Ahab asked the following: "What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Cordoba House (which right-wingers have christened 'the Ground Zero Mosque') in New York City?"
An excellent question, and I am happy to answer. First, some disclaimers. I live in New York City (Queens). I was at the Trade Center on 9/11. I am an atheist. I am a liberal Democrat. I am an ACLU member. I like freedom.
The controversy over a planned cultural center-- the Park 51 project, aka Cordoba House-- run by Muslims in downtown Manhattan is one of the most disgusting displays of jingoism we have seen in America in some time. It involves several horrible themes... general mob mentality, the idea that the First Amendment applies less when its specific execution makes people uncomfortable ("Everybody knows America's built on the rights of free expression, the rights to practice your faith, but come on", states GOP House bigshot Eric Cantor), and, of course, post-9/11 Islamaphobia (fueled by the idea that all Muslims bear some connection to, or responsibility for, those attacks). Americans believed/hoped that such sentiments would wash away with the end of the Bush-era, and that an Obama presidency would automatically mean improved relations between us and the Middle East, and this controversy is a reminder that nothing comes easy, and that we still have a way to go.
As an aside, kudos to the Republicans who have stood up against this faux-outrage-- Joe Scarborough, a few former Bush staffers, etc-- and a big thumbs down to the top Democrats too cowardly in an election year to say or do the right thing.
To me, the key thing to this whole debate is how much of it is built on a series of lies and distortions. The so-called "Ground Zero" "mosque" is neither... merely a community center (with Jews and Christians on its board... how many Christian or Jewish groups can say similar?), several blocks away from the site, on the site of an old Burlington Coat Factory. It is no more a "mosque" than a YMCA would be a church if it had a prayer room. Not that it should matter if it were a mosque, of course. There is, of course, already a mosque within blocks of Ground Zero, which predates the World Trade Center-- as well as all of this, closer to the right-wing's favorite
Moreover, there was no real, widespread controversy over the center until it was created in the same way that ACORN temporarily became America's greatest villain last year (and here's some facts on that). Last December, for instance, right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham-- no moderate-- interviewed the Imam's wife on Fox News. The two had a genuinely civil back and forth. "I can't find many people who really have a problem with it," Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, "I like what you're trying to do." That is, of course, until the crazies got their hand on the issue.
The credit for this whole hysteria largely can be traced back to one woman... Pam Geller. Who is Pam Geller? She is one of the right's biggest Islamaphobes and has been staging stunts like this for years. A conspiracy theorist and a racist (don't take my word on that... click the previous link, and make up your own mind), she sees creeping Sharia law in every shadow she comes across. She took her anger at the project and, over the course of 2010 turned it into a national issue, with help from outlets like the NY Post/Fox News and folks like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Behold the birth of a scandal.
The right, of course, not only will not acknowledge that, but has tried to paint their opposition to the project as being merely rooted in respect for the memories of those killed at the Trade Center site on 9/11. It's not about Islam or mosques, they say, but merely about the location and its sacredness (how they get away even with that much without admitting that they equate all Muslims with 9/11 is beyond me). I came across an article by Pat Sajak (a far-right conservative in real life), for instance, defending the anti-Cordoba attacks, stating that he hasn't "heard any mainstream suggestions that mosques shouldn’t be allowed to be built. This... is a location-specific issue". That, of course, is total BS. A few outlets-- including NYC's own The Daily Show-- have compiled news reports from around the country, from Staten Island to Kentucky to California, of mosques being protested because of their... well, being mosques. This has nothing to do with location, other than the location here giving opposition to this particular building extra emotional punch to the protesters.
(Still think it's not about race/religion? Watch what happens a Puerto Rican, a worker at the Ground Zero site, gets mistaken for a Muslim at a protest this past weekend. Such odd behavior from a group of people supposedly concerned with sensitivity.)
This is not an abberation, of course. Even ignoring larger history, the GOP just in the recent past has a record of taking insane memes and going mainstream... freedom fries, Terri Schiavo, death panels, etc. American politics is often enslaved to whatever made-up emergency the right has zeroed in on.
The right, of course, will happily note that polls are on their side on this issue. That part, for the record, is true (ignoring, of course, the other polls showing people who actually live in Manhattan are overwhelmingly supportive of the project). But should that matter? Do we put freedom up to a vote in America? Anti-Prop 8 lawyer Ted Olson asked Fox News' Chris Wallace, who was citing the CA voters' opposition to gay marriage as being disrespected by that recent court ruling, "Would you like Fox’s right to free press put up to a vote and say well, if five states approved it, let’s wait till the other 45 states do?" No one at Fox, of course, would ever agree to that. These rights are called "inalienable" for a reason... no matter how angry or uncomfortable the execution of those rights make certain people (including, at times, myself).
So much of me wishes that I-- and everyone else-- could ignore this hysteria. After all, America right now faces real problems-- an economy ravaged by years of short-sighted activities, wars that don't want to end, climate change, outdated infrastructure, etc-- and it hurts all of us when our political system hits the pause button to debate a controversy that ultimately affects no one. But this issue is a test on freedom and tolerance in America in the 21st century, and that does matter. Right now, we are failing that test. And that's worth paying attention to, and worth standing up for.