Posted by on August 02, 2010 in Blog

Much has been made of the controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic cultural center (which would include a mosque) in lower Manhattan. While anti-Muslim groups have caused a stir regarding the building of mosques anywhere and everywhere in the country, the controversy surrounding this particular Islamic community center gained national attention due to its proximity to ground zero (only a few blocks away).

The merits of the case are pretty straight forward: it is perfectly legal for the Islamic center to be built there, and it would be a clear case of religious discrimination (a violation of religious freedom) for the city government to obstruct the building of this cultural center because of its Muslim character. As such, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a principled stand against any attempt at obstructing the project, stating that "government should never, never be in the business of telling people how they should pray or where they can pray." He further added, "Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness."

Mayor Bloomberg’s logic is what prevailed on May 25, when Manhattan Community Board approved the plans to build the community center by a vote of 29 to 1. However, opponents to the project adopted a different strategy and attempted to get a historical landmark designation for the building that is being torn down to make way for the newcenter. Last month, the Community Boards Landmark Committee voted 6 to 1 in opposition to granting landmark status to the building in question, giving supporters of the Cordoba Initiative a boost. And we expect that it will also be sound reasoning that will prevail tomorrow when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission takes the final vote on the landmark status question created just to derail the project. In sum, the obstructionist efforts have failed and the community center is expected to move forward.

Nevertheless, anti-Muslim groups continue to vehemently oppose it. Since only those who equate Islam with the actions of the 9/11 terrorists can logically deem it offensive for an Islamic center to exist near ground zero, opposition to the center was confined to the typical bigoted fringe circles until leading Republican presidential contenders afforded them legitimacy by joining the anti-Muslim chorus.

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Weigh In

Earlier, former Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin, who generated a lot of excitement among conservatives with the speculation of a 2012 Presidential run, suggested on twitter that the Islamic center proposal is a “provocation” which “stabs hearts.” Instead of emphasizing her misguided message, media attention focused on Palin’s invention of a word in her statement, which called on “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the proposed center.

Not to be outdone by Palin, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who described himself as “serious” about running for President in 2012, decided not only to capitalize on the misguided sentiment in opposition to the proposed Islamic center, but took the senseless rhetoric to a whole new level. Gingrich argued that the proposal to build the center was part of an "Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." He attempted to support this bizarre allegation by piecing together an elaborate conspiracy theory surrounding the initial name proposed for the center:

[People] don’t understand that "Cordoba House" is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. Today, some of the Mosque’s backers insist this term is being used to"symbolize interfaith cooperation" when, in fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.”

Employing a juvenile line of argument, while seemingly reducing the faith of some 1.5 billion people in 56 Muslim countries and beyond to a single state, Gingrich argued that a mosque should not be allowed near ground zero until Saudi Arabia allows the building of churches and synagogues on their land.

Meanwhile, other major prospective Republican candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney also expressed their opposition to the building of the Islamic center, with Giuliani arguing that it would be a “desecration” of ground zero for the project to go forward, even though the center would be blocks away from the actual site.

Beyond Presidential Hopefuls

Republican Congressman Peter King (R-NY) also expressed his opposition to the Islamic center. Seemingly implying that any Muslim who claims to be a moderate should be regarded with suspicion, King cited the Imam’s claim to moderation as "one of the reasons" why he should be investigated. He joins Republican New York candidate for Governor Rick Lazio who also called for an investigation of those behind the proposed center.

Elsewhere in the country, Tennessee ’s lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey cast doubt as to whether Islam is a religion that is entitled to constitutional protection, referring to it as a “cult,” while a Florida church announced its plan to commemorate 9/11 by hosting a "Burn A Quran Day." Jon Stewart’s brilliant satire of the promotion of anti-Muslim sentiments on major media outlets further highlights the extent to which such sentiments are becoming part of acceptable public discourse. Today, 57% of Republicans believe the baseless lie that President Obama is a Muslim, considering such a characterization to be displeasing and insidious, of course. 

The Dangers

Fanning the anti-Muslim sentiment on the right may (though far from certain) actually work as cheap political opportunism in the shortterm for certain Republican candidates, but it comes at a price. At best, it will fuel prejudices and passions that divide our country further, and we have already seen the fruits of this type of campaigning in the last Presidential race. Even worse, it could actually harm people if it results in a spike of hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims (and those who look like them).

There ought to be a clear line separating typical political opportunism (to be expected during election season) from demagoguery that exploits prejudices and promotes bigotry. It falls on the leadership of the Republican Party to ensure responsible rhetoric from its most prominent public figures. There is a time when it is particularly important to place principle and the defense of our core values above political expedience. With a magnitude of the challenges facing our country, it is certainly that time.