This article was published in Today's Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, on August 30, 2010, also available online at http://www.todayszaman.com/
It took only three months or so to get American public opinion opposed to the planned Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City.
It took only three months to have most Republican senators, representatives, governors and candidates for office join in, and even some key Democratic politicians to oppose their own president of the United States. All you need is a blog, an emotional issue and lots of misinformation. Facts? Not necessary.
Enter Pamela Geller, a woman who lives in the upper West Side of New York City. She started a blog in 2005 called Atlas Shrugs.com. Prior to May of this year her blog got little attention, except by the extreme right wing in America, who loved her. Perhaps it was because of her crazy stories and allegations, including that Obama is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X; that he changed his name to Barack Obama after visiting Pakistan in the 1980s because of jihad, that Obama is really a Muslim with a hidden agenda, that “everything he has done so far is to foster America’s submission to Islam,” that the “Nazis adopted jihad,” that Israel should nuke Tehran, Mecca and Medina and even Europe, and the promotion of other allegations that are too vicious, vile and disgusting to mention here in Turkey or anywhere for that matter.
Well, you get the picture. (By the way, Barack Obama was always his real name).
This person, with no background in Middle Eastern politics or history, and no credibility, wrote a blog on May 6, 2010, with the following title, “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in the Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.” Here is an excerpt from this article: “This best demonstrates the territorial nature of Islam. This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident … And what about the Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral of the church of Constantinople, one of the great buildings of the world, the grandest church in Christendom at that time and for 1,000 years thereafter -- and now a mosque? The Aya Sofya mosque -- they didn’t change the name, just Islamified it.”
A mind-boggling comparison
This is quite the historical comparison: converting an empty old building on Park Place into a community center, providing daycare services, meeting rooms and community facilities much needed in lower Manhattan with Mehmet II’s defeat of the Byzantines (who deserves credit for not destroying the Hagia Sophia). Later on a TV show, she claimed that the imam of the mosque had help fund the “jihad genocidal flotilla.”
A week later, Andrea Peyser, a columnist for the NY Post -- a paper expert at getting people excited -- picked up on Pamela’s blog and wrote a column, “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” in which she stated: “A mosque rises over Ground Zero. And fed-up New Yorkers are crying, ‘No!’ A chorus of critics -- from neighbors to those who lost loved ones on 9/11 to me -- feel as if they’ve received a swift kick in the teeth.” A few days after that yet another columnist, Diane West, of the right-wing Washington Examiner, wrote yet another fiery article, this one entitled “A Mosque to Mock 9/11’s Victims and Families” -- an unfounded accusation if ever there was one.
The mainstream media then picked up on the “Ground Zero mosque,” which has a certain deceiving ring to it. They labeled it a controversy, facilitating a media explosion, although it was not a controversy during its planning phase. “Ground Zero mosque” is certainly easier to write than the “Islamic community center two blocks from the WTC site in what is now an abandoned building.” The proposition was simple and clear: The people who attacked the WTC now want a mosque rising “over ground zero.” CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, the NY Times, LA Times, etc., all brought in opposing sides to discuss the “controversy.”
Oppostion to the ‘Ground Zero mosque’
Then the CNN poll came out showing most Americans opposed the “Ground Zero mosque.”
Where there is a poll, you will find a politician, not taking the lead, but following, with a few exceptions, one being Barack Obama. On Aug. 13 the president said: “This is America. Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” And then Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s mayor, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, reminding his audience about bigotry against Jews and Catholics in the past, said, “But we would be untrue to the best parts of ourselves -- and who we as New Yorkers and Americans -- if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”
Obama’s statement, in a Congressional election year, unleashed a torrent of opposition, following the polls, exploiting emotions and trying to gain an advantage. Three days later, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and possibly a Republican candidate for president in 2012, compared the supporters of the proposed mosque, whom he referred to as “radical Islamists,” to Nazis when interviewed by Fox News. Republicans across the nation followed suit, leading demonstrations, giving speeches, although trying not to be viewed as against religious freedom, but just “against the mosque at ground zero.”
Congressmen implored Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the funding of the mosque.
Moreover, even some Democratic politicians switched sides, including the top Democrat in the US Senate, Harry Reid. Facing a tough re-election race in Nevada this Fall, he stated that he was opposed to the center and urged “all parties to work with local community leaders to find a more appropriate site.” His Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, said that Obama’s support of the building “ignored the wishes of the American people, this time at the expense of victims of 9/11 and their families.”
Of course, the issue has grown in complexity, with various NGO’s taking sides, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and with even an organization that includes victims of 9/11 supporting the center.
But when we step back, we can see how the damage was done. One blogger, with a track record of hatred against Muslims, was able to easily equate the attacks on 9/11 with all of Islam, and also attribute to them a deplorable insensitivity to the feelings of Americans. It was extraordinarily easy to do, to rally most Americans against the project with the [distorted] image of the “mosque rising above ground zero.”
And once the polls kicked in, most politicians followed, a perfect issue to exploit a US president with a Muslim name in a congressional election year. It does not bode well for the need to educate Americans on the world that resides outside my İstanbul window.
*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.
30 August 2010, Monday