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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

If You Liked "Fahrenheit 9/11," You're a Terrorist

Man holding sign reading 'Support Freedom of Religion'The so-called "Ground Zero mosque" (which isn't actually a mosque and isn't at Ground Zero) is a mere distraction from the larger issues of unemployment, wars, and the economy. It is but a trifle and beneath the notice of intelligent people. It's a blip on the national radar screen that frivolous people have decided to make the fad of the moment. So say the Serious People in Ties. This argument tells us that congress isn't in session, the election campaigns are firing up, so we're entering the "silly season" of American politics, when demagoguery and grandstanding rear their less-than-serious heads and this isn't something we should really pay a lot of attention to. But this line of reasoning ignores the months of hysteria-whipping by the likes of Newt Gingrich and lunatic blogger Pam Geller. This has been brewing for some time and the idea that it's only now gotten the attention of the Serious People in Ties is laughable. They've watched it unfold, reported on it, and now they want to pretend it spontaneously ignited sometime last week. Apparently, the Serious People in Ties have grown weary of this particular story. Time to move on.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald noticed this "it's a distraction" trend in punditry and, as he often does, took the contrary position. According to Greenwald, the issue of Cordoba House at Park51 isn't some momentary outbreak of stupidity. Rather, it underlines a deep and growing misunderstanding of what America is all about and gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves if we like where we're headed.

[The "distraction" meme is] an artificially narrow and misguided way of understanding what this dispute is about.  The intense animosity toward Muslims driving this campaign extends far beyond Ground Zero, and manifests in all sorts of significant and dangerous ways.  In June, The New York Times reported on a vicious opposition campaign against a proposed mosque in Staten Island.  Earlier this month, Associated Press documented that "Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation's heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive."  And today, The Washington Post examines anti-mosque campaigns from communities around the nation and concludes that "the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted."

To belittle this issue as though it's the equivalent of the media's August fixation on shark attacks or Chandra Levy -- or, worse, to want to ignore it because it's harmful to the Democrats' chances in November -- is profoundly irresponsible.  The Park51 conflict is driven by, and reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority -- one that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both domestically and internationally...

Case in point: the Wall Street Journal reports that "Islamic radicals are seizing on protests against a planned Islamic community center near Manhattan's Ground Zero and anti-Muslim rhetoric elsewhere as a propaganda opportunity and are stepping up anti-U.S. chatter and threats on their websites." For a mere "distraction," this seems to have serious ramifications. According to that report, "One jihadist site vowed to conduct suicide bombings in Florida to avenge a threatened Koran burning, while others predicted an increase in terrorist recruits as a result of such actions." It's obvious that this extends beyond even constitutional issues like the freedoms of speech and religion. As important as those are, there are concerns less abstract and more concrete.

But what is this doing to our rhetorical landscape? The aforementioned Pam Geller posted some quotes from one of the organizers of the Cordoba House project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, "proving" he's some sort of Islamic radical bent on destroying Israel and promoting terrorism in the United States. Among the evidence: Rauf likes Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a film customers give 3-and-a-half stars on Who knew there were so many terrorist sympathizers in the United States?

One of Rauf's statements that Geller finds outrageous is the following:

We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it.

Apparently, math hates America. What Rauf says here is undeniably true; more people died because of Iraq sanctions than have from terrorist attacks in the west. In 1999, the BBC reported, "Unicef estimates that at least 500,000 children have died, who ordinarily would have lived." Madeline Albright may have thought those deaths were worth it, but it doesn't strike me as incredibly unreasonable to disagree -- especially considering the fact that I do disagree. Again, by Geller's reasoning, this "proves" I'm a terrorist sympathizer or an Islamic extremist.

Another "radical" quote has Rauf saying, "The West needs to begin to see themselves through the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world, and when you do you will see the predicament that exists within the Muslim community." Because putting yourself in someone else's shoes is fundamentally un-American or something.

Another: "So men will say: women, you know, they're emotional, ..... whatever, whatever, and women will say: men, they're brutes, insensitive, etcetera [sic], and you have the beginning of a gender conflict. If gender is not what distinguishes us we'll look at skin colouring and say: n#####s or whities, or whatever." This one proves he's... I don't know, racist I guess. Seriously, you have to actively try to read these as offensive. Geller provides zero context (there's a surprise), so anything you try to read into it comes from your own head. And even taken out of context, nothing here seems especially bad. He talks about a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which would necessitate Israel becoming a secular nation, like the US. Geller casts this as Rauf arguing that Muslims -- and I quote -- "must destroy the tiny Jewish state." Needless to say, Rauf says nothing remotely like that, it's just Geller's ham-handed attempt at spin.

I don't doubt that Geller and her crowd aren't big fans of a one-state solution or Michael Moore, but do we really need to elevate these disagreements to the level of some sort of hate speech? Is saying that a lot of people died needlessly because of the sanctions on Iraq really some sort of verbal terrorism? Is it really necessary to equate everyone who watched Fahrenheit 9/11 with Islamic extremists?

Here's the problem in a nutshell: if there's one thing I've noticed about the right over the years, it's that they never let anything go. If something is declared politically incorrect by the right, it remains verboten for decades. So, if it becomes accepted on the right that Michael Moore and criticism of US foreign policy equates to Islamic extremism, then the left can expect to be accused of it until 2020, at least. Probably longer. Republicans started accusing Democrats of socialism after FDR -- look how long it's taking them to let that one go. Similarly, Sarah Palin came just short of accusing Barack Obama of being a terrorist in the '08 presidential campaign. Notice that one fading into the background?

Now, being Muslim is becoming politically incorrect in itself. People like Geller spend tremendous amounts of energy trying to convince people that every Muslim is a terrorist and that there's no such thing as progressive or moderate Islam. If Democrats are still called socialist after WWII, imagine how long Muslims will remain terrorists. And imagine how long it'll be before it's politically correct to criticize belligerence in American foreign policy again.

So no, the focus on Park51 is not a part of the "silly season." It's a struggle for the future of America and what little sanity remains in our national discourse. Far from a distraction and beyond even questions of fundamental fairness and constitutional law, it's essential. It's the answer to a very simple question: will a new McCarthyism rise in this country, to remain a facet of our politics for decades, or will we nip this idiocy and hatred in the bud?

I know which answer I'm rooting for.


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