The Cordoba Initiative and Islamophobia
This is a guest post by Negah Rahmani, the writer can be contacted here.
The recent debate over the Cordoba Initiative, or ‘The Ground Zero Mosque’ as it is more popularly known has become yet another ‘with us or against us’ style argument in America. The proposed Islamic cultural centre two blocks from the Ground Zero site has led to heated debates, rallies and political ramifications. What started out as a simple question about the appropriateness of the proposed location has brought to light a multitude of issues and deep-seated racial and religious tensions.
Firstly, if you conduct a very basic Google search with the keywords of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ a total of 59,900,000 hits come up. The keywords of ‘Cordoba Initiative’ bring up 3,670,000 hits. The difference is immense. Even more so if you take into consideration that the proposed project is not a mosque but a cultural centre and it is not actually on Ground Zero. The Cordoba Initiative proposes to build a centre to enhance Muslim-West and interfaith relations in America and a mosque already exists close to the site. This trend of inaccurate reference to the project has sensationalised and polarised the entire debate leaving little room for meaningful discussion. Under these circumstances people have two sides to choose from with almost no middle ground.
The initial anti-mosque sentiment has now led to a spate of anti-Islamic rhetoric across America. At the forefront of this movement has been the group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) headed by Pamela Geller. The group has been a major force in the organisation of rallies against the construction of the centre. SIAO claims to be a human rights organisation fighting for religious liberty and individual rights. Besides being a major force behind the anti-mosque movement SIAO has launched campaigns to further their cause. Their recent ad campaign on a fleet of taxis and buses refers Muslims to LeaveislamSafely.com, a SIAO webpage detailing how Muslims (it is targeted at young Muslims, especially girls) can safely leave their faith. The organisation seems to be advocating to stop Islam taking over the US and is frantically trying to stop Sharia Law from coming into effect in the US judicial system.
Besides SIAO’s organised, and seemingly well-financed, anti-Islam campaign, other groups and individuals have also used the mosque debate to express anti-Islamic sentiment all over the country. A Florida church’s plan to hold a ‘Burn a Koran Day’ on September 11th(ed: this has been cancelled, thankfully), as well as the recent assault on a Muslim taxi driver in New York all create a grim picture. The construction of mosques and religious centres have led to communities up in arms all over the country from California to Wisconsin to Tennessee. Reporting on these incidents Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times writes that communities before protested against the construction of mosques under the guise of increased noise and traffic. Now, the gloves have come off and communities all around America are openly protesting against Islam itself. The Cordoba project, it seems has unleashed a deep Islamophobia that runs strongly all over the USA.
And this has had ramifications for people all the way up to the top. Chris Cilliza from the Washington Post writes that a recent Pew survey found 18% of participants thought Obama to be a Muslim. This is significantly higher than the 2009 figure of 11%. What’s more interesting, he writes: “there was a strong linkage between those who wrongly believe Obama is a Muslim and those who disapprove of the job he is doing as president.” Two thirds of the 41% who disapprove of Obama think him to be a Muslim. So in short, the more Americans think Obama is a Muslim, the lower his popularity. A Newsweek Poll recorded 31% of respondents who believed Obama to be a sympathiser of Islamic fundamentalists and their efforts to spread Islamic law around the world. Added to this, a recent survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov found 27.7% of respondents to view the religion of Islam very unfavourably and a further 27.7% somewhat unfavourably. That is a total of 54.4% who perceived Islam in a negative light. In light of these findings the question remains, what role have the Republicans played in adding fuel to this fire and how will it affect the mid-term election results? It has forced Obama to backpedal on his strong support for the mosque and has Democrats worried. So if the debate is being fuelled for political ends, are the American public opposed to the mosque being exploited? And how much wisdom is there in prioritising short-term political gains over long-lasting implications which will be felt all around the world?
Of course there are many more sides to this story and many voices to be heard. There have been calls to just move the proposed site to a less-offensive location. And then there are those like Newt Gingrich who call for the construction of synagogues and churches in Saudi Arabia as a precursor to the construction of the Cordoba project. Well it is easy to poke a hole through that argument. Freedoms of expression and religion (not to say that of private property) are what distinguish the US from the Middle East. America has been very willing and ready to afford itself a moral and ethical high ground based on these freedoms. And this is why they’re the right people to be invading Iraq and Afghanistan, or so we were told: to spread such (universal) ideals of freedoms and equality, right?
However, the core of the issue remains, this is no longer a widespread protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, but rather an expression of an Islamophobic current that is clearly alive and well in America. Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, sums up the aspirations of the Islamic community and the Cordoba project and states, “we Muslims are really fed up being defined by the actions of the extremists.” She goes on to add that the centre is much needed to project an image of the Muslim community as majority peaceful, law-abiding citizens and good Americans. In the face of such strong Islamophobia, this redefinition of the Muslim community in the public eye is desperately needed. Given the polarisation of this topic, it will be interesting to see how the project and debate proceed. Will the Muslims who support it be considered as fundamentalists and bad Americans? Will they fall victim to more racial attacks and will there be a campaign of guilt-by-association to hinder the progress of this project? Will they abandon it under this immense pressure and, if so what does that say about the land of the free and equal?
Negah Rahmani is a student at the Monash Asia Institute undertaking a Masters in Asian Studies with a focus on Afghanistan and women’s rights.