Big Trouble in the Big Apple: Fear Meets Faith
By Nik Milanovic, Business Manager, published October, 2010
In tough economic times, people reach for two things: their wallets and their guns. In the case of the Tea Party and the GOP this season, the wallet-reflex has manifested itself in the form of cries for reduced taxes and shrieks of indignation at government spending. The gun-reflex has much more prominently reared its head in the form of unabashed xenophobia.
Any American with a minimal attention span for domestic news has by now heard of the Arizona immigration law. He or she has been subjected to campaigns from Wisconsin to Georgia deriding immigrants, legal and illegal, for their “parasitic leeching” of America’s resources. But any sensible rationale for intolerant legislation has been thrown clear out the window in the latest incidence of racist fanaticism regarding the construction of a recreation center in New York.
The center, called Park 51 and based on the 92nd St. Y (a Jewish community center – the Y was short for Young Men’s Hebrew Association), would deliver an open space replete with numerous services and facilities for the community. The plans include a basketball court, swimming pool, auditorium, meeting rooms, a garden, classrooms with public classes, and a memorial to 9/11. The controversy arising over the planned construction of Park 51 is due to what was initially known as the Cordoba House, an initiative which would use part of the building as a prayer space for Muslims.
It is estimated that New York may be the city with the most Muslims in the western hemisphere. Various discussion groups with New Yorkers of different ethnicities and faiths all yielded the same answer: they wanted a community center in Lower Manhattan. It just so happens that the site for this center is two blocks from the old site of the Twin Towers: Ground Zero.
The Cordoba House is the idea of Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, a well-intentioned American cleric who wants to use the space to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding. Ironically, the planned prayer room is now a touchstone for intolerance and invective rhetoric: the antithesis of dialogue.
Conservative commentators have referred to a ‘Mega Mosque’ being built on ‘Ground Zero,’ in order to misconstrue the facts and incite the undercurrent of xenophobia gaining steam in America. Protestors have compared the construction to building a memorial to Hitler next to Auschwitz or building a monument to terrorism.
Most surprising is the reaction of national Tea Party and GOP leaders against the planned recreation center. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin called on Muslims to ‘refudiate’ construction (she clarified that she meant refute, though she likely meant repudiate, and then compared herself to Shakespeare.) She, along with Arizona Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and a host of other senators and congressmen, have called the plan ‘insensitive’ to Americans and 9/11 families. In their defense, their concern is about sensitivity and the possible reactions and harm that could result from the construction. However, they still make the fallacy of equating terrorism to Islam, implying that dedicating a space to Islam would insult those victimized by terrorism. Even the moderate concerns about hurt feelings and people’s reactions still excuses Americans for equating the two.
The most inflammatory remarks came from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a prospective Republican presidential candidate who also dubbed the proposal an “aggressive” act equivalent to a “Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.” He added to his remarks by asserting that there should be no mosque by Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” (This slogan also appeared on many protest placards.)
Americans are quickly abandoning their pride in the USA’s reputation as a safe haven for people of other cultures and countries. The message of such prominent GOP and Tea Party icons is clear: America is now closed. Please get out and take your culture with you. The comparison to Saudi Arabia highlights an obvious loss of pride in the United States: Americans no longer hold their country to a higher standard than a repressive dictatorship. If they can be intolerant, then so can we.
Not so far from the proposed mosque site stands a statue, for generations a symbol of America’s promise to the world. Engraved on the base of the statue is a sonnet with the famed message, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The statue is named Liberty, and she gazes out at the Atlantic with a torch to light the way for other cultures, welcoming them.
Perhaps from the base of that statue, you can hear the chants of the protestors, the invective of the Tea Party and GOP. Their message is just as clear: leave our country. Your faith, your beliefs, and your culture are not welcome here. This land is not for you.
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