The Right-Wing's Racist Freak Out Over the "Ground Zero" Muslim Center

In December, the New York Times reported that "for months," hundreds of Muslims had been gathering every Friday at an abandoned building two blocks north of the World Trade Center for prayer and readings from the Qur'an in Arabic. A group of Muslims purchased the building -- which had been damaged from debris resulting from the 9/11 attacks  -- and now, led by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, plan to build a 15-story Islamic community center there that will include a mosque, an arts center, a workout facility, and other public spaces. ASMA founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said the project "sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11." "We want to push back against the extremists," he added. Other faith leaders offered support for the project. "[Abdul Rauf] subscribes to my credo: 'Live and let live,'" said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a spiritual leader at a nearby synagogue. "Building so close is owning the tragedy. It's a way of saying: 'This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says,'" said Joan Brown Campbell, a Christian leader in New York. Despite interfaith support for the project, the idea of having a Muslim center anywhere near Ground Zero has set off right-wing outrage based in bigotry, paranoia, bias, racism, and intolerance. 

RIGHT-WING FREAK OUT: In May, news of the project grew more widespread and inflamed anti-Muslim rhetoric from the right (even though there has been a mosque in the neighborhood since the 1980s). Enraged (and now disgraced) Tea Party leader Mark Williams said the site would allow Muslims to worship their "monkey-god." From there, a right-wing freak out was born. "I hope somebody blows it up," said conservative radio talk show host Michael Berry. Rush Limbaugh said that because of the project, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed won't "have an impossible time" getting a "sympathetic jury" if he is tried in New York. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol writes today that in order to save his presidency, President Obama should say the Islamic center is "a bad idea." Conservative blogger and executive director of "Stop Islamization of America" (SIOA) Pamela Geller said the Islamic center is a "triumphal mosque" on "conquered lands." The National Republican Trust PAC -- which has doled out funds to various Republican candidates for Congress, including Sen. John Thune (R-SD) -- recently launched an ad urging Americans to "join the fight" against the mosque project. Not making any distinction between the 9/11 terrorists and ASMA or Muslims in general, the ad says, "On Sept. 11, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero. ... That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation for more. A mosque at Ground Zero must not stand." Hostility to building mosques has spread across the country. In Mufreesboro, Tennessee, residents gathered to protest the construction of a mosque, while the planned construction of a mosque in Southern California is inspiring similarly fierce opposition from local conservatives.

MAINSTREAMING BIGOTRY: Republicans both in and out of Congress are attacking the project, while conservative news outlets Fox News and the Washington Times have joined the chorus. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called the proposed Islamic center "very offensive" and "wrong." Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin called on "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the Ground Zero mosque. And, criticizing the proposal, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued that the U.S. should model itself after a non-democratic country. "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia," he said, calling the ASMA and the Cordoba Initiative "hostile to our civilization." Last week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which describes itself as "fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry and extremism" sided with the hate. The group acknowledged that the attacks on the project stem from "bigotry" and are "unfair," but nevertheless agreed with the extremists that a mosque should not be built near Ground Zero. "This is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right," an ADL statement said, adding, "In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain -- unnecessarily -- and that is not right."

SANITY RESPONDS: "The ADL should be ashamed of itself," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Time's Joe Klein noted that "[d]uring the high-tide of anti-semitism, and then again during the civil-rights movement, and often since, the Anti-Defamation League transcended its Jewish origins to stand as a courageous American voice against prejudice." But now, he said, the ADL has joined "the intolerant know-nothings" and "has sullied American Judaism's intense tradition of tolerance and inclusion. "What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States...than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be," said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. The New America Foundation's Robert Wright agrees: "[Opposition to the mosque center] fits perfectly with his recruiting pitch -- that America has declared war on Islam." Moreover, state and city politicians and local community leaders widely support the Islamic center. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I) recently criticized the right's reaction to the project. "If we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us? Democracy is stronger than this," he said, adding, "The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded." Indeed, in a letter promoting religious tolerance to a Jewish community in Newport, RI, founding father George Washington said, "For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens." In fact, the FBI said that the ASMA's Abdul Rauf helped the agency reach out to Muslim communities after 9/11. "We've had positive interactions with him in the past," an agency spokesperson said. A family member of a 9/11 victim called ASMA's proposal a "bold step," and considers the plan "a noble effort."

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