“Refudiating” Tolerance - the Right and Park51

10:06 PM / Posted by Harry McEvansoneya /

I have in the past blogged about the apparent obliviousness of the American right towards the hypocritical manner in which it views the US Constitution – a document sacrosanct insofar as it supports their worldview and lifestyle, but one that can be conveniently ignored when it does not. Once again, this attitude has come to the fore in the explosion of controversy over what should have been a non-issue, nominally the construction of a community centre that will incorporate a mosque in the vicinity of ground zero.

This project, known as Park51, the Cordoba Initiative or the ground zero mosque, depending on who you listen to, has been at the centre of a political maelstrom that has been growing in scale for the last few weeks, and has got to the stage where Obama himself has felt the need to comment on the situation. But what exactly is this project, and what exactly is the opposition to it based on?

The names themselves are important. Calling Park51 the “ground zero mosque” is in and of itself a manipulation of the truth for two reasons. Firstly, while the building will incorporate a mosque, it is not the sole or even primary function of the project. The idea is to create a community centre run by moderate Muslims, headed up by an imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has worked in a diplomatic capacity and as a spokesman for moderate Islam under former President George W. Bush, and has a long and distinguished track record in improving relations and promoting positive engagement between the Muslim community and the rest of America.

The idea behind the centre is to help with interfaith dialogue and activities, as well as with a broader integration across religious lines in Manhattan on a community level. This includes and auditorium, a performance centre, art exhibition spaces, a restaurant and many other facilities, all designed and intended to be readily accessible to members of the public of any faith. The planned prayer space was also intended to be open to visitors. The thrust of the project was not to create an exclusively Muslim location, but to provide a service centre for the entire community of Manhattan, run by Muslims.

These are moderate, progressive people with a modern outlook, nothing at all like the fundamentalist lunatics the right have tried to paint them as sympathetic towards. The briefly favoured canard of the right about their support for Hamas has been categorically refuted, both by the organisers of the project themselves and by people close to Rauf – including Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, scarcely a man likely to cover for Hamas sympathisers.

It is worth remembering, in light of what the centre actually is and what it is actually intended to do, that the right-wing detractors initially described the project as a “mega mosque” – a reminder that many critics are perfectly happy to put hysteria and controversy ahead of facts and integrity when it comes to dealing with this issue. This is something that will become much clearer when this post examines the opposition to Park51.

The second reason that this name is inaccurate is that it implies that the centre is being built directly on the location where the twin towers were attacked and destroyed, allowing critics to accuse this of being some kind of triumphalist project to show Islamic dominance over America, or something along those lines. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, paranoiac, fear-mongering bullshit of the highest order. Regardless of the obviously non-threatening nature of the project, as elaborated on above, it is not being built on ground zero, but rather two blocks away – about 180 metres from where the twin towers stood. For those who say that is still too close, I can only ask what an acceptable distance is. Is there to be a certain defined radius from ground zero within which Islamic culture is forbidden?

Similarly, the name “Cordoba” has been seized upon by those with an extremely poor understanding of history, like Newt Gingrich as being a name reminiscent of the Muslim domination of Iberia, showing that this is a colonising project. This is utter nonsense. Cordoba was the cultural heart of Muslim Spain, and the name is chosen for that reason – it hearkens back to a great cultural boom, under a dynasty that was far more tolerant of Jews and Christians than the Christians of Iberia were to be of the Muslims and Jews under their rule, both at the time and in the aftermath of the reconquista. To suggest otherwise is an attempt to prey on fear and ignorance.

Also, significantly, the reason this location was chosen has very little to do with the apparent symbolic nature of the vicinity. The community centre is being built here, with its prayer space, because the site was already being used for that purpose – the building is already being used for this purpose, accommodating those unable to fit into a nearby mosque. To put it into very simple terms, since the place is currently serving as a prayer space, it makes perfect sense to integrate one into the Muslim-run community centre being constructed there.

Those jumping up and down, banging on about how this is a Muslim invasion and affront of some sort ignore that fact that Muslims have been praying there for years without causing any apparent harm or offense to the people of New York. Attempting to further integrate this with the broader community is not in any way negative – once again, the basic facts expose the irrational hatred, sheer ignorance or sinister opportunism of the opposition to the project.

And make no mistake, sinister opportunism is playing as big a part in this dispute as small minded bigotry is. Politico recently quoted a senior White House staffer as saying “When I start to view religious freedom through the prism of midterm elections, I’m just going to quit”, which is a fairly succinct analysis of why the Republican party, through the voices of several of its most prominent members has thrown its weight wholesale behind an inequitable, frothing campaign that essentially focuses around denying Muslims their first amendment rights on the basis of the fact that some people with an ignorant and warped view of events might get a bit offended.

This whole scandal was essentially kick started by Pamela Geller, a far-right islamophobic blogger, who genuinely believes, among other things, that Barack Obama is the biological son of Malcolm X, that Obama supported the 9/11 attackers, supports English and Dutch fascist groups, is convinced that the US census bureau is stalking her so the Democrats can fix the next election (yeah, I don’t get the logical leap there either), thinks Obama wants to put the Jews in a ghetto and believes the Dome of the Rock should be torn down – in short, we’re dealing with a raving, racist, politically extremist lunatic.

Geller was the one who used the phrase “mega mosque”. She was the one who falsely claimed it was being built on ground zero. She was the one, long before Palin, who declared this to be an affront to the American people. Her message resonated with a deeply bigoted, anti-government, islamophobic audience, who began to spew out anti-Muslim vitriol. This was picked up on, she began to be brought onto network news as a talking head on the issue, and evidently someone at the GOP HQ looked at this and thought “hey, we can ride this wave of anti-government sentiment for electoral gain, morals be damned”. It’s cynical and disgusting – and the hollowness and opportunism of the mainstream face of the movement becomes apparent when one looks at what the Republicans actually have said about the project.

Sarah Palin has, as well as famously calling for the project to be “refudiated”, has described it as a “provocation” and “stabbing at the hearts” of Americans. Newt Gingrich claimed that it shouldn’t be built as long as there were no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia and that it was “hostile to our civilisation”. Mike Huckabee called it “offensive”, Tim Pawlenty said it “degraded” and “disrespected” the “hallowed ground… sacred ground” of ground zero, Mitt Romney’s office claimed it would be used by extremists for recruiting purposes, and a whole bunch of other, less prominent members of the party have chipped in with statements of similar derangement and hatred.

These people are clearly not stupid. Anyone with even a modicum of sense and intelligence can look at their remarks and see why they are nonsense. To run over it briefly: Palin and Huckabee somehow assume a community centre is a “provocation”, in which case they are setting a frightfully low barrier, and by suggesting that the presence of Muslims in the vicinity of 9/11 is somehow offensive to them, they are effectively taking an appalling tack whereby they’re tarring all people of that faith as evil for the actions of some extremists. Gingrich is suggesting that the USA should sink to the level of an oppressive theocracy and deprive people of their basic constitutional right in order to prove some kind of point about tolerance, which is ironic and horrifying in equal measure, all while invoking a clash of civilisations. Pawlenty is calling an area full of strip clubs, gambling dens and other businesses of ill-repute hallowed; Muslims wishing to integrate and provide community services are somehow more of a desecration than this, and Romney is frankly being idiotic – what better fodder to give extremists than an indication that America really hates them and hates their religion and will even go so far as to undermine its own constitution to deprive them? Their ill-conceived arguments are those of populist cynics, preying on fear and ignorance, not ones of genuine conviction – compare, for example, the powerful speech in favour of the project by Michael Bloomberg, who unlike the aforementioned Republicans is actually from New York.

A large amount of this, when stripped of the bigoted invective and political meanderings, comes down to a very simple question – what is more important? The exercise of the basic first amendment rights of Muslims, or the right of people to be offended (or in the case of Palin et al., be offended on behalf of others, given that several of these “stabbed in the heart” 9/11 victims’ families have come out in favour of the project)? This simply isn’t a question. If you are so divorced from reality that the mere presence of Muslims is something that “offends” you, then your opinion is not only wrong, it is getting into very dangerous territory, where you threaten to make imagined threats and negative situations into a reality. In spite of this, some critics have tried to argue that while they are legally permitted to do it, the project organisers shouldn’t go ahead anyway as it isn’t the “right thing to do”. Is this so? What exactly are the effects of building such a community centre?

The answer is that there will be no negativity inherent in the building. The offensive part to so many people, the praying Muslims, already happens at that site. A move towards integration and the provision of facilities for the whole community cannot realistically or rationally be painted as a bad thing. What’s actually causing harm here is the virulent attacks on the community centre. The presence of Muslims practicing their faith is being painted as offensive. They are not part of America in the them-and-us narrative being created by the Republicans. They are separate, they are not on our side in all of this – they are tolerated to a point but their rights and desires are subservient to ours. All Muslims are collectively guilty for the actions of extremists. If I were a Muslim, I imagine I would find this to be pretty offensive.

The hatred and division that the right are accusing the eminent diplomat and peacemaker Rauf of fostering is in fact emanating from the right themselves. The entire thing is a hypocritical sham, that is doing damage to inter-community relations and pushing people into buying into a clash of civilisations narrative (remember Newt’s comments above?) whereby they must choose between being a Muslim and being American. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush, for all of his flaws, did his best to ensure that this was not seen as a sin of Islam, as an act representative of Muslims everywhere. The hysterical response of the critics of the project have tossed this laudable point aside in their fury. This is a victory for division and for those who wish to bring down America, especially those within Islam – they can now point and say “look, they truly do despise us”. When the most moderate Muslims are treated like this, what else can we expect? The bigots and the oppositionalists may win a victory in the short term, politically, but the long term social ramifications, as well as the damage to America’s international image that come from this kind of behaviour will make them come to regret it.

To close, here’s a final thought. The movement against the centre places collective guilt on Muslims by arguing that they shouldn’t practice their religion near ground zero because that faith was the thing the 9/11 attacks claimed as the reason behind their horrendous actions. Timothy McVeigh claimed he was defending America when he attacked the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. Do Palin and company believe that all those who consider themselves patriots, no matter how far they are from McVeigh in all realistic senses, shouldn’t be allowed to express their patriotism with a certain radius of where that attack took place? Of course not – because such a suggestion wouldn’t be politically populistic, or fit into the worldview they are trying to foster. Until they do, they have no moral consistency and no basic principle. They are nothing but hypocrites, cynics and bigots.

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