The controversy over the proposed construction of a $100-million Islamic community centre,just two blocks away from the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City,has again polarised American politics on identity lines. It dashes hopes that the election of Barack Obamaa Christian who does not hide his Muslim middle nameas President had opened doors to a post-religious United States.
The planned building in the eye of the storm is the brainchild of the American Sufi Imam,Feisal Abdul Rauf,who describes it as an attempt to prevent the next 9/11 by interweaving Americas Muslim population into the mainstream society. Kuwait-born Rauf insists the structure will be open to all regardless of religion as a space for intermingling and spiritual awakening,similar to the YMCA or the Jewish Community Centre in New York.
Yet,his seemingly innocuous design has fallen prey to a barrage of criticism from the right wing of the US political spectrum as a monument of conquest by radical Islam and an insult to victims of the great tragedy of 2001. Ultra-conservative stalwarts in the Republican Party like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have been joined by a bevy of GOP candidates running for US Congressional elections in November to kick up a ferocious uproar against the project.
That the anti-mosque (Rauf denies it is one) brigade is playing partisan games with an eye on the polls is obvious from the fact that most Republicans have trained their guns on President Obamas endorsement of the building rather than on the specifics of the idea itself. The standard electioneering tactic of smearing Obama as a Harvard-trained elitist lawyer,who is not being sensitive to average American culture and values,is doing the campaign rounds,particularly in the Bible Belt region of the countrys southeasta bastion of Christian fundamentalism.
Embattled Obama,who faces the prospects of his Democratic Party losing majority in Congress owing to bearish voters dismayed by the downbeat economy,has since backtracked from his previous generic support of Raufs endeavour. His volte-face is obviously motivated by fear that Democrats will be pummelled for championing religious equality at the cost of what Palin has labelled a stab in the heart of Americans who still have that lingering pain from 9/11. The usually unambiguous Obama was knottiness personified last weekend while clarifying,I was not commenting on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.
To advocates of an open and hate-free society,this sounded like a betrayal of high ideals about the US as a haven of religious liberty. But Obama has bowed to the inevitable pressure of opinion polls,which predict a drubbing for his party in November. The flip-flop on the mosque by a super-savvy politician who is intrinsically eclectic in his personal beliefs also reveals his core team bowing to the reality that deep biases and prejudices against Islam persist in Main Street America.
Islamophobia in the US has been partly refuelled by recent discoveries and indictments of home-grown Muslim terrorists. The condemnable actions of hyphenated Americans or immigrants like Faisal Shahzad,Najibullah Zazi,Nidal Malik Hasan,Shahawar Siraj and Sharif Mobley have increased presentiments about the enemy amidst us and confused the minimally aware average American about the differences between these practitioners of violence and moderate Muslims.
Moreover,if the cushion of time from the September 11 attacks was expected to tone down the religious profiling and conflating of all Muslims with terrorists,rampant during the presidency of George W Bush,the onrush of an economic downturn and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the fires burning.
History is witness to the strong correlation between economic crisis and the rise of intolerant attitudes towards minorities and others who are culturally different or non-conformist. Publics beaten down by pessimism about their own economic futures become receptive to virulent doctrines. When a society is undergoing the severe stress of mass joblessness and entanglement in costly overseas military interventions,appealing to baser instincts and roots to rally the population against foes or unwanted aliens purportedly plotting right under ones nose fetches handsome political rewards.
The link between a struggling economy and identity-based scapegoating is not limited to the US and has also been evident in continental Europe over the last few years. In an echo of the Republicans across the Atlantic,anti-immigration rhetoric aimed at Muslim communities,their customs and physical assets is being whipped up to a crescendo by election-sighted rightist politicians in France,Belgium,Holland,Denmark,Switzerland,etc. The upswing in political parties sponsoring soul-searching debates about national identity and who really belongs to the motherland at a time when Europes economy is crippled is no coincidence.
Yet,unlike Germany and Italy of the inter-war years,liberal forces are in a more advanced stage today due to the wider and deeper spread of capitalism,which finds no difference between Muslims and non-Muslims as long as both are consumers and producers in the market.
Raufs mosque stands good chances of running the gauntlet and rising up in Manhattan,especially if he can secure a conciliatory relocation of the building a little further from Ground Zero. His usage of the name Cordoba House for the community centre is also risky in the current air of heightened anti-Islamic politics. The Great Mosque of Cordoba was built in 784 AD in Spain on the site of a church by Islamic occupiers. Rauf is not a crusade-minded Muslim and will have to be extra careful to dispel suspicions in a cleaved environment.
The author is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University