Mosque at Ground Zero :
Islamophobia in the US
In Gainesville, Florida, Terry Jones, a pastor of a small insignificant church with hardly any following called for the “International Burn a Quran Day" on September 11th to mark 9/11. He threatened to burn 50 copies of the Quran, which is also his maximum number of following. His purported action was a manifestation of his hatred towards Islam which culminated in this threat over the proposed building of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The US Army and Obama Administration opposed this primarily on the grounds that it would endanger US troops abroad, swell the ranks of Al-Quaeda and jeopardise national security. President Obama also urged for religious tolerance. Eventually the public outcry and administrative pressure forced the pastor to call off his plan.
Before putting this incident more in context, let us first examine how all this came about. It started with the growing ruckus in the US over building of an Islamic center and a mosque near ground zero in New York City. The site already has a building which has been a center of cultural activity for Muslim population in the city for decades. The proposed building of this mosque has now become a rallying point for the political right in the US, championed by the Tea Party led by Sarah Palin. One year back, the New York Times carried a front page article on the proposed mosque and there was hardly a murmur. The City administration seeing the building of the Islamic Center as a private property right never objected to it, and New York Mayor Bloomberg supported it. In fact the Jewish center in the New York City actively helped in laying out the plan for the Islamic Center. The Imam of the mosque Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose own niece served in the Iraq war, said he hoped to spread a message of peace through this Islamic Center.
However things changed diametrically, when a far right conservative blogger Pamela Geller who has devoted herself in demonizing Islam raised this issue through her blog, declaring the proposed mosque as a 'Monster Mosque' to be built at Ground Zero which would be 'a victory symbol for Muslims.' The site however is two blocks away from Ground Zero where the Twin Towers once stood. The conservative newspaper Washington Examiner took up the story and then it spread like wildfire. Her blatantly communal and offensive tirade against Islam was given space in the mainstream media. CNN conducted an initial opinion poll according to which 70 percent independents, 54 percent Democrats and 82 percent Republicans opposed the mosque plan. Suddenly something which was a non-issue a few months back snowballed into a national issue with media playing it over and over and giving ‘fair’ space to opponents of the construction of mosque.
President Obama issued a statement quoting the US constitution for religious freedom for one and all in the country. However the following day, bowing to the political backlash, in a typical gesture, President Obama rephrased his statement saying that he was commenting on religious freedom, and not the exact location of the mosque. The timidity of Obama and his administration to deal with this issue head on and massive right wing propaganda and fear mongering has resulted in a spurt of hate crimes against Muslims. A Muslim taxi driver in New York City, Ahmed Sharif was attacked by a passenger after being asked if he was a Muslim. The taxi driver survived the wounds but the incident sent shock waves in New York City. In another incident, a mosque was vandalized in Queens in New York City. In Tennessee, Muslims are afraid of venturing out of their homes. Incidents of vandalization of mosques have increased considerably. Right-wing Christian groups are constantly demanding shifting the location of the Islamic Center to somewhere else, which by law is infringement of individual property rights central to the US Constitution and system. Having lived and worked closely with "a deeply religious Muslim population," a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans has written an open letter decrying the rising tide of Islamophobia.
The Gainesville, Florida incident raised other more serious issues. The mainstream media came out in full force against Pastor Terry Jones in a self-glorifying, moralizing media stunt. The whole media and establishment circus is in such a deep denial about the fact that the act of war itself is a far more radicalizing catalyst in the Muslim world. Burning Qurans is bigoted; but the point is that the media is portraying it to be worse than drone attacks, rocket attacks, carpet bombings, mass rape, and occupation! In the words of Kathy Kelly, an American peace activist who is currently facing trial for 'trespassing' in a drone-manufacturing plant during an anti-war protest, the mainstream media "does little to help ordinary [Americans] ... understand that the drones which hover over potential targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen create small "ground zeroes" in multiple locales on an everyday basis."
Thousands March Against Racism on 9/11 in New York
On the anniversary of 9/11, thousands of people rallied in lower Manhattan, New York, in defense of the Muslim, Arab American and South Asian communities that have been increasingly demonized in recent months.
There was also no mention in the mainstream media of the religious groups and people of Gainesville who came out strongly against this bigotry and expressed solidarity and support for Muslim community. There is also tremendous support for the Islamic Center in the progressive section in the American society. The entire episode was handles by the media in a way calculated to get people to have a self-congratulatory belief in the benevolence of the US administration and its respect for human life while at the same time carrying the impression that the Muslims are so "irrational" that they would kill people over the burning of a book. Revelations that US soldiers went on a shooting rampage on innocent civilians in Afghanistan “just for fun” and collected "fingers" and body parts of victims as trophies are played down by the same media. Such American exceptionalism - a delusional faith in benevolence of intentions of the US has given the imperial war machine the false legitimacy to kill over a million in the name of 3000 killed in 9/11 attacks.
The most unfortunate development has been that the Imam has finally given in to the tremendous pressure to move the mosque and has declared that he is open to any option including delaying construction or changing its location. This makes a mockery of religious freedom in the country. Never before had the right wing blogosphere exercised such an influence over administration’s actions and national debates. The timidity of Obama who has squandered the one rare historical opportunity of pushing the progressive agenda, given the material conditions in the country, has proven to be a serendipity for the far right who were quick to fill this political vacuum of inaction and reneged promises.