Sunday, August 15, 2010

Let's pop this hate balloon

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:

"We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights -- and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked."

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:

"Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America ... each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government. Each one is a potential jihadist recruitment and training center ..."

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:

"It's not us versus a series of interconnected terrorist networks which are relatively small but episodically quite lethal. It's us, the white Christians and our Jewish junior partner sidekicks versus the brown Muslim people. (If you're keeping score at home, let's call it the Judeo-Christians -white jerseys- vs. the Muslims -brown jerseys.) ...heck, the Holy War is still on. ...I think it is the mindset. Because only in that mode does it make sense that American Muslims building a community center near the site of a terrorist attack from a decade ago constitutes such an outrage."

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:

"As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."

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.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

You are right that the economy makes it a ripe medium for hate mongers. The Great Depression brought forth the popularity of Father Coughlen and Amy Semple McPherson. Another downturn gave Joe McCarthy power.

During hard times people look for a scapegoat and that's why we have the rise of the hate mongers.

More people need to speak out against this malevolent trend. You make that point well.