For the past several months, one story has consistently held media attention in the United States. The story is of a planned Islamic community center a few blocks away from the site of the attacks of September 11, 2001–a site dubbed “Ground Zero”–and has polarized opinion across the media spectrum. The community center, to be called Park51 for its location, has been called controversial by some pundits and politicians, such as Sarah Palin, because of its proximity to “Ground Zero,” and has caused some to call for the center to be moved. At the same time, numerous groups and individuals–including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg–have spoken out in support of Park51, reminding Americans of the history of Muslims in the U.S. and invoking the first amendment, which calls for the free exercise of religion.
Beyond the actual situation of the community center is the issue of media coverage. For months, much of the American mainstream media have referred to Park51 as “the Ground Zero mosque,” implying implicitly that the project is to be built on the actual ground (it isn't) and that the center's sole purpose is as a mosque (also false–the center will include a mosque, along with a swimming pool, theatre, childcare center, and numerous other facets).
Bloggers have jumped in to comment on a number of aspects of the story, from the history of Muslims in New York to the Islamophobia inherent in many arguments against Park51. Writing for Tabsir.net, one blogger discusses the media hype:
The current torrent of media hype about building a “mosque” near Ground Zero is part of a deeper Islamophobic fervor in direct lineage with the same unfriendly folks who have self-righteously hated Injuns, Negroes and Jews and found verses in the King James Version of the Bible to back up their hatred. Today’s New York Times carries a story by Laurie Goodstein about efforts across the country to stop construction of Islamic places of worship. If this is yet another tempest brewed in Tea Party forums, it looks more like a lynch mob than a ladies aid society brunch.
Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami would appear to concur; in a blog post, she expresses frustration with the media's exclusion of Muslims in dialogue about Park51:
Notice that, in setting up the two groups of proponents and opponents of Park51, the Muslims who get mentioned are “former Muslims”, while the people who bravely stand up for religious freedom include ministers of every faith, except Islam. Are we to believe that no Muslims, whether ministers or not, are taking part in these interfaith groups, even though the matter at hand is an Islamic community center?
I see this kind of silencing everywhere in our media. Politicians constantly talk about the need for “moderate Muslims” to step up, and when they do, as Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf did when he tried to set up this community center, it is the extremists among Muslims—both the religious and the secular—who are given ample room to voice their opinions. Enough.
At Arab-American blog KABOBfest, author Sana explains the role Muslims have played in the history of Manhattan:
Lower Manhattan is also the final resting place of Muslims and other Africans, often slaves, who were forcibly resettled in New York when it was still New Amsterdam. The African Burial Ground, discovered in 1991, is six blocks away from the proposed Muslim community center. Scholars continue to debate the religious identity of the hundreds buried there, but the fact that some of the dead wore shrouds and were interred with strings of blue beads, frequently used as Islamic talismans, suggests Muslim were among the enslaved people who helped build Manhattan into a bustling city.
Of course, this history of Islam in lower Manhattan means little to the families of 9/11 victims who are protesting the proposed center. Far more troubling than their protest is how readily some political groups have used this issue to advance their own anti-Muslim agendas. Comments by Lazio and Palin are mere drops in an ocean of right-wing vitriol. In one outright lie, the Web site of the National Republican Trust has declared that the organizers of the mosque “intend to erect a shrine to the 9/11 terrorists.”
Rhetoric that treats Muslim-Americans like hostile foreigners fundamentally – and intentionally – skews the story of New York and its Muslim community.
One tactic opponents of Park51 have used in arguing against is comparing Manhattan to Mecca, in that inside Mecca, no Christian or Jewish places of worship may be built. Blogger Desert Peace debunks that particular argument:
First, as far as I know, Mecca has not a single Jewish inhabitant, so why build a synagogue there? To start a settlement enterprise there? To teach Muslims Shulhan Aruch or Chesronot Shas or other Talmudic messages?
On the other hand, New York is home to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Muslims. And the people in charge of the project are American citizens who broke no law, committed no crime and hurt no body. Indeed, if New York Muslims were of Hitler’s ilk, as the hateful and provocative signs would have us believe, then the Jewish mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who supports the project, ought to be a Nazi supporter.
Not all bloggers support the mosque, however, even within the Arab-American blogosphere. Iraqi Mojo writes:
However, out of respect for conservative Americans and for the victims of 9/11, and knowing that the money for the proposed project will likely come from KSA and maybe other Wahhabi-infested kingdoms, I believe it would be unwise for Muslims to insist on building a mosque near ground zero. Having said this, the actions of New Yorkers and mayor Bloomberg have already shown that Americans are quite tolerant of Islam and Muslims.