The rise of anti-Muslim hate
By Deepa Kumar
International Socialist Review
FROM ATTACKS at mosques and mobilizations against proposed mosque sites, to physical attacks on Muslims and Koran burnings, racism in the United States against Muslims and Arabs has reached new heights in recent months.
At the center of this storm has been the proposal to build an Islamic community center called Cordoba House—recently renamed Park51—two blocks from “Ground Zero,” the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed on September 11, 2001. What began as a fairly non-controversial project, and one moreover that had the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other New York City politicians, turned into a grave affront to the victims of 9/11 within a matter of a few months.
The effort to brand the center as the “victory mosque” was led by far right-wing groups associated with the Tea Party movement. These forces along with sections of the Republican Party were so successful in setting the terms of debate that anywhere between 541 and 682 percent of Americans expressed opposition to the project at its proposed location.
The speed at which the campaign against the project was able to shift public opinion—in spite of the fact that the current building, the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory, has been used as a Muslim prayer center for two years, and is located two and a half long Manhattan blocks from the site of the Twin Towers, in a neighborhood which includes a strip club and an off-track betting office—is a strong indication of how politicians, the media, and popular culture have successfully demonized Muslims in the United States over the past several years.
Cordoba House: The beginnings
In 2009, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has served as a cleric in the downtown Manhattan area for over a quarter century, proposed the construction of a community center modeled on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and the 92nd Street Y. The goal of the center was to promote greater understanding of the Muslim community.
The name “Cordoba House” refers to the city of Cordoba in Spain, which during Europe’s “Dark Ages” was a leading cultural center of the Muslim empire that ruled the Iberian penninsula. Cordoba represented not only a high point of intellectual development, but also marked a period of peaceful co-existence among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Imam Rauf, who positions himself as a “moderate Muslim” (he gave training speeches for the FBI and the State Department after 9/11), envisioned a community center with recreation facilities like a swimming pool, basketball court, gym, a culinary school, art studios, a child care center, and badly needed prayer space for the Muslim community in downtown Manhattan. His vision was to enable people of all faiths to interact.
The project was so non-threatening that even Mayor Bloomberg gave his support to it, and when the controversy hit, defended it in a speech delivered on August 3 with the Statue of Liberty in the background.3 When the New York Times ran a front-page story in December 2009, the overall tone was positive. The Times quoted Feisal saying, “We want to push back against the extremists.”4 A mother of a 9/11 victim also publicly backed the Islamic center.5
The project was even applauded by right-wing Fox anchor Laura Ingraham. While Ingraham, in an interview with Cordoba House co-founder Daisy Khan in December 2009, could barely hold back her anti-Muslim prejudices, arguing that Muslim majority countries from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon are intolerant toward Christians, she nevertheless gave her support to Khan, saying, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it.… I like what you’re trying to do.”6
On May 6, 2010, the New York City Community Board voted unanimously to approve the project.
Enter Stop Islamization of America
As Salon reporter Justin Elliott has documented, the Cordoba House project did not begin to become controversial until May 2010.
In response to the Community Board’s decision, Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger, posted an entry titled, “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.” In it, she wrote, “This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem.” The next day her group, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), launched “Campaign Offensive: Stop the 911 Mosque!”7
Stop Islamization of America, premised on the notion that Muslims are conspiring to take over the United States, called a protest for May 29 against what Geller called the “911 Monster Mosque.”
Geller is a fan of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders (and the feeling is mutual, given his glowing blurb for the book she co-authored on the Obama presidency), and an admirer of open fascists and street gangs such as the English Defense League that routinely attack Muslims and immigrants. She once claimed that Black South Africans were launching a “genocide” against whites.8 A staunch Zionist, in an Israeli column she calls the term “Palestinian” “fallacious,” and she exhorted Israelis to, “Stand loud and proud. Give up nothing. Turn over not a pebble. For every rocket fired, drop a MOAB. Take back Gaza. Secure Judea and Samaria.”9
Subsequently, the New York Post ran articles that extensively quoted Geller and her vitriolic rhetoric. One article claimed falsely that Cordoba House’s opening date was set for September 11, 2011. This was the moment, Elliott suggests, when this story spread like wildfire, gaining media attention not only on Fox and other conservative outlets, but also the mainstream media.