The “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy is gradually developing into a national hysteria threatening to shack the image, and potentially the reality, of the United States as an open society and a beacon of freedom and civil liberties. The campaign against the proposed mosque in lower Manhattan has already dwarfed the one mobilized early last year by European far right parties to ban Swiss Muslims from building minarets for their mosques. The anti mosque campaign is a testimony to the growing influence of the American far right in media and political circles and a sad commentary on the ability of Muslim bashers to sway public opinion in the post 9/11 American.
The campaign is led by open bigots like Pamela Geller who is on record calling for the destruction of the Golden Dome Mosque so a Jewish temple can be built in its place, and who recently argued that Hitler adopted Jihad and was inspired by Islam to commit the Holocaust. She is also on record “praying” for a nuclear war between Iran and Israel that would give the latter the opportunity to nuke Tehran, Mecca, and Medina. She has the audacity to question the patriotism of President Obama and accuse him on numerous occasions being a covert Muslim and an anti-Semitic, Jihadist Mohammadan [sic] who is aiding the Iranian regime.
Geller, along with her network of likeminded Muslim bashers, including Sean Hannity of the Fox News and Robert Spencer of Jihadwatch, succeeded in setting the tone of the current debate. They have referred to the proposed Islamic center as a “triumphant mosque” claiming that it is customary for Muslims to build such mosques after defeating their enemies. They called the plan to build an Islamic center two blocks away from ground zero a provocation intended to upset the families of the victims of 9/11. They even argued that the site of 9/11 is a hallowed ground and should hence be made inaccessible for Muslims to build an Islamic Center two blocks away from its site.
The language of “provocation,” “triumph,” and “sensitivity” presumes that all Muslims, and not only al-Qaida members, are guilty of 9/11 attacks. Muslim Americans by and large, including Imam Faisal Rauf, have strongly rejected al-Qaida actions and views, as did most Muslims the world over. To equate Muslims with the atrocities committed by al-Qaida operatives is tantamount to equating Christians with the massacres committed by the Serb nationalists in Bosnia. The opponent of building an Islamic center near 9/11 site must remember that ground zero is hallowed not only by Jewish and Christian blood, but by the blood of over 90 Muslims who perished on that horrific day.
Despite the twisted logic of these arguments, and the blatant efforts to revive medieval anti-Muslim propaganda and equate all Muslims with the criminal attacks of 9/11 terrorists, several prominent politicians jumped on the anti-mosque bandwagon. Republican leaders, including Dwight Gingrich and Sarah Palin, sided with the anti-mosque crowd. The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid added his voice to those who spoke against the mosque. Even President Obama wavered in the face of the anti-mosque campaign as he seems to backpedal after speaking strongly in support of the right of American Muslims to exercise their religious freedom.
Obama reportedly made a distinction between the “right” to build the mosque, which he supports, and the “wisdom” of building the mosque, on which he chose to withhold judgment. Granted that having right and being right are two different things, it is unfortunate that President Obama seems to indirectly question the wisdom of the Islamic center proponents rather than those who unfairly oppose it.
If anyone’s actions and motives should be questioned, it should be those of the bigots who equate Islam with terrorism and who have embarked on a campaign of disinformation and character assassination to stop Muslims from exercising their constitutional rights freely. Yet it is the actions and motives of the Muslim peacemakers who took the initiative to build an Islamic center dedicated to enhancing interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and who have for decades been involved in counter extremist interpretations and in bridge building with their Jewish and Christian neighbors are place under scrutiny.
The history of the United States clearly illustrates that the constitutional rights Americans have cannot be separated from their ability to exercise their rights freely. Despite having constitutional rights, African Americans were prevented from exercising their rights by racists and demagogues who used every false arguments to stipulate how, when, and under what conditions black Americans could exercise their rights.
If history teaches us anything it should teach us that people have rights only when they can exercise them freely, and that they have to exercise them despite the arguments of those who want to limit their rights. This simple fact was borne through the struggles of all numerous individuals whose ability to exercise their rights was thwarted by the ignorance and prejudice of their countrymen, including blacks, women, Jews, Catholics, and now Muslims.
It is now the time for Muslim Americans to follow the excellent examples of those who struggled before them, and remind the whole world once again that no false arguments should be allowed to separate the rights of a minority and its ability to exercise its rights freely.
Right wing media has generated a national hysteria, and amplified the voices of far right pundits who succeeded in creating enough suspicion and arousing public passion against the proposed Manhattan Islamic Center through misinforming and unfounded accusations. It is time for national leaders of all religious persuasions to do the right thing and speak with clear and unwavering voice in support of the right of Muslims to freely exercise their religious freedom. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Clyde Haberman and Fareed Zakaria of the Newsweek have set a high example of statesmanship and principled media punditry.
Will we see more principled voices in the face of shameless demagoguery? If 9/11 shocks has not penetrated into the soul of America and has not changed its spirit then America will once again reject the voices of intolerance and push the bigots back into their dark corners where they belong.