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What are the Republicans trying to hide behind the Ground Zero Mosque?

Tom Mendelsohn

103250142 300x244 What are the Republicans trying to hide behind the Ground Zero Mosque?North America has been consumed by one story and one story alone these past few weeks: the so-called – and mis-named – ‘Ground Zero Mosque‘.

On the other side of the Atlantic many a jowl has quivered and turned puce in indignant fury; you can’t miss it over there. There’ve been a few whispers of it here, too, but none of the rage has translated, none of the depth of feeling has made its way over.

To summarize, Islamic investors want to build a community centre for Manhattan Muslims in a derelict coat factory two blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. This community centre is intended to be a bit like a YMCA – containing an auditorium, a gym, a swimming pool, a basketball court, childcare services, art exhibitions, a bookstore, a culinary school and a food court serving halal dishes, as well as some prayer space. It is to be run by a famed moderate – Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf – a Kuwaiti cleric who has written about how to integrate Islam with the West.

It should be nothing more than a local zoning issue, and not a problem. Not a problem, that is, until a few prominent far-right demagogues noticed it and seized upon it. Sarah Palin tweeted about it to her hundreds of thousands of followers and then the usual cavalcade of Teabaggers, opportunist election hopefuls and Fox pundits dogpiled the issue.

Suddenly, the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ is no longer a local zoning issue; it’s a ‘desecration’ of ‘hallowed ground’, a slight to the heroes and victims of 9/11. The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ label makes it sound to the public like the place is being built at the actual Ground Zero – which could maybe be construed as insensitivity. This is not the case: it is to be built hundreds of metres away in a damaged, vacant building on a dilapidated side street.

Many, many people have made this mistake, imagining instead that there will be an ostentatious Islamic middle finger pointing skywards at the scene of the tragedy. It’s a huge factor contributing to public ire – and no-one in the know has properly tried to disabuse the misinformed of this notion.

High profile politicians like Republican Newt Gingrich – the man who pursued Bill Clinton during the impeachment business, despite a little philandering of his own -  has kept up a steady stream of vitriol, insisting that the centre’s proposed name, Cordoba House, is a symbol of Islamic conquest over Christianity, because Cordoba was the capital of Moorish Spain.

Gingrich also said, with gracious understatement, that building the mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum”.

It so happens that all this expostulation about hallowed ground is quite misplaced: there are, nearer Ground Zero, strip clubs, bars, sex clubs and churches. The Park51 site, as it is now to be called as a sop to opponents of the word Cordoba, is simply not in a meaningful place.

So why the sudden storm? Well, a lot of it is the simple anti-Islam sentiment of Middle America boiling over. It’s not just that, though, because the pot is being stirred, and it is beginning to look like there is a more sinister motive behind the campaign against the ‘mosque’ than straight-up stoking of racial tension.

You see, in the time immediately before the controversy exploded, a fairly disgraceful piece of politicking took place – the Republican bloc in Congress vetoed a bill that would have provided billions in healthcare for 9/11 responders who have since fallen sick having been exposed to toxic fumes in the aftermath of the disaster.

It was ugly stuff, tempers had begun to flare (I strongly recommend you click that link), and the press had just caught wind. It was brewing into something of a PR disaster for the Republicans. Then, without warning, the Ground Zero Mosque appears, and goes nuclear. No other issues are getting past it in the press, and the scandal of the Republican veto goes unquestioned.

It is very tempting to see this as a PR stunt to deflect negative attention away from the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Certainly, the GOP’s PR team have time and again shown themselves to be masters of dominating press agendas – trouncing the Democrats and making them look weak and indecisive at every term.

And it just so happens that the smokescreen is itself a sure-fire vote-winner. Republicans from all over the country are leaping on the bandwaggon, crowing about it long and loud – many of them with elections to win in the November Mid-terms, very few with anything to do with New York’s municipal business.

It’s a beautiful piece of work. Republicans get to look tough on Muslims and the public forgets about their awful treatment of the 9/11 responders, who are all considered folk heroes in the States. Earlier this week, an increasingly hapless Obama has been drawn in – that same Obama whom one in five Americans believe to be Muslim. He said, sort of, that he supports the building of the mosque, couching his rhetoric in lawyerly caveats, making him look weak and mealy-mouthed on the issue: trying to please everyone at once, managing to please no-one.

It’s a manoeuvre straight from the dark arts’ top drawer, and it would be quite admirable if it wasn’t so darned evil.

Image credit: AFP/Getty Images

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