Islamophobia and the Great “Ground Zero Mosque” Myth
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and following the “War on Terror”, “islamophobia” has become an increasingly familiar term in the United States—and with good reason. Crimes committed against Muslims because of their faith rose steadily from 2001 through 2005 according to studies, and they don’t seem to have dropped significantly since . Muslims in the US have reported attacks, racist slurs, police detentions and searches that were unprovoked, employment and housing discrimination, and so on. Since George W. Bush declared his “crusade” against terrorism (a particularly prescient turn of phrase) the xenophobia common in nations at war has amped up here in the United States.
The demonization of a people as if they are a monolithic mass during war time is as old as nation-states and their wars. In the US now, we are currently seeing this combined with another unsurprising and common set of events: A media and politician-generated hysteria close to campaign time. This is, after all, one of the ways that politicians swindle people into supporting them at the polls come voting time. And so, at the announcement of building an Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, reports from political pundits started rolling in about the “Ground Zero Mosque”—continuing toward their November crescendo. Within the last few weeks, the hysteria has gotten louder and louder as a result of some high profile (and disturbing) protests and actions—some connected directly to the controversy in NYC, others apparently organized just from the sheer inertia of the rising anti-Muslim sentiment.
To name one example close to home for me personally, a group of right-wing Christians called “Operation Save America” descended on the Bridgeport Islamic Center here in Connecticut (where I live) a couple of weeks ago . One protestor there told reporters that “(t)here’s a war in America” and they “plan on taking it to the mosques around the country.” They were carrying placards reading things like “Islam is a Lie” and could be heard screaming “Jesus hates Muslims!” One protestor was even heard yelling “Murderers!” at young children leaving the center.
Given the public reaction, there are some rather serious problems with the “Ground Zero Mosque” myth that need to be stated (as often as possible)—some obvious and some not-so-obvious and perhaps even some lessons to be learned from it.
The first problem is that there isn’t really a “Ground Zero Mosque”. No, seriously. There isn’t one. There is a proposed Islamic Center a few blocks away. Plans were for there to be basketball courts, spaces for community education, a space for worship, and even a memorial for the victims of 9/11 (!!) in the building. Further, the building would not be visible from the site where the World Trade Center once stood. The discourse around the “Ground Zero Mosque” is so obviously a blatant deception that the AP has re-thought the ways it shaped the headlines and is now taking steps to stop using the phrase . Of course, that hasn’t stopped the political class and their pundit lackeys from using the term to describe their manufactured version of reality.
The second big problem with the Myth is the claim that the Islamic Center has some relationship with Jihadists who want to destroy America. Right-wing blogger, Pamela Geller, for example, refers to the Center as an “Islamic supremacist mosque at…hallowed ground” and suggests that Obama supports “Islamic Jihadists” by coming out in favor of building the center . Robert Spencer uses the even more grandiose “Islamic Supremacist Ground Zero Mega-mosque” to describe the center, bringing to mind the vast mega-churches common in the United States, but ostensibly being dedicated to a jihadist Islamicist faith that encourages killing innocents and wiping the USA off the map .
There are a couple of problems with this part of the politico-generated hysteria. First and foremost, the Imam of the proposed center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, speaks internationally on the dangers of extremism. As I write this piece, Rauf is touring the Middle East speaking out against terrorism. He was likewise seen as a State Department ally during the Bush presidency and funded for similar tours under G.W. He has condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks as “un-Islamic” and gave a memorial speech for Daniel Pearl (the American journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic terrorists). Rauf is also a Sufi, a group of Muslims more known for their mysticism than their militancy. But “truth” is more an approximation in the media, particularly among liberal and conservative pundits when their candidates are running for office. In any case, Rauf is hardly a model for Islamic terrorism.
Further, peer-reviewed studies have shown that such Islamic Centers actually help to counter terrorism. And so in the twisted logic of political opportunism, a portion of the American public is manipulated into showing their outrage at Islamic terrorists by opposing something that would likely help prevent Islamic terrorists! One study, done by researchers for Duke and UNC, concluded by encouraging the creation of such community centers in order to help integrate Muslim youth into society and decrease feelings of isolation . Again, rather than a symbol for fundamentalism or a catalyst for extremism, these centers more often help stem Islamic terrorism (and weren’t we supposed to be at war with “terrorism”, anyway?).
Another problem with the discourse around the proposed center is the claim that it is “insensitive” to the victims of 9/11 or their families (though, as we’ve already seen, the rhetoric doesn’t always stop at “insensitive”). How could “Muslims” build this center at ground zero?—so the questions go—Don’t “they” know that “they’re” gonna offend the families of the victims of 9/11? Doesn’t it speak volumes about “these people” that “they’d” do this? And so on. In the last few weeks I’ve heard too many of these kinds of claims about “those people”, etc.
I was trained as a sociologist and, while a good part of what I learned in that training was to be suspicious of sociologists, one concept that comes from social scientists is pertinent here—the concept of “the Other.” Scholars as diverse as Sartre, Lacan, and de Beauvoir have written about how humans come to understand their “selves”, often in relation to other communities that we construct as “foreign” or “different” and, oftentimes, subordinate and “barbaric.” Through this process of creating a mythological and queer (in the sense of being strange) contrast, we come to construct (and understand) our selves. A part of this process is homogenizing groups that we have deemed “Other” and failing to see any differentiation within those groups.
This is where the discourse around “Muslims” being responsible for 9/11 and “them” knowing better than to put one of “their” social centers close to Ground Zero comes from. While we all know that it was fundamentalist Muslims who committed the terrorist attacks of 9/11—a subset of a fairly diverse Islam—it follows the homogenizing project of “Othering” to lump Muslims together as a single, monolithic group and to then hold them collectively responsible (particularly during war time and close to the political machinations so common during campaign time). For most Americans, Christianity is normal and Islam is “Other” because Christianity is common in our society. We make pledges on the Bible in our courts. Churches are a ubiquitous sight, where mosques are not. Many of us, our families, and our loved ones are Christians of one sort or another. So when we read about an abortion clinic being bombed, we know that “Christians” aren’t responsible for it, but Christian fundamentalists. When we hear about Catholics erecting a statue in honor of the victims of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, we don’t get offended because “Catholics” were responsible for the attack in the form of Timothy McVeigh. We differentiate between Christians because Christianity has become such an important part of how we see our selves. And so the entire idea of “Muslims” knowing better than to be so insensitive and build this Islamic center is problematic—it projects a collective guilt onto all Muslims who likely differentiate between themselves, while we fail to. And, again, these problems are compounded by the media circus near campaign time, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (two nations that never attacked the USA) and the xenophobic sentiment whipped up in order to manufacture the consent of the American people for these wars.
I might take a moment here, too, to explain that I’m not religious. I was brought up with a particularly virulent form of fundamentalist Christianity that was psychologically destructive, shaming, and often times just outright ridiculous (I remember one friend who was forbidden from watching the cartoon “The Smurfs” by his parents because they were “demonic”). I’m not a fan of religion in general, so I don’t want this to seem like advocacy for religious centers of any kind. However, I do recognize that not all forms of Christianity are the same—and neither are all forms of Islam—which is essentially what is being suggested here.
I think there are a couple of lessons in this manipulated hysteria for us too, even if they are lessons that we should already have learned. One is about the need for independent media of our own. Too often we allow for-profit news services to influence us in subtle ways. Our news sources are the media arm of politicians and the wealthy and they reflect a very narrow spectrum of political ideas. This is a very old insight, one impressively demonstrated in Herman and Chomsky’s famous book “Manufacturing Consent” . We need to be able to provide counter-narratives to their claims and support independent media that adds our voices to the media circus.
Secondly, we need to rise above the bait of our bosses and politicians. It serves the interests of our rulers for working people to be divided over superficial nonsense like the building of a community center. It is when exploited, oppressed, and ruled people come together and actively resist their rulers that change starts to happen. Throughout history, the dispossessed have found common cause in fighting the people that ruled over us. But we have only done so when we were able to wake up from the deep sleep eagerly provided to us by the people who rule us and largely own and operate the globe.
Finally, we might use this particular media-generated hysteria to think about the ways that we might best intervene in our social world. The economy is in crisis, so we’re told (for our natural environment, for disappearing species, and for billions of people throughout the world living in hunger and privation capitalism is always a crisis), and while masses of people are being laid off and evicted from their homes around us, many of us are arguing over a community center. The fact that our rulers wield this kind of ideological power over us, even in a time like this, is cause for critical reflection. How is it that liberals and conservatives have so captured the public mind? Why are we seeing this hard turn toward xenophobia and Othering at this particular historical juncture? In what ways might we substantively address the cultural divide being forced onto people from above?
I don’t think we have adequate answers to those questions. But I do think that through struggle and study we can learn together to dispel some of these illusions that are peddled to us.
The myth of the “Ground Zero Mosque” and the Islamophobia that surrounds it are media-generated products of a state at war during campaign time. The myth represents some of the worst kinds of “Othering” associated with the hyper-patriotism that followed 9/11 in the United States. At a recent protest against the proposed center in New York City, protestors could be seen jeering, yelling at, and threatening one dark-skinned worker for being “Muslim”—even after he explained to these (largely white) protestors that he was not . The problems here are obvious. We need to be countering these media-generated myths.
1. See for example http://www.antiwar.com/lobe/?articleid=5931
2. http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Angry-protesters-descend-on-mosque-606515.php . Also, for another example of these “controversies” in Southern California see http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2012134,00.html
8. Video for this shameful incident can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwaNRWMN-F4&feature=player_embedded