The "Ground Zero mosque" controversy

Submitted by cathy n on 6 September, 2010 - 2:01 Author: Barry Finger

The controversy over the proposed Islamic Centre — The Cordoba House, now known as Park51 — several blocks from the site of the World Trade Center evokes a rather strange memory from my own youth.

During the 1950s, the Jewish community in a small Long Island town, to which my family belonged, wished to build a Jewish Center on that town’s Main Street. After all, that was where all the other communities had built their churches. Of course, the Jewish community was reassured that building a house of worship and community center was certainly within its rights. And no one would dream of denying the Jewish community its rights. It would, of course, have been difficult to deny that a young community of returning World War Two veterans had failed to demonstrate the appropriate spirit of patriotism — military service, evidently, being the truest measure of its commitment to the American way of life. That denial had been the fall back position of polite pre-war anti-semitism. It was rather a question of sensitivities. If the Jewish community wished to be truly respected, wouldn’t it agree to a small sacrifice by locating their community center a block or two from Main Street?

It was one thing to recognise Jewish civic rights in general. But wasn’t it just expecting too much of Christians that they be forced to worship on an equal plane with, well… Christ killers? What message would this send about Long Island to the rest of the United States?

This all seems rather absurd today. But this scenario of suppressing religious minority rights is bubbling to the surface again. And this time it’s not so polite. Set off by the right wing slime machine, with the ever predictable support of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, prominent, oh-so patriotic right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich — demagogues who otherwise delight in insisting that the Constitution privileges religion over secularism in every aspect of civic life, and abetted by Democratic liberals in retreat such as Harry Reid, this attack on immigrant and American Muslims has ripped the scab off the myth of American tolerance.

Muslims of course have Constitutional rights, but this, according to the reactionary guardians of American dignity, is not primarily a question of religious rights, but of proprietary rights to political symbolism. And that symbolism, they insist, is one of iihadi triumphalism in the shadow of 9-11 carnage.

That the Cordoba House, a proposed cultural centre with a pool, gym, auditorium and prayer room modeled on the 92nd Street Y (a Jewish landmark of cultural inclusion in upper Manhattan) is a symbol of jihadi triumphalism is entirely a concoction of the right’s fevered imagination. But it reverberates solidly with a Republican base, the majority of whom believe that Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over all others and maintains a secret agenda to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting public. And this nonsense plays equally well off the larger chauvinist insecurities of an America in social decline, where whites can now envision being forced to concede their majority status to an influx of third worlders.

This ground swell of deliberately cultivated fear and suspicion has triggered a raft of particularly ugly, anti-Muslim outrages: a recent throat slashing of a Muslim cabdriver in Manhattan, a bombing of a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida, opposition to a mosque expansion in California, an arson at the site of a proposed mosque in Tennessee, and a coordinated Christian fundamentalist bacchanal of Koran burnings planned for September 11th.

Neither has there been any leadership from the Administration. President Obama endorsed the abstract right of Muslims to build institutions free of external coercion, only to equivocate on whether this centre should actually be built in its designated site in light of the intolerance that the proposal itself engendered.

Whether the Cordoba House proves to be the open space equivalent of the 92nd St. Y or falls far short, it is clear that it is not a Wahabi madrassa nor is it being built at ground zero. Its primary influence is Sufi’ism, a relatively pacific current within Islam. Its imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf, has to be sure, made some questionable remarks about Hamas , is all too careful not to offend the Iranian dictatorship and has offered support for Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide. But Americans don’t generally propose a comprehensive political litmus test, or, for that matter, political consistency from the leaders of other faiths. And the imam’s evasions are no more grievous in the larger scale of religious outrages than rabbis who will not distance themselves from semi-fascist, far-right Israeli parties or priests, who failed to renounce IRA terrorism, nor of ministers, who all but endorse the murder of abortionists.

As centrist commentator, Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek stated, the imam “speaks of the need for Muslims to live peacefully with all other religions…emphasizes the commonalities of all faiths…advocates equal rights for all women, and argues against all laws that in any way punish non-Muslims…His vision of Islam is bin Laden’s nightmare.”

Whatever else it will become, the Cordoba House is unlikely to be an incubator of terrorism. It is far more likely to be a magnet for that very American true blue form of homegrown “patriotic” terrorism, no less threatening than jihadi terror, but to itself and the inhabitants of downtown Manhattan. However, this, as recent experience demonstrates, would be true wherever the mosque was located.

What is truly remarkable, however, is this. The entire opposition to the Islamic cultural centre sounds eerily familiar. It is “offensive” to the memory of the victims of 9-11, and it is precisely this “offense” no matter how irrational and bigoted that somehow takes precedence over all other democratic considerations. Evidently, not so offensive to that memory are the topless bars and sex shops in the area, no doubt patronised by not a few who are so otherwise sensitive to the issues of “desecration”. Evidently, the proposed construction of banking houses and hedge fund headquarters” — the trigger point to so much current economic misery- — on the actual spot of this “hallowed” ground still falls under the rubric of proper battle ground memorials. Evidently, too, denying other — Muslim — peaceful citizens, who also lost family members, homes and livelihoods, and who also were among the first responders, their Constitutional rights best honors 9-11 victims.

Now, where else have we seen this demand for sensitivity to the prevailing bigotries of the majority so revered? Wasn’t this appeal to “sensitivities” the justification for murdering unflattering filmmakers, issuing fatwas against blashpemous novelists, and making death threats against Muslim apostates? Wasn’t that the apologia of those, including not a few self-proclaimed socialists, who insisted that the Danish newpapers refuse to publish cartoons that “offend” Muslim sensitivities?

Fifty years ago, the Jewish community my parents belonged to acceded to the prevailing bigotries and relocated their community centre one block off Main Street. The proposition of collective guilt, whether it be for a murder supposedly committed by Jews two millennia ago or collective Muslim guilt for the attacks of 9-11, is itself a simple moral outrage. This is not a question of tolerance, although one should never fault the value of a virtue so short in historical supply. It is a question of democratic justice and equal rights for those who think differently, for those who pray differently.


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 15/09/2010 - 14:31

Anarchist and student activist Tami Peterson, who was born in the US but is now based in London, also recently wrote this piece on "Islamophobia in America: 9 years on from 9/11", and has kindly given us permission to reprint it.

In August of 2001 I got a job in lower Manhattan with a financial software company. I remember the awe I felt having moved to the Big Apple, the energy, the sheer excitement of living in the hustle and bustle of the if-you-can-make-it-there-you-can-make-it-anywhere New York. NYC is also a gathering place of sorts for those in the States who have grown up elsewhere. Huge numbers of artists, bohemians, queers, activists and liberal minded people move there every year, mixing with the multicultural beauty of the city from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yet this is far too pretty a picture of NYC which carries such charm precisely because it is a city that is at the same time dangerous, human, alive, sordid and real.

I lived in Brooklyn with a native NYer, a Latino whose mother was Ecuadoran and father Puerto Rican. I remember feeling distinctly on top of the world in a city that I adored, a far cry from my upbringing as a Mormon in conservative Utah where knowing anyone who was non-Mormon or non-white was rather unique.

This romanticism of New York was short lived as the whole world changed on the 11th of September 2001. When one lives through such a dramatic event, it is difficult to separate the intimately personal horror one experienced with the dramatic political event itself. My experience was terrifying and I still find it incredibly difficult to talk about. I saw people falling to their deaths, heard horrific noises, saw horrendous things and was diagnosed, along with 20% of NYers who were in the vicinity, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which unexpectedly manifested itself in me fully after the 7th of July, 2005 bombings in London. I am currently on the World Trade Center Health Registry along with 50,000 others who were there on the day so that they can monitor long term health effects of the event.

Nine years on, the images, the stories, the horror and the terror seem almost strangely blasé. Every year the photos reappear with some new political analysis whether Judith Butler in her Precarious Life, Slavoj Zizek in First As Tragedy, Then as Farce or Noam Chomsky in his 9-11. The left has rightly been determined to utilise and try to understand 9-11 for its political implications, meaning and ongoing relevance to politics.

Having moved to Britain in 2004 I was confronted with a variety of analyses of the event with which I was previously unfamiliar. Chief amongst these was the claim that 9-11 was not to be condemned because this would imply that US imperialism and Islamic terrorism were equal threats. In addition others had claimed that whether one liked it or not, this was an “anti-capitalist” act and therefore in some way progressive. What these views failed to fully understand was that far from being “anti-capitalist” the attacks helped to prop up the system, were used as a justification for war and undoubtedly prolonged the life of a Bush administration which was profoundly unpopular in the days before the attack. (And for the record I despise the so-called “9-11 Truthers” who spend more time on ridiculous conspiracy theories than having any real concern for the victims or those still dying from being first responders while breathing in the toxic dust.) The capitalist system is good at using reactionary events to its advantage and this has been borne out in a variety of ways as the attacks continue to be used to justify the deadly war in Afghanistan to the continued presence in Iraq to innumerable misuses of state terror from Russia to Israel to China.

This is further evidenced by the reactionary response to 9-11 that is feeding the current wave of Islamophobia in the United States. This is a tragedy lived twice over; yet one would be hard pressed to see the latest events as mere farce. Nearly sixty Muslims lost their lives in the attacks on 9-11, yet this alone is not reason enough to oppose the increasing Islamophobia in the US. On the24th of August, 21 year-old Michael Enright hailed a taxi near 24th street in Manhattan. He asked the 43 year-old Bangladeshi immigrant Ahmed Sharif “Are you a Muslim?” and when Sharif said “Yes” he pulled out a knife, cutting Ahmed’s throat, face and forearms. Luckily Sharif lived and Enright is facing 25 years in prison.

It is the reactionary politics of movements like the Tea Party that feed off of the victims of 9-11 to fuel hatred, racism and Islamophobia using ignorance, exaggeration and fear. Do a simple search on Facebook for “Ground Zero Mosque” and it becomes clear that the misinformation about Park51, a Muslim Community Centre which includes a prayer room, which is NOT being built on ground zero but a number of blocks away, is as misinformed as it is hateful. There are claims that President Obama is allowing a “victory monument” for terrorists at Ground Zero, that a “super mosque” is being built at Ground Zero, that Muslims are celebrating the triumph of their “hateful religion” due to “liberal communists, socialists and fascists” like Obama (yes, I am not sure how one can be all three of those either).

Lost is the American ideal that I and most others were taught from their youngest days, that we were a country founded because of the need for religious freedom, that our forefathers fought and died for that right and that immigration and the acceptance of others is at the very heart of what the United States is all about. Whether one chooses to believe this about the US, the fact that this once staple of teaching young school children across the country in conservative and liberal areas alike is fast being replaced by a fierce hatred of the “other” whether it be Mexican immigrants in Arizona or Muslim cab drivers in New York City, is a phenomena worth watching closely. It cuts across the very core of the country and reveals how the United States now sees itself; increasingly isolated, superior and always right. Lost is any kind of humility, a respect for knowledge and wisdom and promoted is an attack on all things secular and non-Christian.

It is this cynical use of a tragic event to subvert some of the most cherished values of the United States, a tragic event which occurred in one of the most alive, beautiful and multicultural cities, that is perhaps most galling. I can still remember the feeling I had when visiting my native Salt Lake City, Utah and seeing the innumerable bumper stickers vowing to never forget alongside another calling for supporting the war in Iraq. “What the hell do you know about it? What the hell do you know about beautiful, multicultural New York and those that died? Who are you to call for others to be killed for something you know nothing about?” I remember thinking.

Analysis is one thing, using such a tragedy to promote war and state terror is quite another. Yet this has been done since mere days after the attacks with George W. Bush standing on the smoldering pile at Ground Zero yelling into a megaphone about how “the people who did this” were going to pay. For many he meant Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, yet nine years on it would appear that it is innocent Muslims that are the ones that are still paying for the horror of that day. The reality is that the Muslim victims of 9-11 far exceed the sixty from the day itself, they include the hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. They include Muslims tortured and killed in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. They include Muslim rescue workers who rushed to the scene on the day and who along with their brothers and sisters have been snubbed by a government which has refused to support those still sick and dying from the toxic smoke and dust. They include victims of Islamophobic hate crimes across the world and Muslim victims of state terror in the name of “security” and “freedom”.

The victims of 9-11 are continuing to die around the world every day because the victims of 9-11 are also the victims of the responses to 9-11. Yet the oldest victim is not a person at all but an idea. It is the idea that America is a country where people of all faiths are respected and welcome, an idea which is enshrined in the US Constitution. It is a tragic loss from which the United States will find it very difficult to recover.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.