Why the “Ground Zero Mosque” is the election’s hottest non-issues
By Merdina Ljekperic
Lower Manhattan is made up of not just Wall Street, but stores, churches, mosques, temples, bars, clubs, McDonald’s and just about anything you can think of. So, whether or not Muslims want to pray in a former Burlington Coat Factory, just another one of these buildings that lines the streets of New York City, is a non-issue.
The debate surrounding the proposed Islamic cultural center, or Park51, should not be focused on taking sides, but rather on asking why it is happening in the first place. The greater problem that must be addressed is the growing acceptance of vitriolic intolerance in the American public that has allowed the Park51 debate to blow out of proportion.
Particularly since the election of this nation’s first black president, racism and religious intolerance have stepped out of the shadows and into the public sentiment. There is no better evidence than the fact that a third of this country still thinks Obama is Muslim and, furthermore, uses the term as a slur itself.
The Park51 cultural center has really no significance in and of itself, but the issue cannot be written off because of the greater schism in the American public that gave it that national stage it never deserved. Our real problem is the growing American psyche and political faction that equates intolerance with patriotism. It’s not just the extremists. It’s not veiled. It’s in the public. It’s in the media. It’s accepted. And that’s downright terrifying.
Ithaca College professor Asma Barlas said she was far from surprised by the backlash.
“This sort of suspicion, often hatred, for the other has been around for a very long time,” she said. “It’s just that the other keeps changing. … The sentiments that are being expressed under the guise of patriotism and concern for U.S. citizens is actually exemplifying the worst historical tendencies.”
We cannot ignore what message this debate sends to the rest of the world. For that small group of Islamic extremists, there will be no greater achievement than stripping America of its core fundamental values from our very constitution. There will be no greater success than cementing the war they strive to create between the West and the Islamic world.
We cannot defeat extremism through isolation. Extremists rely on isolation. It is when you ostracize someone, when you hate them, when you make them feel unwelcome, when you destroy any hope they have to find solace and a home, that you turn them to extremists who blind them with lies and false promises.
The media have framed it as the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue when in reality, it’s a non-issue of a non-mosque not on Ground Zero. It is only an issue because outspoken intolerance, fueled by the right-wing Tea Party, is far from a fringe position, but a contender in the political climate. It’s a concern not just because of anti-Islamic sentiment, but fanatical distrust, bigotry and one-dimensional stereotypes against all minority groups. It’s disconcerting because it’s creating a false American dichotomy of “You’re either with us or against us.” You are either a good, patriotic American or you are, simply put, evil.
“I think it is about intolerance in the United States of America,” Barlas said. “For me, to frame it as a discussion about Islam and Muslims is really a red herring. By giving advice to people on one side, it’s like I’m really ignoring the storm in the tea cup by the Tea Partiers that needs to be dealt with not by advising Imam Rauf, but by advising [the Tea Party].”
The media have also completely botched the coverage of the issue, only fanning this very insignificant flame. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is possibly the only media program that has correctly framed the issue—not calling it “The Ground Zero Mosque” or the “9/11 Mosque,” but rather as the “Mosquerade.” It has been just that: an easy distraction from the real issues facing this country, like the two wars overseas, the widening gap between the rich and poor, the lack of jobs, health care and more.
Professor Barlas referred to the historian T.J. Jackson Lears when she said that it is “the tendency of public discourse to make certain things readily available to conscious while ignoring or suppressing others.” Park51 has not been on the forefront of all news stories because of its significance, but because it’s a juicy story, conveniently situated near midterm elections, that feeds into the outcry of intolerance in this country.
Despite all concerns, there might be some good than can result from this “Mosquerade.” As a society, we have grown accustomed to pushing any issues we’re afraid to talk about under the rug. This only creates a vicious circle because we cannot hash out these major issues until they are brought into the public eye and into the national discourse.
Well, now it seems as if the issues we’ve decided to ignore are growing bigger than the rug we tried to hide them under. We must learn to be comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics in order to find a resolution. By allowing this baseless, racist and intolerant sentiment to creep out from under the surface, we can address it, attack it and hope that it will soon crumble.
Merdina Ljekperic is a sophomore journalism and politics major who attends weekly services at her local Burlington Coat Factory. E-mail her at [email protected].