A pantomime battle for the soul of America

Both sides in the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ row are driven by the politics of fear and a disdain for their fellow Americans.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics USA

On 8 November, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill took part in a debate about the Ground Zero mosque at a Battle of Ideas satellite at the New School in New York. His opening comments are published below.

Looking at the debate about the Ground Zero mosque from afar, from over in Britain, it seems to me that neither side has very much to recommend it. Both sides have indulged in the politics of fear and both sides have cynically used this controversy to try to magic up a new political narrative – a narrative in which they themselves feature as political heroes, and in which anyone who opposes them is depicted as stupid, ignorant and possibly even fascistic.

So one side in the debate, those who oppose the mosque, tells us that the greatest threat to mankind is Islamofascism. And they present themselves as doing everything in their power to stop this Islamofascism from digging its claws into Western society, including by preventing a so-called radical mosque from being built near Ground Zero.

The other side in the debate, the mostly liberal thinkers who have defended the right to build the mosque, claim that the real threat today is Islamophobia. As that excitable Time magazine front cover asked: ‘Is America Islamophobic?’ A Washington Post columnist said in response to the mosque controversy that fear of Islam is ‘the new McCarthyism’, as Americans become increasingly fearful of the Muslims in their midst. These defenders of the mosque present themselves as heroically taking a stand against hatred and in defence of the American values of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

I’m afraid to say that I don’t buy either side of the argument. I don’t believe that Islamofascism is a serious force that threatens to topple America, and I don’t believe that Islamophobia is sweeping through this country either. I think that both Islamofascism and Islamophobia are largely invented, or certainly vastly exaggerated, problems, which many right-wingers and many liberals are hiding behind as a way of expressing their own fears and prejudices.

To take the first side in the debate: the protesters against the mosque. Their fear-fuelled exaggerations have been well documented. As most of us now know, the Ground Zero mosque will not be at Ground Zero and nor will it be a mosque.

In reality, the Park51 centre – as it is officially known – will be two blocks away from Ground Zero, on the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory. It will have a swimming pool, a gym, a restaurant, meeting rooms and a prayer space. This is not going to be Mecca. But because ‘Burlington Coat Factory Meeting Space’ doesn’t sound very scary, or even particularly interesting, those who oppose the Park51 centre opted to call it the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ instead – a label that immediately conjures up the idea that cocky Islamists are building a mosque on the site of their greatest assault in the clash of civilisations.

It seems pretty obvious why the key public protesters against Park51 are doing this: it’s because some on the American right like nothing better than to have a mortal enemy to rail against. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, many on the right have pretty much been holding open auditions to find a Soviet replacement, to find a kind of political methadone for the heroin that was the Evil Eastern Empire. They’ve been looking for a person or thing or phenomenon against which they might define themselves and their worldview. And their current favourite is Islamofascism, al-Qaeda, radical Islam, which they present as a coherent army of anti-Americans when, in truth, it is a ragtag collection of tiny groups and self-deluded individuals.

So Newt Gingrich, one of the most vocal opponents of the Ground Zero mosque, describes America as being ‘at risk’ from ‘stealth jihadism’. He explicitly compares the struggle against this ‘stealth jihadism’ to America’s historic standoff with communism. Here, we can really see the two things driving the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque. First, they are incapable of getting to grips with the real problems facing America today, with what is really bringing about a crisis in American values, so they just blame everything on external actors, on imaginary ‘stealth jihadists’. And second, they quite clearly are on the lookout for a communist-style enemy against which they might re-assert what they consider to be American values.

But the other side in the debate about the Ground Zero mosque, the side that defends it, is also based on fear and mythology. As soon as some Americans expressed concern about Park51, the great and the good in the liberal commentariat started fretting about Islamophobia. You almost get the impression that they were waiting for something like this to happen so that they could finally say: ‘See, we told you that ordinary Americans are stupid and prejudiced.’

So a fairly small-scale protest against Park51 and a couple of opinion polls expressing concern about the ‘mosque’ gave rise to a tsunami of commentary about Islamophobia. From the front cover of Time magazine to the column pages of the Washington Post, we were told that America was being consumed by a hatred of Islam. And when these commentators talked about ‘America’, they didn’t mean themselves; they didn’t mean people who work at Time magazine or who read Time magazine. They meant those other Americans; the ones who watch Fox News; the ones who like Sarah Palin; the ones who are apparently more given to prejudice than clever East Coast journalists.

In truth, however, Islamophobia is a figment of the liberal imagination as much as ‘stealth jihadism’ is a figment of Newt Gingrich’s imagination. By any measurement, everyday Americans, unlike American officials, have remained remarkably tolerant in the nine years since 9/11. It is true that in 2001, the year of the attacks, there were 554 recorded anti-Islamic hate crimes in the US. But in 2002 that number fell to 170 and it has remained around that level since. In a country of 300million people and around five million Muslims, that is very low. There is no widespread phobia – there is no widespread irrational hatred – of Muslims.

What the fear of Islamophobia really expresses is the complete disconnect between the liberal elite and ordinary Americans. Lacking any meaningful link with the public, elite opinion-formers simply assume that they are a mob-in-waiting, a mob consumed by Fox-fuelled prejudices. They even refer to the protesters against Park51 as ‘un-American’, in Mayor Bloomberg’s words, which immediately makes me think of Joseph McCarthy’s demonisation of communists as an internal threat to the American way of life. Where sections of the American right present themselves as defending American values against an external army of Islamists, American liberals present themselves as defending American values against internal ignorance, against prejudiced people here in America. One defender of Park51 said he is part of ‘a struggle for the soul of the United States’ – in short, he’s fighting to defend America’s soul against America’s prejudiced people. That is the very definition of elitism.

In presenting ordinary people as Islamophobic, some of the defenders of the Ground Zero mosque echo one of the most interesting and least commented-on aspects of our post-9/11 world: the elite’s fear of the unpredictable masses here at home. After 9/11 in the US, 7/7 in Britain and the train bombings in Madrid, one of government’s first instincts, alongside passing stringent anti-terror laws of course, was to lecture us about not attacking Muslims, to post policemen outside mosques, even to pass legislation outlawing hate speech against Islam. This, I think, has been the most striking thing about officialdom’s response to terrorism: they are so very disconnected from the public, so fearful of us, that even when there is a violent attack their first thought is: How will our own people respond? Let’s clamp down on them.

I think we need to cut through the debate about the Ground Zero mosque and ask what is really motivating these two camps. We should tease out the politics and the prejudices that drive those who fear imaginary Islamofascism and those who fear exaggerated Islamophobia, because the consequences of both of these fantasy battles against evil forces is more authoritarianism and censorship – either of those who ‘hate the West’ or those who ‘hate Islam’ – and less honest, upfront debate about the meaning and future of Western society.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today