This post which I labored on much of Friday went out to the WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras email list yesterday. You can join this low volume, quality content list at the link.
The right in the U.S. thrives on launching "hate balloons" -- wacko claims such as "President Obama is not a citizen," or "Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod is a racist." The list of these eruptions seems never ending. Sometimes, as in the first example, these fables gain traction among a minority of citizens but fail to capture the mainstream; some, like the second, blow up in the faces of their proponents.
Unhappily, one of the right's current hate campaigns has ignited a fire. This is the notion that Muslims are crowing over the 9/11 terror attacks by planning to build a "Ground Zero Mosque" two blocks (600 feet) from the Manhattan site where the World Trade Center stood. A poll on August 11 showed 68 percent opposed to the proposed Park51-Cordoba House, which would serve as an Islamic community center, including meeting rooms and fitness facilities, as well as a prayer space. Interestingly, Manhattan residents favored the project; opposition seems to increase with distance from the city.
The opposition has been fueled by the usual array of right wing media (Fox News; the Weekly Standard) and its usual mouthpieces (Sarah Palin; Newt Gingrich; Rudi Giuliani) with assists from mealy mouthed politicians of both parties with their fingers in the wind and from some relatives of 9/11 victims for whom Lower Manhattan is a kind of sacred ground.
Casting remembrance of the victims of 9/11 in a different light, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke up for keeping government out of decisions about who gets to practice their religion -- and so in support of the project:
As of now, there is no legal impediment to the building's sponsors going ahead if they can raise the money.
Because this fight over a mosque is happening near Ground Zero in the nation's media capital, it has commanded mainstream attention. But similar efforts to block or harass Muslim institutions are going on all over the country: nearby on Staten Island, where the Catholic Church backed out of selling an empty convent to a mosque; in the suburbs of Chicago; in Murfeesboro, Tennessee where Republican candidates for office have made preventing the building of a mosque one of their talking points; in Riverside, California where opponents planned to intimidate Muslim worshippers with dogs; in Florence, Kentucky ; in Bridgeport, Connecticut where conservative Christian protesters have traveled all the way from Texas to incite religious harassment of Muslims. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a right wing outfit more commonly known for opposing women's and gay rights, took the argument to its logical conclusion:
Why is this particular right wing hate balloon so attractive and what are its special dangers? Too many people in the United States are living with shapeless fears and welcome having a visible local enemy to fight, one they might even be able to triumph over. The economy promises no prosperous future for most folks. Wars overseas drag on inconclusively. The government proved helpless to prevent or stop a huge oil spill. There are more and more Black and brown people around, even a Black president. Some of these strangers are probably "illegal" immigrants, come to steal the country. Muslims as enemies present a three-fer: religiously suspect, dark, and foreign.
This convenient outlet for a variety of frustrations provides a perfect stage for the "clash of civilizations" story, which much of the right has pushed for a decade. If the story really takes hold in the public imagination this time, the country is in big trouble. Josh Marshall at TPM took a shot at describing the mindset this hate balloon aims to institutionalize:
If most people in the United States fully internalize what Marshall calls "the Holy War," we can forget religious liberty, ever getting U.S. troops out of the Middle East, and as horrors mount, meaningful democracy under universally applicable laws. We're not there yet, but successful hate balloons move us closer.
UPDATE: Nice to be on the same page as the President on this. On Friday Obama chimed in:
What can progressives do while this toxic brew festers? Some thoughts:
- Other faith communities that value their own free exercise of religion need to be in the forefront of defending Muslims' religious freedoms. Anyone can learn more about the struggles of U.S. Muslims by subscribing to the mailing list of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
- Political leaders need to step up and join Mayor Bloomberg in telling people to calm down. Their constituents need to remind them of that leadership responsibility.
- The peace movement needs to continue and step up its efforts. The public has become disillusioned with the wars, but doesn't see closure ahead. Until we end the shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the apparently endless “war on terror” that began with a criminal act at Ground Zero will still grind on.