As we’ve posted on previously (here, here, and here), nerves have been astir of late over the planned construction, near the former World Trade Center site, of the Cordoba House (now called Park 51), a multipurpose complex with chiefly Muslim backers, which would house a mosque and a center for Islamic culture in addition to serving as an interfaith community center. Oppositional demonstrations have been numerous and vociferous, as have retorts from defenders of the initiative. The fate of the project rests, for the moment, with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, as it deliberates over whether to grant landmark status to the building that currently sits at the presumed site of the Cordoba House.
Divisions over the the project have broken down along predictable lines, though it should be noted that both supporters and opponents are to be found among the families of 9/11 victims. The controversy has also become a flashpoint for politicians both local and national. Sarah Palin, for one, was worked up enough to broadcast the following lexically confused appeal via Twitter:
Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.
Palin brushed off the derision that her peccadillo roused by comparing herself to Shakespeare, both being innovators of the vernacular. Fair enough. But, as Joe Conason notes, local officials and politicos, contra Palin, don’t feel as though they’ve been stabbed in the heart. Nor does the Cordoba House appear to pose a security threat to lower Manhattan, as others have suggested:
The Cordoba Initiative, sponsor of Cordoba House, is an organization that rejects violent extremism and encourages civil dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. So far nobody has found any evidence that Corboba represents a nefarious conspiracy to establish a beach head for Islamism, despite much windy rhetoric devoted to that theme. Moreover, contrary to Lazio’s posturing, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has declared bluntly that he sees no security concerns in the construction of a mosque in that neighborhood. His calm, measured and appropriate response represents the realistic perspective of a law enforcement official who does more to fight terrorism every day than Williams, Lazio or Palin will accomplish in their combined lifetimes.
Finally, the constitutional guarantees of freedom, including freedom of worship, were not suspended by 9/11, despite the efforts of certain politicians and partisans. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out in defending the Cordoba House project, its opponents are undermining the liberties that define us and distinguish us from our enemies:
“I think our young men and women overseas are fighting for exactly this,” he said in reaction to Palin. “For the right of people to practice their religion and for government to not pick and choose which religions they support, which religions they don’t.” Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s brave borough president, who like Bloomberg happens to be Jewish, challenged her directly in his own tweet: “@SarahPalinUSA NYers support the #mosque in the name of tolerance and understanding. You should learn from the example we set here in #NYC.”
But Conason’s header, “New Yorkers reject Palin’s blithering bigotry,” does gloss over the substantial opposition to the project among residents of the city. The results of a Quinnipiac University poll, reported by the Village Voice, show “52 percent in opposition, 31 percent in favor, and 17 percent undecided. While the level of opposition varied, no group of voters had an outright majority of support for the project.” Support is strongest among Manhattanites, however, and, as Crain’s reports, “According to City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the district, more than 95% of the complaint calls her office receives about the project come from outside the neighborhood, and the vast majority come from out of state.”
And while Bloomberg and Stringer have sounded sober notes amid the volleys of indignation, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and his co-partisan Rep. Peter T. King have called for an investigation of the project’s financing, though, the Times reports, their requests have thus far been denied by A.G. Andrew Cuomo.
Still others have been, well, less restrained—to wit (video via The Daily Dish):
Even Newt Gingrich has reared his head, asseverating: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” To which Matt Yglesias responds:
Why on earth would we adopt this standard? There are no synagogues in the Vatican City, and yet we have Catholic churches all over the place. That’s because the United States of America isn’t a small city-state run by a religious leader. In Denmark, they have a state-sponsored church, but we don’t have a state-sponsored church because in the United States we have a strong belief in a brand of religious pluralism that’s served both the country and religion well. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its lack of freedom of religion, but we don’t improve anything by mimicking Saudi Arabia’s flaws.
One gets the sense that Gingrich’s reasoning is so weak here because he actually has no idea why it would make sense to prevent mosque-construction in Lower Manhattan. He just knows that this has become a far-right cause celebre and he likes to ride the far-right wave. If the far-right wants anti-Muslim bigotry, then he’ll provide it. But he’s an “ideas guy” so he has to try to think up a reason.
Newt’s comments also earned him a Malkin Award nomination from Andrew Sullivan, as well as three subsequent posts from Yglesias (here, here, and here) indicting him for various forms of thoughtlessness.
There are indeed considerable grounds for reading this as one more wave of hysterical outrage, aided, abetted, and exploited by politicians either craven or in high dudgeon, which more and more seems to be the true stuff of U.S. politics. But Marc Lynch is nonetheless right to ask why more or less thinly veiled anti-Islamic positions continue to be so credible. His response, in part:
The sheer amount of disinformation, vitriol, and agitation against Muslims and Islam in pockets of the right wing media (new and old) beggars belief. Part of the blame also lies with right wing politicians, who cynically (or, more frightening, sincerely) exploit the anti-Islam tropes to drum up votes and to grab attention. And part of the blame lies in the reality of the persistence and terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers. , and the polarizing effects of the escalating arguments over Israel, Gaza, and Iran. It isn’t just the right wing echo chamber, though — the frenzies over the Captain Underpants failed bomber and the Times Square failed bomber show a mainstream media still hardwired to fall back into the comfortable tropes of the war on terror.
The progressive side bears some of the blame as well, though. The resilence of the clash of civilizations frame is enabled by the inability of advocates of a new approach, including the Obama administration and many progressive foreign policy thinkers, to develop and defend a powerful alternative frame. The best argument, and certainly one which I’ve made often, is that the U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing a spiral towards a “clash of civilizations” which would strengthen al-Qaeda’s appeal and narrative. That’s right — but it’s also a negative message, about what should not happen, rather than a positive one about Islam or about America’s relationship with Muslims around the world. The Obama administration, particularly the people involved in following up on the Cairo speech, has been trying to build such a positive alternative in many creative ways. But their efforts thus far have been largely under the radar, and when they do impact on the American public debate it is usually as fodder for a stupidstorm (the NASA director, grumbling about why we are focusing on Muslim entrepreneurs).
See also: Aziz Poonawalla interviews the project’s chief developer, Sharif el-Gamal; the editors of the Chicago Tribune voice their support for the initiative; as does author John Kiser; and Fox News misrepresents an opponent of the project, Christian convert Mosab Hassan Youseff, as a Muslim.