Leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, the national spotlight was focused on the "mosque at ground zero" question. The thought of a "mosque" (an Islamic cultural center with a prayer room) being built on "ground zero" (several blocks from the site of the former World Trade Towers) elicited predictable Islamophobic hysteria, a phenomenon largely manufactured by the political opposition and right-wing media eager for a Republican takeover in the upcoming elections.
Taking center stage in the campaign to protect New York City's hallowed ground from desecration was former Senator Newt Gingrich, who offered the reminder that, "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington" (Andy Barr, "Newt Gingrich compares mosque to Nazis," Politico, August 16, 2010). Other notable figures have chimed in, such as Sarah Palin who declared that the construction of the "mosque" would be a "stab in the heart" of U.S. citizens who "still have that lingering pain from 9/11" (Andy Barr, "Obama 'doesn't get' mosque," Politico, August 17, 2010).
With protests popping up around the country at sites proposed for the construction of mosques and Islamic community centers, it is clear that reactionary forces are stoking the zeal of the portion of the American public most prone to Christian fundamentalism and extreme nationalism.
Diana Serafin, who attended a protest in Temecula, California is an example of this public reaction: "As a mother and a grandmother, I worry…. I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that…. I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion…. But Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government and it's 100 percent against our Constitution" (Laurie Goodstein, "Across the Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition," New York Times, August 7, 2010).
No one should doubt the fears Serafin and others have. The source of hysteria typically lies in serious confusion that is the result of conscious manipulation—in this case, a confused hysteria ready to be tapped at a moment's notice to rally support for various reactionary calls, including the war effort in Afghanistan and the pending conflict with Iran.
Plenty of criticisms have been coming out of mainstream circles directed at those who risk igniting a witch hunt. This overt bigotry appears to be challenged primarily on two grounds. First, that to deny the construction of the community center would violate the principle of religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Second, that preventing its construction would send a bad message to "moderate" Islamists, encourage radicalization, and jeopardize U.S. "national security."
National Security Rebuttal
In a rebuttal on the grounds of "national security," Frank Rich at the New York Times wrote, "After 9/11, President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and asked for tolerance for Muslims not necessarily because he was a humanitarian or knew much about Islam but because national security demanded it. An America at war with Islam plays right into Al Qaeda's recruitment spiel. This month's incessant and indiscriminate orgy of Muslim-bashing is a national security disaster for that reason—Osama bin Laden's 'next video script has just written itself,' as the former F.B.I. terrorist interrogator Ali Soufan put it." Rich adds that the hysteria "is demolishing America's already frail support" for the war in Afghanistan since it undermines "Gen. David Petraeus's last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy." After all, "How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?" ("How Fox Betrayed Petraeus," August 21, 2010).
In the Baltimore Sun, David H. Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, writes, "The rise of such intolerance is…particularly dangerous now because it is likely to inhibit intelligence collection from Muslim Americans and may contribute to the radicalization process." Echoing Rich's comments, he adds, "This terrible public discourse is providing a free recruitment tool for those who wish us grave harm" ("Opposing the mosque endangers security," August 17, 2010).
Perhaps there is some truth to these claims. But, as is often the case when examining mainstream discourse, what remains unsaid is most revealing. For example, Rich and Schanzer both fail to mention the most significant threat to our "national security": that is, the aggression, terror, and repression carried out and sponsored by the "sole remaining superpower"—crimes that grossly outnumber those by any official adversary in the post-WWII era.
Looking at just one of the two current U.S. wars of aggression (the "supreme international crime" according to the Nuremberg Tribunal), the death toll in Iraq now exceeds one million according to some estimates and, in the case of Fallujah, the war and occupation has created a health catastrophe "worse than Hiroshima" as a result of that city being on the receiving end of U.S. nuclear warfare (Patrick Cockburn, "Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah, 'worse than Hiroshima'," the Independent, July 24, 2010). The crimes of the "second 9/11" were heinous and criminal, but no match for what the Bush administration unleashed in Iraq and elsewhere. In terms of effectiveness in combating terror, these "national security" measures have been akin to throwing gasoline on a forest fire. (The first 9/11 occurred in Chile on September 11, 1973 when CIA-backed forces overthrew the Allende regime and replaced it with the Pinochet dictatorship, an event leading to the estimated murder of 20,000 and torture of 60,000 political prisoners in the months that followed.)
Turning to a lesser-known front in the "war on terror," the fight against terrorist financing has proven to be anything but benign. Take, for example, the case of Al Barakaat, the international remittance network responsible for bolstering the fragile economy of Somalia, a nation crippled by persistent humanitarian crises. Two months after the second 9/11, the Bush administration, desperate for a political victory, shut down Al Barakaat on the grounds that it was funding terrorism. The mainstream press provided fanfare for the "dismantling [of] a major network used by Mr. bin Laden to move money" (see Ibrahim Warde, The Price of Fear, University of California Press, 2007). A year later Al Barakaat was cleared of all allegations. The press, true to mainstream journalistic standards, barely mentioned the fact.
Crippling the fragile economy of Somalia drove the "failed state" deeper into crisis, placing it at an even more vulnerable position for what was to come. In 2006, the Bush administration armed, financed, provided diplomatic cover, and participated in direct military operations during Ethiopia's overthrow of a coalition of Islamic courts and militias, who had committed the grave crime of providing a brief reprieve from warlord terror (sponsored by the U.S. to hunt alleged terrorist suspects).
The invasion and occupation had the predictable consequence of unleashing extreme levels of violence and repression and sparking a resistance led by "radical Islamists." One militant group leading the resistance, Al Shabaab, has since taken credit for the recent "7/11" terrorist attacks in Uganda, where some 76 civilians were murdered while watching the World Cup finals, as retaliation for the regional power's role in the current "peacekeeping" operation in Somalia. The background to this tragic event is hardly mentioned when the press describes the factors that have led to the "internationalization of the conflict."
When recalling pre-WWII atrocities, not only does the picture become more grotesque, but the many cases of the extermination of indigenous populations reveal a mindset that the only way to crush an enemy while ensuring zero "blowback" is to exterminate them all and perhaps anyone else who may sympathize with them. Given the current state of the world, this would require virtual extinction of the species. The lesson was likely in Nixon's mind when—encouraging his advisor, Henry Kissinger, to "think big"—he toyed around with the idea of dropping a nuclear bomb on North Vietnam. With the current stockpiling of nuclear warheads and other "weapons of mass destruction" at the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean, as preparation for a possible nuclear attack on Iran, the same lesson remains in the minds of those currently responsible for our national security.
In light of the history of the U.S. pursuit of "national security," uncovering the operative principle latent in the outrage over the construction of the "mosque on ground zero" and applying it to ourselves would lead to inconvenient conclusions. Such a principle might look something like this: anyone with a loose association to a group that commits an act of terror should be prohibited from inhabiting and exercising cultural rights near the crime scene. If we apply the principle to ourselves, then following naturally is the conclusion that no U.S. citizen should be allowed to exercise property rights and wave the "flag of freedom" on large parts of territory across the globe, including lands we currently occupy, the site of former slave plantations and indigenous civilizations.
No one in mainstream circles is making this argument and for good reason. It's absurd. But if we entertain absurdity for a moment, it becomes clear that the logic carries more force when applied to ourselves than our so-called Islamic adversaries. In the case of Muslims, they had no control over a small band of thugs who committed the attack on 9/11. In fact, it is outrageous to even refer to their connection to the criminals as a "loose association." With some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, hardly a tight-knit group, the religious commonality is as irrelevant to the matter of culpability as the fact that the terrorists just so happen to be all men.
However, in our case we have direct ties to the U.S. criminal record. As citizens afforded basic democratic rights, we are in a unique position to contest current crimes, prevent future ones, hold those most responsible accountable, and ensure that victims receive their due reparations. But with the mainstream discourse performing its intended role of obscuring intellectual and moral honesty, what we are left with is "Islamophobic hysteria" and its critics who are unwilling to articulate the full absurdity and hypocrisy of the "mosque at ground zero" question. To do so requires moving beyond misleading and self-righteous appeals for religious freedom, as summoned by President Obama during his recent remarks on the question.
Calling on us to "ensure that what is exceptional about America is protected," the president urged us not to stray from that "quintessentially American creed," a "way of life" based on an unmatched "capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us." Indeed, "[t]he writ of the Founders must endure," at least versions where the right to own slaves as inscribed in the original holy "writ" has been expunged ("President Obama Celebrates Ramadan at White House Iftar Dinner," whitehouse.gov, August 14, 2010). Urging others to confront the "mosque at ground zero" question with more than a mere disposition of tolerance should be welcomed, but not as Obama intended. Such commonplace pleas are a far cry from achieving even a minimal level of moral integrity because they distract from confronting the disconcerting truth that when one begins to think seriously and honestly about U.S. history, ground zeros are scattered across virtually every region in the world.
Remembering this fact may help us to allay the sincere fears of Diane Serafin and many others by helping them, as well as ourselves, learn from the compassion demonstrated by Muslims around the world who spoke out against 9/11, in spite of salient memories of U.S. crimes committed in their homes—events whose invisibility in our collective memory reveal the mark of careful censure and erasure. Obtaining such levels of compassion and honesty is not only crucial in securing our moral integrity, but also humanity's future security.
Stephen Roblin is an activist and independent researcher living in Baltimore, Maryland.