September 20, 2010

No grounds for “Ground Zero” debate

Discussion of the NYC Islamic center has set new lows for prejudice, pandering

We have come to a low point in the history of Muslim and non-Muslim relations in America. The foolish, demagogic arguments trotted out by opponents of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—actually a Muslim community center—are based on bigoted and disturbing assumptions that people rarely question or challenge.

Worse yet is how frightfully effective those arguments are, how they have succeeded in appealing to people’s basest emotions and prejudices, and how people who know better have, with a few notable exceptions, failed to adequately challenge and refute the nonsense spewed by opponents of Park51.

In the eyes of Park51 opponents, it is insensitive to build a “mosque” so close to Ground Zero. But one has to wonder, why is this insensitive? The only way one can get so angry over Park51 is if he or she accepts various offensive and bigoted assumptions about Muslims as a whole. Nevertheless, opponents of Park51, who would never admit to being prejudiced, will argue that it is just obviously offensive to build the mosque, simply because “we were attacked by Muslims on 9/11.”

This argument is almost comically fallacious; the World Trade Center was attacked by Muslims, but to suggest that any overlap exists between those Muslims and the ones likely to make use of Park51 is clearly bigoted. Such a claim takes the views of a small, extreme minority and applies them to all the followers of the world’s second largest religion.

It would, of course, be incredibly insensitive if one was planning on building a statue of Osama bin Laden a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. But how can a mosque possibly be offensive unless its opponents want to admit that, in their eyes, there is no diversity in the Islamic world, and for them all Muslims are either terrorists or supporters of terrorism? The opponents of Park51 are assuming that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center speak for the entire Muslim world. It’s patently clear that this is not the case, and yet this pathetic controversy continues.

Yet what’s really disgusting about this so-called issue is the sheer number of politicians who are unwilling to take a stand and condemn the opponents of the mosque. Numerous important figures in the Republican Party, from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty to Mitt Romney, have criticized Park51 for its supposed insensitivity. And this, frankly, is terrifying.

All of these people stand a chance of becoming the next President of the United States; if they lack the courage to stand up for what’s right in this instance and explain to their supporters that the terrorists behind September 11 have nothing to do with the people who will use Park51, then they lack the moral backbone that genuine leadership requires.

One can’t let Democrats off the hook either. Plenty of Democratic Party leaders, like Howard Dean and David Paterson, have also argued that the Park51 project is insensitive and should be moved. Many of those who haven’t, like President Obama, have made fairly uncontroversial points about why the construction of the mosque is constitutionally protected.

The question in this country should never be whether Muslims have the legal right to a mosque near Ground Zero; that people have felt the need to argue this point is beyond depressing. But our few slightly more courageous politicians should not have stopped there. They should have proclaimed loudly and clearly that Park51 is not only constitutional, but also neither insensitive nor offensive. That would have been a claim worthy of a politician with a moral backbone, and the fact that President Obama was unwilling to make it is disappointing.

One understands, of course, that such an argument would have been politically unwise. It’s obvious that the “controversy” is a big deal only because this is an election year and Democrats don’t want to risk getting trounced even worse than current projections indicate. I understand this reasoning, but I cannot support it. With relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in a terrible situation, what this country needs is a major politician who will stand and condemn the bigotry Muslims continue to face.

I don’t blame the families of September 11 victims who oppose the project. I understand their pain, and while I disagree vehemently that the mosque is offensive, I can at least see the origin of their feelings and understand that many people would feel similarly if they had lost loved ones on September 11.

My anger is reserved for the activists and politicians who, concerned only with political success, have trotted out offensive arguments against the mosque. I’m most disappointed in the John McCains of the world—the people who ought to know better, and probably do, but still opt to appeal to people’s basest emotions because this is an election year.

In the same way that those who preach “death to America” and advocate terrorism do not speak for all Muslims, those who oppose the building of Park51 and try to block the construction of mosques all over the country don’t speak for me. And I continue to hold out hope that, some day soon, thinking politicians across this country—Democrat and Republican—will take a stand against prejudice, not out of calculations regarding electoral success, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

—Peter Ianakiev is a third-year in the college majoring in Political Science.