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Analysis of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy

avril 16, 2012

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Joy Behar : Let me start with you Pam. Why are you so against the center? 

Pamela Geller : I’m against the mosque at Ground Zero. We feel it is intolerant. It is insensitive to the families and to America that was attacked on 9/11. We feel it would be more appropriate maybe to build a center dedicated to expunging the Koranic texts of the violent ideology that inspired jihad, or perhaps a center to the victims of hundreds of millions of years of Jihadi wars, land enslavements, cultural annihilations and mass slaughter. 

Joy Behar : I understand that it’s not exactly a mosque. It’s a community center, right, Daisy? 

Daisy Khan : Yes, it’s a community center with a prayer space inside.

Joy Behar : With a prayer space.

Pamela Geller : A prayer space is a mosque. It’s a mosque.

Dialogue taken from the Joy Behar Show, shown on CNN the 26 May 2010.

In December of 2009, the New York Times officially announced a plan to build a Muslim Community center in Lower Manhattan. The project was drawn up by Faycal Adul Rauf, Imam and community leader, his spouse Daisy Khan and Sharif Al-Gamal, a real estate investor. The proposed location for the center was to be a old Burlington Coat Factory store on Park Street, a few short steps from the site of the September 11 attacks. This project went largely unnoticed until May 2010, when the file was examined and approved by the local Community Board, a decision which inevitably garnered attention. Indeed, official approval meant construction would soon begin. A media campaign followed the news and reached it peak in the summer of 2010.

A shower of articles, features in the press, individual and collective reactions, often on blogs, showed that everyone had something to say about what was immediately labeled the “Ground Zero mosque.” Initially baptized the « Cordoba House, » the center partially opened its doors in September 2011 and has been operational since, in a area located at 51 Park Street – renamed « Park 51. »

Reactions following the Community Board’s approval were massive. Yet opponents to Park 51 seemed to reject far more than the project itself.

« This controversy began as a result of some politicians, who decided to use this for certain political purposes. » Faysal Abdul Rauf

All public reactions to the project, numerous and varied, were directly linked to 9/11. The center is indeed located a few blocks from Ground Zero, but the relationship between the two is based on a constitutive fallacy : Park 51 was initially presented as being a mosque – which is false. It does include a prayer room, but it no way does that make it a full-fledged mosque. As is the case with most Community Centers, this service is one of many provided to the local community, and Park 51 also offers cooking and Arabic calligraphy classes, sports, and small exhibitions are regularly organized there.

The vocabulary associated with the project references Islam and Ground Zero, firmly establishing Park 51 in the symbolic, emotional and  controversial domain. Not surprisingly, this symbolic capital expresses itself through the divers monickers given to the project : « Ground Zero Mosque », « Victory Mosque », etc..

Two debates were thus initiated. The first references the collective memory of 9/11. Opponents to the project all agree that it would be morally reprehensible to establish a site of Muslim complexion so close to where the World Trade Center once was. Such an assessment is based upon an implicit, but common, confusion of Islam with terrorism. Those who defend this idea can be divided into two groups. In the first group, there are those who lost loved ones in the attack, still in the process of mourning, who do not condemn the project in itself. They tend to focus more on its timing, arguing that is still « too soon » to carry out such an endeavor, and that is therefore inappropriate. This type of reasoning shows that, a full decade after the attacks, 9/11 is still an open wound, and its memory is even now being formulated. The second group is less concerned with the timing than it is with the Islamic character of the project. It is therefore the Center in and of itself that is rejected, because it is, in their opinion, essentially insulting and provocative, some sort of victory mosque taunting the victims of 9/11 and Americans in general. Because of the nature these reactions, the debate has taken on aspects that are confusing at best, and at worst, can be accused of stereotyping. The question that animated the initial discussion concerned principally the legitimacy of Park 51. But a shift has taken place, and the debate now seems to be more about Islam, its freedom inhibiting nature and the potential threat it poses to the United States, with Huntington’s « clash of civilization » and other recently popular truisms in the background. In other words, a new « Muslim question » has been fabricated, and September 11th is its underlying component. The group Stop ! Islamization of America, founded by activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, is a good example of the intense politicization of the debate – and might remind some the French Bloc Identitaire.

This second category of opponents is more politically and socially assorted than one might think. It does count many Republican and Tea Party activists in its ranks, but also includes many « average » Americans, with no stable voting record and unaffiliated with any political party. Being essentially composed of “angry white men” disappointed with the Obama presidency, this group feels left behind by the supposed preferential treatment given to minorities by the president’s policies. The context of these reactions to Park 51 and, more generally, of public discourse on Islam, is therefore a return to “whiteness”.

Clash between pro- and anti-Park 51 activists

The project, and the often excessive reactions that it has provoked, can tell us a number of things about the evolution of the Muslim American community since 9/11. As we have seen, Park 51 has crystallized the uneasiness affecting relations between Muslim Americans and their fellow citizens.

An atmosphere of suspicion has developed in regard to Muslim Americans in general, and more specifically Arab Americans, following the intense racial profiling they have been subjected to in the name of the War on Terror, the Patriot Act of October 2001 being the most famous measure.

This distrust has been expressed through the physical and verbal aggression of individuals or shops run by Arabs or Muslims. But it is primarily the media (print, radio and television – especially Fox news) who have been relaying this suspicion. They have become the nearly exclusive forum for anti-Muslim prejudice. In a country where the media have significant power (Fourth Estate), this is not without importance. Indeed, it explains in part the verve of the opposition to Park 51 and also the orientation of the debate towards the « Muslim question » mentioned above.

Arab Americans are the primary target of this discrimination and are often victims of the equation « Arab = Muslim = terrorist », widespread in the United States. This is astonishing on many levels.

To begin with, the initial wave of Arab immigrants, starting in the 1880’s, was predominantly Christian, arriving in North America from the Near East. Many are of course Muslim, but their numbers only increased after the second wave of immigration, immediately after the World War Two. This tendency to confuse Arabs with Muslims can perhaps be tied to the specifically American habit of ethnicizing its groups. It can also be explained by American policy in the Middle East, which, to a large extent, is the only contact many Americans have with the Muslim world. Muslims are thus more or less directly associated with Middle Easterners in the US. Yet, the Muslim community is characterized by its ethnic diversity, and includes African Americans, North African and Near Eastern Arabs and Asians. This ethnic diversity is expressed through a diversity of interest within the community.

« There is no moderate Islam (…), there are different degrees of fundamentalism, but fundamentalism is Islam. » Pamela Geller.

Anti-Arab and Muslim sentiment in the US dates back to the 1970’s. During 1973 oil crisis, Arabs were presented to Americans as rich potentates and backward « sheiks, » jealously guarding their oil and denying Americans an important resource. This is also when the « three B syndrome » was first observed, each B referencing available stereotypes. From then on, Arabs were presented as one of three types : the Bomber, the Belly dancer or the Billionaire. Since September 11, the figure of the Bomber has supplanted all the others.

The sense of Park 51, and its identity, can thus be legitimately questioned. What does the project mean to the Muslim community ? And how do its leaders articulate the question of collective memory in regard to 9/11 ?

Park 51 can be seen as springboard towards a form of integration. The Muslim American community’s biggest problem is not its socio-economic integration, which is largely positive, but rather its « symbolic » integration. The project can also be understood as a way of renewing a  Muslim-American identity, which can begin with the appropriation of the memory of 9/11. However, the community leaders are divided on the question. Their opinions were made public at the end of 2010. On one side, Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan see the Center as a way for the Muslim community to contribute to the formation of the collective memory and commemoration of 9/11. The idea is that Muslims were also affected by the attacks, that they also lost loved ones, and, as American citizens, it is their right and duty to mourn with their fellow citizens. On the other side of the debate, Sharif Al-Gamal has decided to disassociate the Center from 9/11. He prefers to see Park 51 as purely local initiative, a Community Center in the traditional sense, that, above all else, serves the surrounding neighborhood.

In this sense, the model used for Park 51 was the Jewish Community Center, the archetype for all Community Centers. But there is more to it than that. Taking the Jewish Community Center as a model shows a conscious identification with an immigrant community that has succeeded in putting down roots and making a place for itself in the social and political arena. To do this, the Jewish community has stood together and set up solid institutions. This assessment seems to point to new Muslim American awareness of the challenges that await them.

One of these challenges will be organizing the community. In order to make a difference, politically or socially, a veritable community with common interests must be established. The very status of “community” must be in constant negotiation. And yet, this is exactly what the Muslim American community lacks. Its ethnic diversity expresses itself in a diversity of contradictory interests. Black Muslims, for example, tend to focus on the rights of African Americans, whereas Arab Muslim focus on American policy in the Middle East.

Also, a renewed and well-managed identity is in order, stemming from a younger and more secular leadership. Men such as Sharif Al-Gamal are needed, who are not a religious leaders, but citizens and entrepreneurs. A leadership more accustomed to American values, born and raised in the United States. This renewed identity will also be born of a renewed image of Islam and Muslims. As this image needs be relayed to the general population, the Park 51 leadership insists on the very necessary educational aspects of the project.

By Sirine Mechbal. 

Translated from French by Evan Fisher.



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