Challenging Islamophobia: An Assessment of the “Ground Zero Mosque” Debate
by Deepa Kumar
Depending on the poll one consults, anywhere from 54 percent to 61 percent, and as many as 68 percent of Americans, oppose the building of an Islamic community center two blocks from “Ground Zero,” the site of the World Trade Center. Polls, of course, are notoriously inaccurate measures of public opinion. Depending on the framing of the question, the positioning of a question among a series of others, the sample population, and other factors, one might expect different results. Nevertheless, a majority of the public seems to be opposed to the construction of the Islamic center, known as the Cordoba House or Park51 Project. What do we make of this? Has the U.S. as a society taken a precipitous turn against Muslims? Or as the cover of Time magazine asks, “Is America Islamophobic”? We might also ask if the U.S. is becoming like Europe — where several nations, with popular support, have taken actions such as banning the veil in schools, putting a halt to the construction of minarets, etc.? The answer to these questions is neither a straightforward “yes” nor a “no.” Rather, it is both yes and no. This article sets out to examine the dynamics of this debate and explain what it reveals about the state of Islamophobia in the U.S. today. Islamophobia After 9/11 Let me begin with the “yes” part of this answer. Islamophobia, or the fear and hatred of Muslims, predates September 11. The image of Arabs, Muslims, and Muslim-majority countries as being the polar opposite of “us” — that is, barbaric, fanatical, misogynistic, anti-modern, etc. — came into being several centuries ago in the context of European colonization of the Middle East and North Africa. This vocabulary served to justify the “civilizing mission” — known as the “white man’s burden” — to uplift the savages through colonial conquest. After the end of the Cold War, during the 1990s, right-wing pundits like Samuel Huntington re-popularized these notions through the concept of the “clash of civilizations.” However, these arguments weren’t used by political leaders such as George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, and they remained on the margins until the events of 9/11. Since then, the most racist and vile ideas about Muslims have become so dominant that they are now taken for granted and seen as common sense. When U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan turned a gun on soldiers at Fort Hood last November, the dominant argument across the political spectrum was that this attack proved that Islam is inherently violent. It should therefore come as no surprise that the controversy over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan has been driven by an assumption that the construction of any symbol of Islam near Ground Zero is de facto offensive. This assumption is presented as so self-evident that it cannot be challenged — and anyone who does challenge it is automatically seen as “insensitive” to the victims of 9/11. Yet this argument is fundamentally Islamophobic and racist because all Muslims are not to blame for the actions of a few fundamentalists. Islam as a religion is not culpable for 9/11, and there should be no reason why a Muslim community center should be considered “offensive.” When Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing militia member with known evangelical leanings, carried out the bombing of a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995, no one blamed Christianity. Churches in Oklahoma are not seen as offensive to the victim’s families. Why should mosques or Islamic community centers? Green Scare Over the last year, Islamophobia has taken a new turn in the U.S. A few months ago, I argued that a new form of Islamophobia, similar to what has developed in Europe, was starting to gain ground in the U.S., and that we were seeing the birth of a “Green Scare.” Whereas until that point, the Muslim enemy was largely “out there” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we were now being asked to cast suspicion on Muslim citizens and residents. I argued that media hysteria around several cases of “homegrown terrorism” and the Obama administration’s failure to confront Islamophobia laid the groundwork for the stoking of fear and paranoia towards our Muslim and Arab friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community members. Not only did Obama fail to defend Islam when he was “accused” of being a Muslim, he used the same fear-mongering language of the Bush era to justify doubling the number of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. Since then, the arguments put forward in mainstream media and political circles have been seized on by ultra-conservatives and the far right. From Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Temecula, Calif., to Staten Island in New York City, to Bridgeport, Conn., and other cities, mosques and proposed mosque sites have come under attack. A Florida church has called for September 11 to be “International Burn a Koran Day.” In the run-up to the Tennessee Republican gubernatorial primaries, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, endorsed by more than 20 Tea Party groups, said that he wanted to prevent sharia law from coming to Tennessee, and referred to Islam as a “cult” and a “violent political philosophy.” In December 2009, I argued that the equation “Islam=Violence” had become common sense and mainstream. Even so, the Cordoba House project was not a controversial one at the time, as Salon reporter Justin Elliot has shown. Even conservatives like Laura Ingraham didn’t seem to have a problem with it as recently as last December. Back then, Ingraham, in a Fox News interview with Cordoba House leader Daisy Khan, admitted: “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it.” She even ended the interview with an endorsement of the project: “I like what you’re trying to do.” But in the months since then, right-wing blogger Pamela Geller and her group Stop Islamization of America launched a belligerent campaign to polarize society around this issue. With the assistance of the New York Post and other right-wing media outlets, they succeeded in radically altering the tone of the discussion. Soon Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, among others, injected their vitriol into the mix. Then came leading Democrats like Harry Reid and Howard Dean, who jumped onto the bandwagon. And most recently, of course, Barack Obama, who shamelessly flip-flopped on the issue from one day to the next. By mid-August, Tea Party enthusiasts were holding an anti-mosque rally in downtown Manhattan. Consider the dynamic at work here. The mainstream media sensationalize a few “terror” cases, give disproportionate attention to a handful of U.S. citizens and residents allegedly involved in terrorist-related activities, and contribute to the spreading of fear and suspicion of “terrorists in our midst.” Then, liberal politicians in the Democratic Party not only fail to speak out against this scapegoating, but instead mobilize this fear to advance the goals of the “war on terror.” The growing climate of fear is then seized on by far-right-wing forces that push the envelope even further. Groups like Stop Islamization of America are founded on the insidious claim that there is a conspiracy afoot to turn the U.S. into a Muslim state. This ridiculous notion is amplified by right-wing politicians like Ramsey, who raised the specter of sharia being adopted by the courts (in Tennessee, no less!). To be clear, these ideas are not new. For example, right-wing crusader David Horowitz’s “Terrorism Awareness Project” has long featured videos that make this sort of argument. Then there is David Gaubautz’s book Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that’s Conspiring to Islamize America. According to Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, the book served as inspiration for a call by some House Republicans that the Council on American-Islamic Relations be investigated for trying to infiltrate the government. Not (Yet) Europe So these ideas have existed for a while and have resonance both among far-right groups and conservative political figures. What is new is their steady injection into political campaigns and their manifestation in the streets in the form of public attacks on mosques and other symbols of Islam. They are thus gaining greater visibility in the mainstream. However, it would be an exaggeration to claim that these ideas represent or even dominate mainstream public discourse today. This brings me to the “No” part of my earlier statement — that is, why I think the U.S. has not become like Europe — at least, not yet. I think that there are a few counter-tendencies to take into account. First, sections of the mainstream media have come out for religious freedom and against bigotry. Second, some prominent liberals have, for the first time since 9/11, come out publicly in defense of Muslims. In light of these developments, I want to argue that there is a more complex dynamic at the heart of the controversy. Finally, public opinion opposed to the Cordoba House project doesn’t simply reflect a rise in bigotry — consciousness is always more fluid and contradictory than can be captured in opinion polls. The right has certainly been able to gain a hearing for its racist bile. Public support for the notion that building an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero is “insensitive” to the victims of 9/11 strengthens Islamophobia, as it is based on the premise that Islam and all Muslims are to blame for the tragedy. However, this argument has not gone unopposed. Witness how the word “Islamophobia” has entered into public discourse in recent weeks; this indicates a growing consciousness of the bigotry of the political right among mainstream commentators. Or how in May this year, several politicians rallied publicly behind the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf at a press conference the day after Tea Party leader Mark Williams called the proposed mosque a monument to a “monkey god” (he later apologized — to Hindus). Or how Republican politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have argued in support of religious freedom, albeit clothed in the colors of the American flag. In this context, sections of the mainstream media have defended Muslims, and by extension, the image of the U.S. as a multiracial and tolerant society. The New York Times featured a front page story titled “When an Arab Enclave Thrived in Downtown,” with an image of men smoking hookas, women wearing hijabs, etc., advancing the proposition that Arabs (and Muslims) are an integral part of American society. The Time cover mentioned earlier may feature a question about whether America is Islamophobic, but the answer is already given on the cover. Under the question is the symbol of Islam, the crescent and star, filled in with the US flag. What is at stake here is self-image and national identity, as well as how the U.S. is viewed by the rest of the world. Some have taken it further. Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball show not only invited socialist Sherry Wolf to defend Cordoba House, but attacked Rick Lazio, the Republican choice for the governor’s election in New York state, for scapegoating Muslims, and Imam Rauf in particular, to advance his career. The online version of Time has the title “Does America Have a Muslim Problem?” The short article posted here (of the longer version in the magazine) unequivocally argues against the demonization of Muslims and eloquently asserts that those opposed to the Cordoba House/Park51 project “are motivated by deep-seated Islamophobia”: To be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office, but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In all the time I have spent analyzing media coverage of Islam since 9/11, I have not come across such a prominent public denunciation of Islamophobia and of the devious equation “Islam=Terrorism” in a mainstream media outlet. If by December of last year, the “Islam=Violence” equation had become part of “common sense,” such common-sense arguments are now being challenged in no small part because the bearers of these arguments, the far right, have repeatedly revealed and indeed flaunted their own bigotry. Stop Islamization of America, for instance, has invited the notoriously anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders to speak at its rally on September 11 in New York City. Even Newt Gingrich is offended and has pulled out from speaking at the event! A number of the best-known liberal Democrats, such as Obama and Dean, have been at best neutral and at worst openly hostile in the controversy over the Park51 project — in fact, the most prominent mainstream politicians to defend the Cordoba House have been Republicans Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie. On the other hand, some liberal figures — in particular, media luminaries Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Keith Olbermann — have taken a tough line against the bigots. Recently, Olbermann rightly pointed out that the stoking of fear and hatred against a group leads to the creation of a poisonous climate in which holocausts become possible. He begins his piece by quoting the famous lines of the German Pastor Martin Niemoller (“First, they came for the Communists. . .”) on the price of political apathy in such contexts. The twelve-and-a-half minute segment is a powerful call to conscience against fear mongering. Olbermann warns that the opposition to Cordoba House — even if it is just step one in the direction of creating an intolerant society like Nazi Germany — is a step too far. As we know, the bigotry directed at the Cordoba House initiative is not Step One in the demonization of Muslims. But we are also seeing some of the first visible steps taken by at least some liberals in defense of Islam and of Muslims (as followers of Islam, and not just as citizens) since 9/11. This is significant because most liberals since 9/11 have been, at best, silent about the attacks on Muslims and Arabs, and at worst, been party to them. On August 25, a number of liberal organizations held a press conference and announced the formation of a coalition called “New York Neighbors for American Values Speaks Out in Support of Park51.” As the group’s press release states, it aims to promote “religious freedom and diversity” and to “rebuff the increasingly strident opposition to a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.” The coalition includes groups such as September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, several progressive churches like Judson Memorial Church, civil rights groups, and others. At the same time, the recent counter-protest against anti-mosque racists, organized at the initiative of socialists and other radicals, was a great success and received extensive media coverage. Sensitivities toward (Which?) Victims of 9/11 So what of the public opinion polls? First of all, it should be pointed out that a significant number of Americans support the building of the community center — albeit a minority of between 20 percent and 34 percent of Americans. This despite nine years of relentless anti-Muslim, anti-Arab propaganda churned out by the media mouthpieces of a state continuously engaged in a propaganda war on Iran, a military war on Iraq, an until-recently-forgotten war of attrition on Afghanistan, and a proxy war on Palestinians. This minority numbers in the tens of millions; it could be worse. As for those who oppose the Islamic center project, there is little evidence to show that their opposition is specifically driven by anti-Muslim hatred or bigotry. One recent argument gaining traction presents it this way: “Reasonable people” — i.e., those who are not bigots and hate mongers — do need to be “sensitive to the victims of 9/11,” and so such people must also be opposed to the Cordoba House project. Indeed, some of my friends and coworkers, whom I’ve known as tolerant people and not Islamophobes, have expressed their concern for the sensitivities of 9/11 victims’ families in this manner. Even some Muslim friends have suggested that perhaps it would be better for the community center to be built elsewhere. These contradictory positions adopted by well-meaning people should surprise no one. It is understandable, of course, that many Muslims in America might feel defensive in this nasty political and cultural climate and, after being scapegoated and victimized for so many years, might not want to appear confrontational. Many who express their sympathy for 9/11 victims’ families don’t see themselves as being anti-Muslim. Nevertheless, such selective sympathy plays right into the hands of the bigots and fuels the fires of Islamophobia. Wittingly or unwittingly, these “reasonable people” have adopted a political stand that is anti-Muslim at its core. I use the words “selective sympathy” because this attitude erases the memory of the dozens of Muslims who died in the twin-tower attacks. Not only were many Muslims killed on September 11, but since then, Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. have faced racism in the mainstream media and popular culture, harassment at airports, detentions, indefinite imprisonment, arbitrary deportation, torture, “extraordinary rendition” (read: kidnapping and torture), all legally sanctioned by the USA PATRIOT Act and other so-called “anti-terrorism” measures. These stories of hardship and victimization have been largely absent in the media, so even well-intentioned people end up sympathizing with only some of the victims of 9/11. It is important to forthrightly challenge this “selective sympathy,” especially when it echoes the sentiments of someone like Sarah Palin. Palin declared on Facebook that to “build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks.” Leaving aside her glaring fabrication (no one is trying to build a mosque at Ground Zero), we must point out, first of all, that Sarah Palin doesn’t speak for all of the families of September 11 victims. For example, members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are no doubt outraged at Palin’s misappropriation of their grief. Representatives of this group have come out in support of Park51 and even spoken about this issue on TV. Secondly, we must turn Palin’s twisted logic inside out and say to our friends and neighbors: Denying Muslims the right to build a community center and a mosque on the site of a ruined and abandoned Burlington Coat Factory will be a stab in the hearts of all the Muslims and Arabs who have been vilified, victimized, and terrorized by this government’s “war on terror,” both at home and around the world — a war, moreover, that it is our responsibility to oppose. In short, opposition to the Cordoba House should not automatically be seen as support for right-wing Islamophobic ideas. But that opposition must be challenged. A Window of Opportunity? The debate and the struggle will continue. The bigots have planned a rally in New York City on September 11, and a counter-demonstration has also been called. Both sides will be under the media spotlight that day. While the jingoists display their bigotry, our side must recall the popular antiwar slogan from the weeks immediately following the 9/11 attacks: “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” This September 11, we must say: “Our Grief Is Not a Call for Bigotry and Islamophobia,” and “Support First Responders — Give Them Free Health Care” (the House recently voted down a bill that would give health care to first responders, showing the extent of their “sensitivity” towards the victims of 9/11). We must demonstrate that one can sympathize with the suffering of 9/11 victims and their families and defend equal rights and freedoms for Muslims at the same time. The mainstream media have taken the unprecedented step of presenting pro-Muslim forces in a favorable light and of actually covering protests against Islamophobia, as our recent experience has shown us. Even if this step is contradictory — the previous issue of Time featured an Afghan woman whose nose has been cut off with the title “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” thereby recycling the old “white man’s burden” argument — it is nevertheless an opportunity to intervene in this debate. Activists on the left are being sought out by the media. We need to take advantage of this opening to deepen the public debate about Islamophobia. We also need to expose and shame the politicians who use the tragedy of 9/11 to advance an agenda of war and scapegoating, and challenge them to public debates. In the lead-up to the November election, Republican politicians are likely to continue to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria to bolster their political campaigns. Rick Lazio recently ran a hate-filled ad about Park51 and Imam Rauf. The debate is not over, and in the coming months, the left will face many challenges. The Islamophobic bus ads seen in various cities across the country have now come to New York City, paid for by the group Stop Islamization of America. And around the country, the far right will no doubt continue its hate- and fear-mongering attacks on Muslims and on Islam. The left can take confidence in the fact that there are important examples of people — from well-known liberal figures to ordinary people who want to challenge the lies and bigotry of the right — standing up against Islamophobia. These examples could crumble and retreat unless we continue to organize, agitate, and educate.
Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book project on the US’s attitude towards Islamist organizations in the Middle East and Asia from 1945 to the present and its representation in the news.