Using a mosque to prey on U.S. fears

People like to hear they’re right to worry. There will always be politicians willing to tell them that.

Mark Peterson/Redux

There are, by one count, 23 mosques in Manhattan. Four are south of Canal Street, in Lower Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the two closest to the site of the former World Trade Center have become snug fits for their worshippers in recent years as Manhattan’s Muslim community grows. People who want to pray are routinely turned away.

So if we were talking about, say, sporting-goods stores, the case for a new one would be pretty clear. Such things are not unheard of in the neighbourhood. There is a demand for more of them. So make some more.

But of course we’re not talking about a retail outlet. We’re talking about a proposed community centre, which would contain a mosque, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site.

Sarah Palin, who will run for president the next time she gets a chance, made a few false starts on Twitter before she came up with a minimally coherent case against the centre, which would be called Park51. “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate,” she wrote, and then “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.”

However high Palin set the bar with those sorties, other opponents of the project have not managed to live up to her standards. Newt Gingrich, who may run for president the next time he gets a chance, had this to say: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.”

Criticizing the chain of logic that brought Gingrich to that comment would just give logic a bad name. Sept. 11 was like the Holocaust? All Muslims are like the 9/11 murderers? Really?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped up with a plainspoken defence of Muslim New Yorkers’ right to do what New Yorkers of any faith can do. “Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

Barack Obama did the same, nearly two weeks later. Then he stomped on his message the next day, claiming that defending the right to a mosque did not mean endorsing the mosque. He might as well have saved his breath: within days Rick Scott, a Republican candidate for governor of Florida, was running ads calling the project “Obama’s Mosque.” Because he prays there. Because he’s Muslim.

Because he hates America. Get it?

Anyway, there’s not much point debating the details of the Park51 proposal. Part of the complex would be called “Cordoba House.” Is the reference to Cordoba a bloodthirsty vow to take Spain back from the Christian crusaders? Or an evocation of a golden era of relative concord among Muslims, Christians and Jews that lasted for centuries? The latter, I say. But I doubt I’ll change Newt Gingrich’s mind.

What’s worth saying is that the project stirs deep fears, including among people who are hard to write off as bigots. People have questions about the project, and simple answers aren’t always persuasive. (Why now? “Now” is nearly a decade after 9/11; just because the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation can’t get on with the rest of its life doesn’t mean the rest of the neighbourhood shouldn’t. Why there? Because these people live there. Not persuaded? Oh well. I tried.)

Deep fear that resists easy answers is, of course, catnip for politicians. People like to hear they’re right to worry. There will always be politicians willing to tell them that. But if any of them feel like showing a little responsibility, they should spare some thoughts about consequences.

That mosque is going to get built. The others that dot Manhattan and the rest of America are not going away. The people in them will continue to meet and worship. There may be some among them who wish their neighbours harm, but most don’t. No good can come from blanket assertions that the whole lot of them are a threat to the community.

As for Muslims, so for others. The Harper government had a genuine problem thrown in its lap when the MV Sun Sea landed on the B.C. coast earlier this week with 490 Tamil passengers. Their claims to refugee status can’t be taken at face value. They will have to be investigated. And queue-jumping shouldn’t be rewarded. Throughout the drama, the Harper government has made an effort to be responsible. This reflects, in part, the difference between the burden of government and the fabulous gravity-free romp that is Republicanism in the Obama era.

But the Harper government’s fondness for looking tough persists. Here too, they’d do well to consider consequences. There are already a quarter of a million Tamils in Canada. The situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka is so hellish that Harper’s own government accepts 85 per cent of proper Tamil refugee claimants. A few addled editorialists may have the right to pretend all Tamils are terrorists. The Harper government doesn’t. Once the crisis of the moment passes, we will all still need to get along.

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