Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Mike's Letter from America No18

It's not a Mosque and it's not a Ground Zero

You know it's an election year when politicians start whipping up fear against minorities.

First gay marriage (legalized in California, then banned, unbanned, and now in legal limbo) was supposed to undermine American society. Then Arizona passed a racist law allowing the police to demand to see the papers of anyone they think is an illegal immigrant (that is, anyone who looks Latino). Now, however, the Republicans think they have found the trump card to winning the mid-term elections in November: The 'Ground Zero Mosque'.

Firstly, we need to get one thing clear – the 'Ground Zero Mosque' is not at Ground Zero and is not a Mosque. A Muslim group called the Cordoba Initiative plans to build a 13-story interfaith community centre, and were given the OK by New York City two weeks ago. Of these thirteen floors, only two will be devoted to prayer space. Far from being 'at Ground Zero', the building will be two blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center. So it would more accurate to call it the 'Half a Mile from Ground Zero Building that's 15.3% Mosque'.

Until recently, this project was wholly uncontroversial. However, a concerted campaign starting in the far-right blogosphere has whipped up an Islamophobic attack against building a mosque on 'hallowed ground' amid claims that the building – established by a moderate Sufi group that stresses interfaith outreach – will be a terrorist recruiting center.

It's not hard to unpick the hypocrisy and warped thinking of these people. Apparently a mosque offends the 'hallowed ground' status of the area, but a Burger King, the 'New York Dolls' strip club, and countless stalls selling 9/11 tourist kitsch are entirely in keeping with the solemnity of the site. Of course, the feelings of 9/11 victims' families have been used to attack the project (even though many families publicly support it), but the fact that Ground Zero is a grave for hundreds of people has not stopped plans to build the new 'Freedom Tower' as prime real estate on it. Tenants are already being lined up for this new office space, including a Chinese company that will set up a 'China Center' in the tower. In another era, the right would have complained about 'godless Chinese Communists' setting up shop on 'hallowed ground' – but that was yesterday's scapegoat, yesterday's bogeyman.

The campaign against Park51 (to give the centre its proper name) could be dismissed as yet another publicity stunt by the borderline-insane world of far-right bloggers, as it is being peddled by the same sort of people who claim to have located President Obama's Kenyan birth certificate. Pamela Geller, the blogger who started the whole frenzy, believes Obama is the secret illegitimate son of Malcolm X, and that the Nazis were inspired by Muslim ideas! However, the moment Obama himself made some moderate comments in support of Park51, the mainstream Republicans seized upon the issue, promising to make it a cornerstone of their election campaign.

This is a classic 'wedge issue' – a distraction cynically designed to win votes for the right by whipping up fear and playing on people's emotions. Some Republicans are quite open about this – one congressman admitted that opposing gay marriage wasn't going to work as an issue for them, but that the 'Ground Zero Mosque' was. They were aided by the president's clumsy intervention, doing the familiar Obama two-step of taking a principled stand (his speech defending Park51) then spoiling it by losing his nerve and back-peddling (saying that he supported the right of New York's Muslims to build the centre, but wouldn't support them actually do it). With Obama dithering, the Republicans scented blood, pinning the issue on the president (who, according to a recent poll, 46% of Republican supporters believe is a Muslim).

Many top Democrats followed Obama's unprincipled lead. New York governor David Paterson has talked of 'compromise' and offered a site for the 'mosque' further from Ground Zero – as if allowing the center to be driven up-town by an Islamophobic hate campaign is somehow a liberal act. Democratic senate leader Harry Reid (involved in a close reelection race in Nevada) was equally bad, echoing Paterson's view that Park51 should be built somewhere else. Even former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, something of a hero to the left of the party, has backed this line of 'compromise' with racists. Far from being ashamed of their cowardice, the Democrats have had the chutzpah to attack the left. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs complained of Obama's critics on the left that 'they will [only] be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon'. Both sound good to me, Robert.

The Republicans' rhetorical attacks on Muslims are bad enough, but they will only fuel the very real attacks faced by America's Muslim community. The facebook page 'say no to the Mosque at Ground Zero' is full of racist abuse and even direct threats of violence. In Jacksonville, Florida, a bomb exploded outside a mosque, fortunately killing nobody. In Tennessee, a mosque was burned to the ground. In Florida, a church plans to mark the 9/11 anniversary with a 'Koran Burning'. This is the sort of atmosphere that could lead to Muslims being attacked or even killed, and the Republicans are pouring fuel on the fire while the Democrats remain silent.

Fortunately, there is resistance. A challenge by a conservative Christian group to building a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee sparked off a big, multi-faith campaign in defence of the Muslim community. Movements such as this point the way to challenging the racists, but we also need to build a principled alternative to the Democratic Party.

If you've ever wondered where the term 'Ground Zero' comes from, it originally meant the center point of a nuclear explosion. At the 'real' Ground Zero in Hiroshima, the Japanese built not a lucrative office development but a Peace Memorial Park. In 1996, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site – over the objections of the USA. Still, America honours the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in its own way – check out these cool atom bomb earrings!