I've been meaning to write more about Park51, the proposed Muslim community center that wouldn't really be a mosque and wouldn't be at Ground Zero. However, it seems that there have been 5-10 good pieces per day on it for the past month or so. And while this project never should have been an issue, it was made into one by the usual right-wing noise machine. While some people may be genuinely upset, most of that distress results from exposure to a series of shameless, divisive lies. We've seen this game before. It's not healthy for our national political discourse to be dictated by liars, scoundrels and bigots. And it'd be shame if once again, fundamental rights and basic decency were sacrificed to appease them.
(This is in large part but not entirely a round-up/resource post, so if you've been following this story closely, some of it may be familiar. If nothing else, check out any Daily Show segments you missed, but feel free to skip around.)
The Timeline / Considering the Source
Justin Elliott at Salon has put together a short, invaluable timeline over this "outrage." Some moderate Muslims, previously tapped by the Bush administration for cultural and religious outreach, sought to turn an old Burlington Coat Factory in Manhattan into a Muslim Community Center. (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is specifically Sufi.) Tentatively named Cordoba House at first, the project was patterned on familiar models such as the YMCA and a local Jewish community center. (The project's developer, New York-born Sharif El-Gamal, has given more background in two interviews.) The site happens to be two city NYC blocks away from Ground Zero (several blogs and shows have shown photos of the surrounding area). The project received unanimous approval from the local zoning board, and even Fox News covered the story favorably at first.
But then, basically, bomb-happy, right-wing, Islamophobic blogger Pamela Geller and the like-minded started a stink over it. Eventually, more prominent right-wing outlets decided to run with the story, facts and decency be damned, and other right-wing political celebrities like Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich decided they wanted a piece of that action.
If you're not familiar with Pamela Geller, this segment gives a good run-down:
I wondered why he didn't cover her most infamous post – a lengthy, psycho post about Barack Obama being Malcolm X's secret love child – but Geller claims she didn't write that, and didn't believe that part – just the parts about Obama not born in America and perhaps being a secret Muslim, I guess. (Hey, even crazy people have to drawn lines.)
It's also important to note that Republican strategist Mary Matalin, despite Geller's history, signed her to a six figure book deal for a screed against Obama (it's now published). Meanwhile, Geller's protests that she isn't a anti-Muslim bigot, and claims that criticism of her has been "radically intolerant," are pretty rich given her history of hateful statements.
There's a debate about how much of Geller's shtick is deliberate lying versus sincere, paranoid bigotry, but with Newt Gingrich, there's no doubt: He's a scumbag and opportunist.
In any case, accounts of this "controversy" that ignore its origins, and elide the facts – it's not really a "ground zero mosque" – do the public a grave disservice.
The Anti-Defamation League
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) received a fair amount of criticism for coming out against the project and basically betraying its own charter. Here's part of their release:
We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.
We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.
However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.
The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.
As Eric Martin observed:
I've read this about five times now, and I still don't see how they get from the premises in paragraphs 1 and 2 to the conclusions in paragraph 4.
The third paragraph is the weakest of bridges in this regard, not only because paragraph 4 betrays the principles extolled in the first two (though that does sort of give the game away), but for the simple fact that many of the families and friends of those killed believe that the mosque would be a testament to American values triumphing over ignorance.
Myself included. Not to mention, undoubtedly, some of the Muslim victims' friends and loved ones. They count too.
After all, why do some passions and sensitivities get valued over others and, if we must choose, why should we choose to give priority to those responses informed by divisiveness, bigotry and ignorance?
This is shameful for the ADL. Absolutely shameful.
Greg Sargent ripped apart another paragraph from the same statement, and also dissected a subsequent statement by the ADL that wasn't much better (possibly worse). It's disappointing, if not entirely surprising. Glenn Greenwald has documented how the ADL has been selective in its objections at times, and Scott Horton recently wrote about an odd episode involving ADL head Abe Foxman.
Whatever his other faults or merits, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a great speech about religious freedom and cultural tolerance, and how they're central to the city's identity and history:
You can read the speech here. On the same webpage, the video accessible through "More Resources" in the right column is well worth watching. It shows Bloomberg's speech, but also features NYC religious leaders of different faiths (and some with strong ties to 9/11) speaking passionately and thoughtfully on the same theme. The First Amendment, including Freedom of Religion, was obviously a founding principle of America, and it's disturbing to see it assaulted. ("The freedom to worship – or not" is the central idea behind the annual Blog Against Theocracy.)
It's currently Ramadan, and President Obama also spoke out in defense of religious freedom at an Iftar dinner:
You can read the text of the speech here. It was a good speech.
Unfortunately, when questioned about the speech, Obama offered a weak follow-up statement. While logically consistent, it undercut the strength of his speech and was never going to appease the Geller crowd anyway.
In "Founding Fathers Address Proposed Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan," Scott Horton quoted George Washington on these issues:
On August 17, 1790, the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, Moses Seixas, penned an important letter to the president of the United States. Drawing attention to the devastation suffered by the once prosperous seaport, Seixas also addressed the question of freedom of religion and expressed a hope about what America would become:
a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship:—deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine:—This so ample and extensive federal union whose basis is Philanthropy, mutual confidence, and public virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatsoever seemeth [to Him] good.
And to this George Washington replied, providing his correspondent the honor of a flattering echo of the original:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
The Times report from Saturday brings us some voices that recall those of Moses Seixas, including Rabbi Irwin Kula and C. Welton Gaddy. But it also brings us the louder voices of intolerance, including the increasingly shrill leader of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who does an honest job only in characterizing his own comments:
"Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational," he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted."
American citizens do indeed have the right to be irrational and bigoted. But, as George Washington explained, they do not have the right to oppress their fellow citizens by institutionalizing their bigotry in government action. And, as Moses Seixas explained, those who have survived deprivation and oppression will find better solace in a faith that counsels compassion and community rather than the repression of those of a differing confession.
(I've seen several other bloggers and organizations quote this Washington letter since, but Horton was the first I saw to cite it.)
Fear, Ignorance and Hatred in Context
None of the current furor exists in a vacuum. As Will Bunch explained, "It's not about the mosque -- it's America's war on "the Other"":
It is no surprise that by mid-2009 I was hearing from the leader of the anti-Obama group the Delaware 9-12 Patriots that the 44th president of the United States "is absolutely not American" while his neighbors were screaming at town hall meetings: "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back!" These rank-and-file citizens were often echoing what they heard in a 24/7 right-wing media bubble of ratings-driven irresponsibility -- outlandish neo-McCarthyite allegations that Obama had Commies and Maoists working in the West Wing, Glenn Beck's notorious claim that the president has "a deep-seated hatred of white people" and, perhaps more tellingly, of "white culture," and most recently radio's Rush Limbaugh's bizarre charge that Obama is probably the "best anti-American president the country's ever had."...
Which brings us to the present crisis: Mosques in America. It should tell you something that the backlash against Muslims practicing their faith in America is far greater in 2010 than it was in the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That's because the political firestorm with its epicenter in lower Manhattan really has nothing to do with 9/11 or its aftermath, and everything to do with "the Other" the awful forces and fears that have been unleashed in the last couple of years -- fears that craven politicians like Gingrich, Palin and the formerly rational Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are eager to surf into the White House in 2013. If the Manhattan mosque controversy were really about our 9/11 sensibilities, how does one explain the opposition to other Islamic houses of worship from Tennessee to California to Staten Island?
Adam Serwer commented on the "Obama is a Muslim" campaign in "On Obama, Islam, And Political Identity"(emphasis mine):
[Conservative blogger John] Hinderaker is mad that the AP isn't reporting as fact an interpretation of a feeling that some conservatives have about "the currents that swirl through world events." Feel free to snap your fingers when you're done reading. As Dave Weigel writes, "To be American is to agree with John Hinderaker; to disagree is to be a Muslim."
Still, I think on some level, Hinderaker is right. Some conservatives see Obama as being different from them, and they deploy "Muslim" as an epithet to express their suspicion and anger toward him. I'm sure part of it also has to do with conservative elites reinforcing or at least winking at the notion that Obama is being deceptive about his religious beliefs and that describing someone as a "Muslim" is some kind of an insult. As the Pew poll notes, "Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing." In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word.
Back on 8/17/10, Digby posted two of the conservative propaganda videos against Park51. The first one especially is ridiculously deceptive. As Digby quipped:
In case you didn't know, this is a "bigger threat to our freedom than Nazism ever was."
People who live entirely in the wingnut noise machine honestly don't know the truth about the project and are being scared half to death by this propaganda. Those who are apathetic (most Americans) probably think as Kevin [Drum] did, that the "mosque" is being built on the site of the WTC as part of the planned memorial, which just seems odd. I don't think you can underestimate how uninformed most people are on just about anything. But on this issue I think there's a very good chance that they are more misinformed than usual.
I could be wrong, though. Maybe most of the country really believes that it's insensitive for American Muslims to practice their religion near Ground Zero, in which case we have bigger problems.
This is a case of both/and. Many Americans are misinformed on this issue, to the degree they've followed it at all. But a fair number of the right-wing base is opposed to Freedom of Religion for anyone but themselves. (More on this later.)
Roy Edroso has been following this issue extensively, with his most thorough roundup being "Ground Zero Mosque Story Confirms It: Conservatives Are The Honky Party." After surveying the crazy, he concludes:
And so on. With extremely rare exceptions, you can go now through all rightwing sites and publications, from the high-end to the low, and find the same thing: A willingness -- actually, an puppy-like eagerness -- to exploit the basest religious and racial fears for political gain. (More than usual, we mean.)
We might adopt a lofty pose, scratch our chins, and say this speaks poorly of the state of the conservative movement. But whom would we be kidding? There is no conservative movement, intellectually speaking -- merely a consortium of crackpots and bigots who believe that gays are threatening their marriages, rich people are overtaxed, black people are the real racists, and the building of a mosque at the site of a disused Burlington Coat Factory somewhere near Ground Zero presents a graver danger to American liberty than the other mosques already near Ground Zero.
About the most charitable thing you could say for them is: Maybe they're only pretending to believe this nonsense.
It's also worth checking out "It's Obama's Fault People Think He's a Muslim, Say the Guys Who Keep Telling People He's a Muslim," and a short post examining that legendary conservative tolerance. Roy and TBogg both looked at the latest ravings of bombs-away neocon and McCarthyite Jennifer Rubin. Maha has been blogging up a storm on this issue as well. (I don't agree with all of this Roger Ebert piece on the issue, but it's characteristically thoughtful.)
The Daily Show
The Daily Show is always good and often brilliant, and their segments on this story have been absolutely superb. Here's the first one, which shows that Islamophobia is indeed a factor:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Municipal Land-Use Hearing Update|
In the same episode, Wyatt Cenac scouts the location:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Municipal Land-Use Update - Ground Zero Mosque|
Let's examine the hypocrisies in Fox News' coverage on this issue, look at crappy coverage from "legitimate" outlets, and play the analogy game with tolerance:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
Let's see how deeply the deception and hypocrisy of Fox News' coverage actually goes:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Extremist Makeover - Homeland Edition|
While there are some significant differences between that NRA convention and the current furor,
If you thought the Fox News crew was shameless in that previous segment, wait 'til you check out this one:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|The Parent Company Trap|
Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade are pretty stupid, but there's no way Dan Senor's performance (the name omission) is a fluke. On this issue, he and Dana Perino are evil.
Rachel Maddow has done several good exposés, but "Scaring White People for Fun and Profit" is a standout:
Here's a transcript.
Ignorance about Islam
While some people may be genuinely upset about the Park51 project, there's been quite a bit of ignorance of Islam on display. That includes Islam's relation to 9/11, and the vast divide between American Muslims and the extremist group Al Qaeda. Muslims have actually been praying inside the Pentagon for years, and did so after 9/11. Many Muslims were killed in the 9/11 attacks, including at least one first responder.
According to one recent poll:
14% of Americans believe that mosques should not be permitted anywhere in the United States. A clear partisan divide exists over both self-reported understanding of, and tolerance for, Islam. Republicans are far more likely to claim an understanding of Islam either somewhat or a great deal than Democrats: 58.5% of Republicans compared to only 48% of Democrats. Of course, this self-professed understanding doesn’t lead to tolerance; where 25% of Democrats have a somewhat or very favorable view of Islam, only 8.3% of Republicans share the same outlook.
Not that liberals are always right, but this would be in line with the trend of Fox News viewers scoring the poorest on news fact quizzes while being the most certain they were well-informed. I highly doubt most of the Park51 protesters could even name the Five Pillars of Islam. Similarly, it's unsurprising that the crazy, anti-Islamic "Burn the Koran" Christian preacher has never read the Koran. Nor is it shocking that Newt Gingrich's history on "Cordoba" is deceptive at best. On a related "scandal," as Juan Cole explains, claims that Obama was "born" a Muslim are false. Meanwhile, conservative Daniel Larison has two pieces on Imam Rauf and what it means to be a "moderate" Muslim.
While some of the Park51 protesters aren't Islamophobic, other mosques around the country have run into "vehement opposition." There's just been a case of arson at "the construction site of an Islamic center in Tennessee," adding to a number of other troubling incidents. Not all of the Park51 opponents are bigots, but it's a factor for some, and a wider problem in America.
Bush and his Administration
As many folks have pointed out, George W. Bush did reach out to Muslims in rhetoric on occasion, and deserves credit for that. But let's not go overboard, either. He also called fighting terrorism a "crusade." He lied us into a war in Iraq, and mismanaged both that war and the one in Afghanistan. His administration killed thousands of innocent Muslims, and treated others as subhuman, holding them without charges for years, abusing them, torturing them, and in some cases, murdering them in custody. He was the best friend bin Laden ever had. Cheney claimed invading Iraq made sense because the 9/11 terrorists came from the same "geographic base," meaning completely different countries in the region, but he correctly calculated that many Americans can't tell them furriners apart and the press wouldn't bother to explain. There's a looong list of this stuff, of course. Some of Bush's language was pretty good, and much better than the current wingnuts such as Pam Geller. But let's not pretend this bigotry blossomed overnight. It was central to Bush's foreign policy, and bigotry has been central to the GOP's domestic campaigning (scary Muslims, gays, you name it).
It's both disappointing and telling that Bush has chosen not to speak about Park51, because if he took a stand defending it, it could dampen some of the right-wing furor. Perhaps his silence is because he has a book coming out. Meanwhile, Karen Hughes, a Bush surrogate, has said she wants Park51 to move, but has tried not to mention her past working relationship with its imam.
The National Security Issue
As The New York Times reports:
Some counterterrorism experts say the anti-Muslim sentiment that has saturated the airwaves and blogs in the debate over plans for an Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan is playing into the hands of extremists by bolstering their claims that the United States is hostile to Islam.
Opposition to the center by prominent politicians and other public figures in the United States has been covered extensively by the news media in Muslim countries. At a time of concern about radicalization of young Muslims in the West, it risks adding new fuel to Al Qaeda’s claim that Islam is under attack by the West and must be defended with violence, some specialists on Islamic militancy say.
Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan has much more on the same theme:
The furor over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero makes me think back to one of the most important lessons I learned from al Qaeda terrorists I interrogated--that they have a warped view of America. To them--and this they get from Osama Bin Laden's rhetoric--the U.S. is a country at war with Islam and Muslims, and so they had a duty to fight us.
While I was serving on the frontlines I found that this distorted view of America was common among ordinary Muslims too, and it was only by correcting this image did we encourage locals to help our investigations and turn against al Qaeda. Our efforts were helped by public statements, like from President Bush in the days after 9/11, declaring that America was at war with al Qaeda and not with Islam. I was in Sana, Yemen, on that day, and I remember our military and law enforcement group feeling encouraged that our leadership understood how to frame our battle.
But while we started off on the right note in dealing with the Muslim world, our leadership soon demonstrated that they failed to understand that our war against al Qaeda was not just a military fight, but an asymmetrical battle for the proverbial hearts and minds of Muslims across the world too...
There are many reasons for supporting the Muslim community's right to build a cultural center and mosque on private property, not least of all the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. But from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.
Democratic senators Al Franken and Jeff Merkley have both made strong statements in support of the Park51 project. (Talking Points Memo has a list of others.)
Harry Reid's statement that the project should move somewhere else seemed pretty gutless. Howard Dean was less than inspiring as well. While Dean showed more nuance in his follow-ups, he ignored that this controversy was manufactured, which completely changes the dynamics about coming to some negotiated settlement.
A few conservatives, including Ron Paul, have spoken out for the rights of the project's founders and against Islamophobia. (I agree with Digby's criticisms of the statement's other elements, though.) Meanwhile, lawyer Ted Olson, whose wife was killed in the 9/11 attacks, expressed support for the project: "we don’t want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don’t think it should be a political issue." That's genuinely admirable.
The Big Picture
The biggest issue is that you either support Freedom of Religion and the Constitution, or you don't. Part of a free society is that other people are free to do things of which you may not approve. Park51 would be built on private property and won approval of the local zoning board. The project has every right to build there, and interfering with that on a governmental level would be a dangerous attack on core American values and laws. As mentioned in an earlier post:
The attacks on mosques and a Muslim cultural center in Manhattan, on religious freedom itself, is the same mentality of torture proponents – we're not safe because we haven't been savage and intolerant enough. It's completely wrong, antithetical to American values, nihilistic and suicidal – we simply can't protect our "civilization" from others by destroying it ourselves.
It makes no sense to say that Islamic extremists seek to destroy America and civilization itself, and "hate us for our freedoms," and then turn around and attack those very same freedoms – ya know, those liberties that form the bedrock of American society and its concept of civilization. But it should be a familiar shtick by now. Regardless, the best way to defeat foreign extremism and intolerance may be through sticking up for freedom here at home - by challenging domestic extremism and intolerance. The Park51 founders claim to repudiate everything Al Qaeda stands for, and have been vouched for on that front even by war hawk Jeffrey Goldberg. So why object?
Some protesters of Park51 have said they agree that the project has the legal right to build there, they just object to the location, and they're not bigots. Okay, fair enough. I also don't take issue with anyone who actually lives in New York City, lost friends or colleagues on 9/11, and is genuinely upset (Jon Stewart addressed this in one of his clips). If there's any serious discussion to be had, it's with them. However, this is primarily a neighborhood issue, not a national one, and the question remains: how far away is far enough?
Meanwhile, I'm not convinced most of the Park51 protesters fall into those categories. Some of the protesters simply don't know the facts, and believe the Fox News propaganda instead. (I'll link this Mrs. Polly interview again. There's also Eugene Robinson's column one and discussion, and column two and discussion. They're occasionally eye-popping.) There is ignorance about Islam and/or bigotry out there, as the national anti-mosque incidents show. Many of the loudest protesters live nowhere near Manhattan, and tend to attack New Yorkers as a cultural elite, yet see no contradiction between that and trying to claim 9/11 as theirs alone. The most prominent critics of the Park51 project have been Pam Geller, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and the Fox News crew. All of them fit one or more of the three characteristics on the wingnut checklist I proposed the other day: liar, extremist, asshole. What prominent critic of the Park51 project has described it honestly? Has any prominent critic acknowledged how this controversy was manufactured? Seriously, has there been one on the national stage I've missed?
The Park51 founders are free to discuss their proposed center with any concerned locals. But on the national stage, any "debate" shouldn't be dictated by the dishonest, paranoid or dishonorable. I agree with Glenn Greenwald that this issue is not a "distraction" – it's uncovered some important, familiar issues of fear and bigotry, and is a classic example of the right-wing noise machine at work. And it would be shame if once again, fundamental rights and basic decency were sacrificed to appease a bunch of dishonest, hateful, screaming brats.