The Far-Right's Anti-Mosque Mania Spreads from Ground Zero to Across the U.S., Pointing to Dark Politics Ahead
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There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The angry “debate” over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.
It’s not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a phony “Mosque at Ground Zero” shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death, and evildoers). Many have pointed out -- futilely -- that the complex will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting space, 9/11 memorial, and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The shorthand still sticks.
Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Midland Beach, Staten Island, in New York City. Such protests are emerging with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders -- from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls -- have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin demanded that “peaceful Muslims” step up and “refudiate” the plan; Newt Gingrich denounced the building of such a “mosque” as long as Saudi Arabia bars construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers “to feel safe and be safe.”)
No, it’s the déjà-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles special unease, the sense that we’ve been here before as a country, and the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation’s political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative which fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.
The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche. The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as Bridgeport, Connecticut, police discovered last week. Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California, are all in this together. And it is not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission gave its unanimous blessing to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it’s worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.
Panic in the Streets
In the panicked wake of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims (and dark-skinned people mistaken for Muslims) swept the country. Hundreds of beatings and even some random reprisal killings were reported coast to coast.
On Sept. 17, 2001, the day after he told the nation that a “crusade” against terror was in order, President Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and piously proclaimed that “Islam is peace.” At virtually the same moment across town, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III were at a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into their ballooning 9/11 investigation, an undisclosed number of immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were being hauled into custody, Arabic and Farsi speakers were suddenly in demand at the FBI, and major legislation was already in the works to beef up government surveillance, immigration, and anti-terror capabilities. But no, Mueller said, there was nothing at all to complaints of ethnic targeting from Arab-American communities.