A few days ago, I (along with Citizen Radio co-host Jamie Kilstein) debated a pair of Conservatives at a show run by comedian Scott Blakeman. The contentious topic of discussion was - surprise, surprise - the Cordoba House. The Conservatives' reoccurring claim was that Ground Zero is hallowed ground - a familiar talking point to anyone who has been following the news.
Of course, I pointed out that the Cordoba House is not a mosque - it's actually a cultural center - more like a YMCA, and that it's not at Ground Zero. The Cordoba House would be located in Lower Manhattan where there are already two other mosques. But these facts didn't really make a dent. The Conservatives kept coming back to this claim that Lower Manhattan - all of it, not just Ground Zero - is somehow "hallowed ground."
This mock piety is really a cover for Islamophobia. Time and again, the Conservatives reiterated that Islam is a radical, violent religion, and they kept asking where the moderate Muslims were to protest the extremist behavior displayed on 9/11. Ironically, the group proposing the Cordoba house is one of the moderate groups. The community center would have invited people of all races and religions to use their facilities - something radical extremists frown upon.
And there are lots of moderate Muslim groups. To name only a few: the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute Farid Ghadry, Reform Party of Syria Manda Zand Ervin, Alliance of Iranian Women, The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, Arab Reformists Project, American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and Inter-Religious Affairs for the Islamic Supreme Council of America. These groups met last year with Rep. Sue Myrick for the expressed purpose of "stamping out extremism" in their communities and around the world.
But despite the existence of these groups, the Conservatives kept demanding a Million Muslim March upon the White House to prove their devotion to the U. S. of A. I suggested a purity test. They didn't seem amused. I asked what the quota of "Good Muslims" is - the magical number of moderate groups it would take to soothe their nerves. Again, they didn't seem to have a specific number in mind.
And that's because this isn't about having enough moderates, or about hallowed ground. This is really about those people setting up shop in our country. Plans for a mosque in Florence, Kentucky drew criticism because it's only 654 miles from Ground Zero...or something. An anonymous flier is being distributed in the city which reads, "Americans need to stop the takeover of our country." Apparently, the takeover is going to begin with the renovation of an old Hollywood Videos.
This kind of open xenophobia is exactly how unwitting paranoids push moderates into extremism. Some counterterrorism experts are now expressing concern that the anti-Muslim sentiment on airwaves and blogs over Cordoba is "playing into the hands of extremists by bolstering their claims that the United States is hostile to Islam."
Indeed, America is extremely hostile - not only to Islam - but to anyone who gives off the air of being exotic, or different. Nearly one in five Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. At the very least, they know he looks different, and they don't like him, so he must be an other - something foreigny. As Adam Serwer put it the other day, "In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word."
In lieu of the N-word, bigots now exploit politicians' fear of being labeled a Muslim-lover to fully explore their radical beliefs, namely that Muslims don't belong anywhere in the United States- not just at Ground Zero, but also in Kentucky, Tennessee, California, Wisconsin, or wherever those dirty foreigners plan on living and worshipping.
The hatred doesn't really stop at Muslims, either. Xenophobia is really a convenient cover for a deeper bigotry. Just examine this encounter during a mosque protest.
At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.
"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.
"Get out," others shouted.
In fact, the two men - Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry -- were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.
"I'm a Christian," Nassralla shouted to the crowd, his eyes bulging and beads of sweat rolling down his face.
But it was no use. The protesters had become so angry at what they thought were Muslims that New York City police officers had to rush in and pull Nassralla and El Masry to safety.
"I flew nine hours in an airplane to come here," a frustrated Nassralla said afterward.
Christian, sure. But that brown skin screams, "One of them...one of them.." That's the danger of tribalism. Once extremists are given permission to stoke their irrational hatred, the target of their fury jumps all over the place - from Muslims, to moderate Muslims, to anyone Middle Eastern-looking, to anyone with dark pigmentation.
In the same way the 9/11 hijackers incorrectly lumped all the employees of the WTC in with the American government, so these US-grown bigots now lump all Muslims together with violent extremists. These things tend to happen during chaotic and distressing times, but it's up to rational citizens to step in and say that this hatred is poisonous to democracy.
Conservatives keep asking: Where are the moderate Muslims? I want to know: where are the moderate Americans? (Not counting the moderate Muslim-Americans who have been screaming to the rafters about this.) Furthermore, where are the politicians who will finally stand up to this right-wing extremism and bigotry and say, "Enough"?
That's what's so infuriating about watching people like Howard Dean, Anthony Weiner, and unsurprisingly, Harry Reid, cower in the presence of this vicious anti-Muslim sentiment. These are supposed to be the rational, reasonable politicians we elect to keep their cool in hostile times, so they don't allow the mob to turn against a convenient scapegoat and sacrifice the First Amendment during the feeding frenzy.
I remember how pundits kept remarking in the months after 9/11 how remarkable it was that there wasn't any Muslim-bashing in the streets. It appears now that there was a lot of latent hostility out there, but we had a white president, who told his base to cool it, and that those Muslim critters were okay by him. President Bush visited mosques on many occasions, and he was the first president to use the word "mosque" in a speech. President Obama has yet to visit a mosque.
I'm sure there are plenty of savvy strategists out there telling the president that visiting a mosque is a super bad idea because 1 in 5 Americans think he's Muslim (I'd love to get a number on how many think he's the anti-Christ.) But cowering to these hate-filled people hasn't worker, either. Not only has it not worked, but that strategy is destroying the work done to bridge the divide between moderate Muslims and the west.
While I'm aware the lady with wild hair, crazy eyes, and the sign about Obama being a Mooslim probably won't be swayed by reasoned debate, I know someone like President Obama understands what's at stake in all of this. If moderate Muslims are alienated, and pushed into the margins of society, then it follows that a handful will be lost to extremism. The events of 9/11 were pulled off by 19 hijackers. How many otherwise innocuous individuals are being radicalized by the new Jim Crow treatment?