charges, and
even in the presence of ample grounds for doubting the truth of those accusations.
And there's no end in sight: the current hysteria over Iran at its
core relies -- just as the identical campaign against Iraq did -- on
the demonization of a whole new host of Muslim villains. A population
that is constantly bombarded with tales of Muslim Evil (they want to
kill your children and explode a nuclear suitcase in your neighborhood)
will be filled with fear and hatred -- sentiments always exacerbated
during times of economic strife and uncertainty -- and very well-primed
to lash out. That's the decade-long brew that has led to this purely
irrational, hate-driven demand that they not be allowed to desecrate and
infect the Sacred, Hallowed Space of Ground Zero (the religious
terminology used to talk about 9/11 is both creepy and no accident).
This "debate" over Park51 is many things. An inconsequential
"distraction" from what Really Matters is not one of them.
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