The Culture War over the Ground Zero mosque

It’s hard to know who’s worse in the NYC mosque debate: the opportunistic, anti-Muslim right or the Muslim-loving, masses-fearing liberals.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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The debate over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ refuses to go away. When the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission gave clearance for the development in lower Manhattan, two weeks ago, the issue seemed to be settled. Of course, it was never likely to disappear entirely, given that the inevitable lawsuits were filed after the Commission’s decision. But despite the apparent inevitability that the mosque would be built, op-eds continued to pour forth, both for and against. Then last Friday, President Obama weighed in, defending the right of the mosque’s founders to build in the location – and thus ensuring that the debate would rage on.

Obama’s intervention capped what has been the remarkable transformation of a local zoning dispute into a national controversy. And over time, the discussion has become increasingly charged and emotional.

The proposed ‘Ground Zero mosque’ will not be just a mosque, nor will it be located on Ground Zero. It will be an Islamic cultural centre 13 stories high, with a prayer space, a performing arts centre, a pool and a restaurant. And it will be located two blocks north of the site of the former Twin Towers, where almost 3,000 people were killed on 11 September 2001. The founders originally called their proposed complex ‘Cordoba House’ (after a medieval Spanish town where a Muslim caliphate was established), but switched to the generic ‘Park51’ (marking the street address) in response to criticism.

The transformation of the Ground Zero mosque from a local, low-profile discussion into a national argument began with Sarah Palin. In a Twitter post, Palin wrote: ‘Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts.’ Her argument was endorsed by Newt Gingrich, who, like Palin, is a possible presidential candidate for 2012: ‘The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.’ This is an ‘Islamist cultural-political offensive’, Gingrich continued, designed to ‘destroy our civilization’. Attitudes towards the cultural centre have generally followed party-political lines, with Republicans joining Palin and Gingrich in opposition while Democrats have generally supported the centre.

Conservatives’ arguments against Park51 generally fall into two categories. The first is that the location of the Islamic centre is insensitive. The Ground Zero site, it is argued, is not Anywhere, USA – it is ‘hallowed’ or ‘sacred’ ground. As Charles Krauthammer contends, ‘Ground Zero is indeed unlike any other place and therefore unique criteria govern what can be done there’.

Next, conservatives argue that Park51 offends this sacred territory because it is Islamic and of course the attacks of 9/11 were carried out in the name of Islam. Most conservatives admit that only a minority of Muslims are radical and support al-Qaeda, but they believe the symbolic association is strong. Opponents point out that polls show that a majority of Americans are against the Ground Zero mosque. In particular, they argue that Park51 is an affront to the families of those who died in New York on 9/11.

The second argument used by some, but not all, of the opponents is that the Islamic centre is really a political, not a religious operation, and therefore should not be afforded the protections of religious liberty. Gingrich and others believe the selection of a site so close to Ground Zero is a ‘political statement’, and an ‘aggressive’ one at that. Dan Senor, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the Cordoba House will ‘be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim “military” victory’. Moreover, the imam behind the mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is considered suspect. The National Review calls him ‘an apologist for terrorists and an associate of terrorist-allied organizations’.

The defenders of Park51 have emphasised that the principle of religious freedom is at stake. Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, spoke forcefully: ‘Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community centre, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.’ Obama also appealed to religious rights: ‘I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in the country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and community centre on private property in lower Manhattan.’

Liberals have also argued that the conservative opponents of Park51 conflate the al-Qaeda attackers with all followers of Islam. As Bloomberg noted, ‘Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11’. Being Islamic is no basis for rejecting the centre, argues Peter Beinart: ‘What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood?’

The liberals are formally correct. Of course, religious freedom, like broader political and social freedom, is to be supported. They are also correct in challenging conservatives’ guilt-by-association, in which any expression of Islam in the vicinity of Ground Zero must be considered offensive. However, their approach is also problematic. Very few conservatives are arguing that the government should close down the mosque, so the point about the formal separation of church and state continually made by Bloomberg and others is not really relevant. Moreover, many liberals do not stop at simply asserting religious freedom – and the way they have framed the issue has also led to some patronising assumptions, in particular about the motives of the working class.

The worst aspect of the liberal response is how it casts opposition to the mosque as an expression of bigotry. The New York Times writes of the ‘vitriol and outright bigotry’ while Time sees ‘ignorance, bigotry and politics’ as obstacles to the building of the centre.

If opposing Park51 is bigotry, then liberals must see a nation of bigots, as polls show that a majority of Americans oppose it. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported on growing protests against mosques around the country, its implication being that the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque are not really interested in the 9/11 site, they’re just anti-Muslim. But if you read the NYT story, it becomes clear that anti-mosque protests around the US have been tiny. This is similar to the approach the NYT has taken towards the Tea Party: search high and low for an isolated example of racism and use it to dismiss an entire movement.

Calling the people they disagree with ‘bigots’ has become normal discourse for many liberals. The shout of ‘bigot!’ has become a way to shut down debate, to say: these people aren’t worth engaging with because they are driven by base, irrational feelings. It is illiberalism in the name of liberalism.

What’s also problematic about the liberal response is that it represents, not simply a toleration of Islam, but a celebration of it. Park51 is praised as a moderate, non-violent Islamic venture that should be supported in the name of diversity and ecumenical harmony. The cultural centre’s founders claim that they want to bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, and Bloomberg and others agree. The NYT calls the centre nothing less than ‘a monument to tolerance’. According to Blake Hounshell, ‘What’s particularly tragic about all this is that the people behind the so-called Ground Zero mosque, the Cordoba Initiative, are precisely the moderate Muslims that everyone recognises are an important bulwark against extremism.’

Furthermore, America would show itself to be a shining example to the rest of the world by welcoming the centre with open arms. ‘When we tell the world, “Yes, we are country that will even tolerate a mosque near the site of 9/11”, we send a powerful message of inclusion and openness’, says Thomas Friedman.

By focusing on the content and practices of Park51, the liberal case is no longer simply about principle of religious freedom. It is about promoting this particular centre because they agree with its aims. This inevitably raises questions, including: are the organisers of Park51 really concerned with promoting peace? Thus is the door opened for investigations into the imam and others involved in the centre. No doubt many are now diligently at work trying to find dirt on them.

The organisers, known as the Cordoba Initiative, are probably not linked to al-Qaeda or other terror groups. But there is no doubt that they deliberately chose the site in order to be associated with 9/11. Imam Rauf told the NYT that a building so close to the World Trade Center, ‘where a piece of the wreckage fell’, was important because it ‘sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11’. Here, the organisers are playing a part in a script drafted by the US establishment itself. Until recently, liberals and conservatives agreed on the need to promote moderate Islam. After 9/11, George W Bush called Islam a ‘peaceful religion’ and urged tolerance. Most American politicians since, including Obama, have followed that line.

But there is a patronising assumption behind this call for tolerance: that the American masses need to be lectured because they are just one step away from vengeful, racist attacks on Muslims. Despite little evidence of such attacks, the elites have kept up the message. For instance, after the failed car bombing in Times Square in May, Bloomberg was quick to warn that ‘we will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers’. Like the constant references to bigots, the continual demand for tolerance really expresses a lack of trust in the mass of people.

One reason why liberals have had trouble winning the popular argument is that they are not viewed unambiguously as principled defenders of freedom, as they clearly see themselves. In fact, it was liberals, by means of ‘political correctness’, who did the most to promote the idea that sensitivity trumps ‘abstract’ freedoms. Over time, conservatives decided it was better to join than fight the liberals, and they presented their own, counter-versions of aggrieved victimhood. That is what is going on with the opposition to Park51 today: a form of conservative PC about the ‘sensitivities’ of New York being harmed by the all-out freedom of Muslims to build a centre. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz correctly characterises the liberal response as ‘piety’. Yet she does not make a strong case for opposing the cultural centre; all she can say is that it is an ‘assertive presence’ in a place of ‘haunted memory’. Rabinowitz is unaware that her issue of ‘assertiveness’ is essentially PC, as it is about etiquette and victimhood. She and others oppose the mosque on the grounds of defending victims – in this case, the 9/11 families and the American people generally.

Stepping back, it is remarkable how this entire issue was drummed up by Palin and then Gingrich. Although there has been a bipartisan view that the US should be defined by its 9/11 experience and that the Ground Zero site is special (Obama himself admits it is ‘hallowed ground’), explicit endorsements of the singularity of the event have dwindled over time: witness how each 9/11 anniversary has progressively been less publicly commemorated. In this, conservatives see a breach: they believe that raising this issue is a way to prove that they are the true defenders of the spirit of 9/11.

Palin and Gingrich’s use of Americans’ residual fears and victims’ pain to score political points is opportunist. But they saw a chance to turn what was a cross-party consensus on 9/11 into a Culture War, and liberals – all the way up to the White House – took the bait to join in. Palin and Gingrich could have been dismissed as outside the bounds, but instead liberals took their pet issue up as a matter of great principle. They don’t realise how they are allowing Palin to set their agenda, and in the process they make her more influential than she deserves to be.

The building of Park51 should not be opposed, but not because it is some beacon of religious moderation and tolerance, but because we shouldn’t give in to the politics of fear or blaming all Muslims for 9/11. The real scandal is not what will or won’t happen in the area surrounding the 9/11 site – it’s that the site itself remains undeveloped almost nine years later. Perhaps if Bloomberg and Obama put their efforts into developing the site – rather than raising fears about a nation of bigots trampling religious freedoms – then the heat would be taken out of the issue and we could move forward. Then lower Manhattan – and America – would be known less for what was done to it in the past, and more for what it is building and becoming.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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