(updated below - Update II - Update III)
Opponents of the Park51 Islamic community center held a rally yesterday in Lower Manhattan, and a 4-minute video, posted below, reveals the true sentiments behind this campaign. It has little to do with The Hallowed Ground of the World Trade Center -- that's just the pretext -- and everything to do with animosity toward Muslims. I dislike the tactic of singling out one or two objectionable people or signs at a march or rally in order to disparage the event itself. That's not what this video is. Rather, it shows the collective sentiment of those gathered, as well as what's driving the broader national backlash against mosques and Muslims far beyond Ground Zero.
The episode in the video begins when, as John Cole put it, "some black guy made the mistake of looking Muslimish and was harassed and nearly assaulted by the collection of lily white mouth-breathers at the event . . . At about 25 seconds in, he quite astutely points out to the crowd that 'All y'all dumb motherfuckers don’t even know my opinion on shit'." As this African-American citizen (whom the videographer claims is a union carpenter who works at Ground Zero) is instructed to leave by what appears to be some sort of security or law enforcement official, the crowd proceeds to yell: "he musta voted for Obama," "Mohammed's a pig," and other assorted charming anti-mosque slogans. I really encourage everyone to watch this to see the toxicity this campaign has unleashed:
The New York Times article on this rally describes similar incidents, including how a student who carried a sign that simply read "Religious tolerance is what makes America great" was threatened and told that "that if the police were not present, [he] would be in danger." Does anyone believe that their real agenda is simply to have Park51 move a few blocks away to less Sacred ground, or that they're amenable to some sort of Howard-Dean-envisioned compromise that accommodates everyone?
All of this underscores a point I've wanted to make for awhile. There's been a tendency, which I find increasingly irritating, to dismiss this whole Park51 debate as some sort of petty, inconsequential August "distraction" from what Really Matters. Here's Chuck Todd mocking the debate as a "shiny metal object alert" and lamenting "the waste of time" he believes it to be, while Katrina vanden Heuvel, in The Washington Post last week, condemned "pundits and politicians [who] are working themselves into hysteria over a mosque near Ground Zero" on the ground that it won't determine the outcome of the midterm elections. This impulse is understandable. If you chose to narrowly define the topic of the controversy as nothing more than the Manhattan address of Park 51, then obviously it pales in importance to the unemployment crisis, our ongoing wars, and countless other political issues.
But that's an artificially narrow and misguided way of understanding what this dispute is about. The intense animosity toward Muslims driving this campaign extends far beyond Ground Zero, and manifests in all sorts of significant and dangerous ways. In June, The New York Times reported on a vicious opposition campaign against a proposed mosque in Staten Island. Earlier this month, Associated Press documented that "Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation's heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive." And today, The Washington Post examines anti-mosque campaigns from communities around the nation and concludes that "the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted."
To belittle this issue as though it's the equivalent of the media's August fixation on shark attacks or Chandra Levy -- or, worse, to want to ignore it because it's harmful to the Democrats' chances in November -- is profoundly irresponsible. The Park51 conflict is driven by, and reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority -- one that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both domestically and internationally. Yesterday, ABC News' Christiane Amanpour decided to let Americans hear about this dispute from actual Muslims behind the project (compare that, as Jay Rosen suggested, to David Gregory's trite and typically homogeneous guest list of Rick Lazio and Jeffrey Goldberg and you see why there's so much upset caused by Amanpour). One of those project organizers, Daisy Kahn, said this during her ABC interview:
This is like a metastasized anti-Semitism. That's what we feel right now. It's not even Islamophobia; it's beyond Islamophobia. It's hate of Muslims, and we are deeply concerned.
Can anyone watch the video of that disgusting hate rally and dispute that? That's exactly why I've found this conflict so significant. If Park51 ends up moving or if opponents otherwise succeed in defeating it, it will seriously bolster and validate the ugly premises at the heart of this campaign: that Muslims generally are responsible for 9/11, Terrorism justifies and even compels our restricting the equals rights and access of Americans Muslims, and more broadly, the animosity and suspicions towards Muslims generally are justified, or at least deserving of respect. As Aziz Poonawalla put it: "if the project does fail, then I think that the message that will be sent is that bigotry and fear of Muslims is not just permitted, it is effective."
That's exactly the message that will be sent, and that's what makes this conflict so significant. Obviously, not all opponents of Park51 are as overtly hateful as those in that video -- and not all opponents are themselves bigots -- but the position they've adopted is inherently bigoted, as it seeks to impose guilt and blame on a large demographic group for the aberrational acts of a small number of individual members. And one thing is certain: if this campaign succeeds, it will proliferate and the sentiments driving it will become even more potent. Hatemongers always become emboldened when they triumph.
The animosity and hatred so visible here extends far beyond the location of mosques or even how we treat American Muslims. So many of our national abuses, crimes and other excesses of the last decade -- torture, invasions, bombings, illegal surveillance, assassinations, renditions, disappearances, etc. etc. -- are grounded in endless demonization of Muslims. A citizenry will submit to such policies only if they are vested with sufficient fear of an Enemy. There are, as always, a wide array of enemies capable of producing substantial fear (the Immigrants, the Gays, and, as that video reveals, the always-reliable racial minorities), but the leading Enemy over the last decade, in American political discourse, has been, and still is, the Muslim.
That's why the population is willing to justify virtually anything that's done to "them" without much resistance at all, and it's why very few people demand evidence from the Government before believing accusations that someone is a Terrorist: after all, if they're Muslim, that's reason enough to believe it. Hence, the repeated, mindless mantra that those in Guantanamo -- or those on the Government's "hit list" -- are Terrorists even in the absence of evidence and charges, and even in the presence of ample grounds for doubting the truth of those accusations.
And there's no end in sight: the current hysteria over Iran at its core relies -- just as the identical campaign against Iraq did -- on the demonization of a whole new host of Muslim villains. A population that is constantly bombarded with tales of Muslim Evil (they want to kill your children and explode a nuclear suitcase in your neighborhood) will be filled with fear and hatred -- sentiments always exacerbated during times of economic strife and uncertainty -- and very well-primed to lash out. That's the decade-long brew that has led to this purely irrational, hate-driven demand that they not be allowed to desecrate and infect the Sacred, Hallowed Space of Ground Zero (the religious terminology used to talk about 9/11 is both creepy and no accident). This "debate" over Park51 is many things. An inconsequential "distraction" from what Really Matters is not one of them.
UPDATE: Ron Paul issued a statement today excoriating conservative opponents of Park51 for violating their alleged belief in religious freedom and property rights, and added:
In my opinion it has come from the neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it.
They never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars. . . Defending the controversial use of property should be no more difficult than defending the 1st Amendment principle of defending controversial speech. But many conservatives and liberals do not want to diminish the hatred for Islam -- the driving emotion that keeps us in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. . . .
The outcry over the building of the mosque, near ground zero, implies that Islam alone was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. According to those who are condemning the building of the mosque, the nineteen suicide terrorists on 9/11 spoke for all Muslims. . . . . This is all about hate and Islamaphobia.
It is indeed "about hate and Islamaphobia," and that is the driving, enabling force behind so many of America's most controversial and destructive policies.
UPDATE II: Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this entire episode has been the dearth of national politicians willing to stand up to this campaign of bigotry. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley became one of the few to issue an unapologetic, principled, unparsed, caveat-free defense of Park51 today, joining Ron Paul, Joe Sestak, Grover Norquist, Russ Feingold, Jerry Nadler, Ted Olson and only a handful of others. It's particularly commendable of Feingold and Sestak to do so given the very tight Senate races they are fighting, and there's added weight when people like Paul, Olson, and Norquist stand up to their own party to do so.
I'll be on MSNBC, at roughly 4:00 p.m., this afternoon, discussing these issues, along with National Review's Cliff May.
UPDATE III: The group which sponsored this rally has a website -- the repellently named StopThe911Mosque.com -- which is registered to The Center for Security Policy, the group of Frank Gaffney, one of the most deranged and dishonest right-wing extremists in the country. So it's hardly surprising that such a rotted root gave rise to this toxic fruit (I just unintentionally made a nice rhyme).
Speaking of deranged right-wing extremists, I was on MSNBC today debating Park51 with Cliff May of National Review; it largely degenerated into a cable-news screamfest, but for those interested, you can watch it here: