WASHINGTON: The heated debate in New York over plans to build a Muslim center near the World Trade Center site has polarized many in this country. Opponents call it a mosque and say it’s in the worst possible place, while supporters say it’s a cultural center and it’s in the best spot to encourage understanding. At issue is the proposed site of the 13-story community center and Islamic prayer space in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the 9/11 attacks.
New York is home to 600,000 to 700,000 Muslims, according to Columbia University researchers, and there are a least two other mosques in the neighborhood: Masjid Al-Farah, which sits 12 blocks away from Ground Zero, and Masjid Manhattan, which was founded in 1970, and sits four blocks away.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, recently told reporters: “The problem with stopping this Islamic center is that it implies that the Muslim world is responsible for (the Sept. 11 attacks) when it’s Al-Qaeda that responsible.”
The controversy over the center began after Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger who peddles "birther" conspiracies about Obama, announced a protest against the "911 mosque" and was given a platform by New York Post and Fox News. Geller's group, Stop Islamization of America, opposes mosques in places very far removed from Ground Zero, and its Facebook page features discussions on whether Islam can be legally banned.
Reactions to this assault on Islam have brought out the best, and worst, in Americans.
On Aug. 19, an article by Krissah Thompson and Felicia Sonmez in The Washington Post, noted: “For many Muslims outside New York, the center has become a symbol and the debate about it an affront, reflective of a lack of acceptance that they feel is growing in parts of the United States.
“’Muslims in New York City really want this (mosque) now more than before,’ said Zahriyeh, a local video journalist, ‘It’s not a comfortable feeling knowing that a few Americans are rallying thousands, possibly millions, to be fearful of a community center, to be fearful of people who just want to fit into this nation.’”
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, described the debate as “a nadir in Islamaphobic rhetoric.”
“We’re seeing it nationwide,” he said. “You literally cannot turn on a radio today without hearing a right-wing radio talk show host slamming Islam in the most corrosive of terms.”
An example of this would be an article by Jeffrey Kuhner, in the Aug. 20 edition of The Washington Times. Entitled: “Obama’s Islamic Agenda,” he writes:
“…For Mr. Obama, defending Islam has been a key priority of his presidency… He is the most Muslim-friendly present in the nation’s history… This is why the Ground Zero Mosque is so offensive: It will be a symbol of radical Islam’s conquest of America. If Islamists can erect a monument of victory that will permanently loom over our most hallowed ground... It will signify the surrender of liberal multiculturalism to the forces of political Islam…
“…Obama is a self-conscious radical, who is now putting the interests of Islam ahead of his own country. The debate over the Ground Zero Mosque has unmasked him as a president who favors Muslim interests over those of the American people,” said Kuhner.
But in The New York Times, in an op/ed Aug. 22 column entitled: “How Fox Betrayed Petraeus” Frank Rich writes: “…So virulent is the Islamaphobic hysteria of the neocon and Fox News right – abetted by the useful idiocy of the Anti-Defamation League, Harry Reid and other cowed Democrats – that it has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative.
“How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?
“… The ginned-up rage over the ‘ground zero mosque’ was not motivated by a serious desire to protect American from the real threat of terrorists lurking at home and abroad – a threat this furor has in all likelihood exacerbated – but by the potential short-term rewards of winning votes by pandering to fear during an election season,” writes Rich.
“…Were McCain in the White House, Fox and friends would have kept ignoring (the center). But it’s an irresistible target in our current election year because it revives the most insidious anti-Obama narrative of the many Fox promoted in the previous election year: Obama the closet Muslim and the secret madrassa alumnus…. (This has also resulted in) existing or proposed American mosques hundreds and even thousands of miles from ground zero, from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California, are now under siege.”
“Going Mad In Herds” was the headline used by Maureen Dowd, in the Sunday, Aug 22 New York Times:
“… Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America – a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age.
“…The dispute over the Islamic center has tripped some deep national lunacy… It is a prejudice stoked by Rush Limbaugh, who mocks ‘Imam Obama’ as ‘America’s first Muslim president,’ and by the evangelist Franklin Graham, who bizarrely told CNN’s John King: ‘I think the president’s problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam Is passed through the father, like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother.
“…As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,’” noted Dowd.
If there is any saving grace to be taken from this, a recent Pew poll showed that less than one in five (10 percent) people were following the mosque story “very closely.” In comparison, 39 percent said they were following stories about the economy “very closely.”