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Burlington Coat Factory Cultural Center

I didn’t want to believe it, but there’s no way around the fact that the post I spent some 45 minutes working on earlier tonight is lost. My browser crashed, I wondered when the last auto-save took place, and when I re-opened my blog, I found no trace of the post. Maybe I’ll try a shorter version this time around. Just the highlights.

Okay, so, the point was to urge you to look at an article by Justin Elliott that appeared a week ago at Salon, in which Elliott reviews how “ground zero mosque” fear mongering began. I had meant to write about this all of last week, and then found Frank Rich linking to it in his weekly NYT column yesterday. If you read the column, you might have seen the link. If you didn’t follow up on it, please do.

Three months ago tomorrow a college classmate of mine wrote a crazed email to our class email list, forwarding us an article by a guy I didn’t know, Robert Spencer, and prefacing it with the comment that the “idea of two massive 15 story mosques being built literally on the smoldering graves of the 3,000 Americans murdered by Islam in lower Manhattan is so revolting and appalling that the English language does not contain words powerful enough to express the disgust and outrage attendant upon this event.” This was my first sign that something was afoot, but I would never have imagined the crazed (and organized) outrage we have had to listen to since then.

I wrote back to the classmate, wondering why “Islam” was the murderer and suggesting that “it’s worth distinguishing a religion from extremist practitioners of it.” I also made reference to a NYT article from last December 9 that painted a very different picture, quoting the following passage:

The location was precisely a key selling point for the group of Muslims who bought the building in July. A presence so close to the World Trade Center, “where a piece of the wreckage fell,” said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.”

“We want to push back against the extremists,” added Imam Feisal, 61.

While I’m at it, let me quote more from the article:

Joan Brown Campbell, director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and former general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A., who is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash from those opposed to a Muslim presence at ground zero.

But, she added: “Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says.’ ”

And:

Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. “For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great,” she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. “What happened that day,” he said, “was not Islam.”

In his Salon piece, Elliott provides a timeline of the fear mongering campaign, starting from the very same NYT article. The next date in his timeline is December 21. He writes:

Dec. 21, 2009: Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

How did things get so crazy? Elliott observes that after this Fox segment, “and despite the front-page Times story — there were no news articles on the mosque for five and a half months.” Then Pamela Geller arrived on the scene. A fanatic anti-Moslem, right-wing blogger. See the biography she provides at her blog Atlas Shrugs. She runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America, along with Robert Spencer, the author of the article my classmate sent around in late May. She and Spencer also co-wrote the book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which you might have missed.

On May 6, after a New York City community board committee approved the community center, Geller’s campaign began. Within the week, Andrea Peyser had a column at the New York Post quoting Geller and promoting anti-mosque protest.

Lots of opinion makers on the right read the Post, so it’s not surprising that, starting that very day, the mosque story spread through the conservative — and then mainstream — media like fire through dry grass. Geller appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show. The Washington Examiner ran an outraged column about honoring the 9/11 dead. So did Investor’s Business Daily. Smelling blood, the Post assigned news reporters to cover the ins and outs of the Cordoba House development daily. Fox News, the Post’s television sibling, went all out.

Within a month, Rudy Giuliani had called the mosque a “desecration.” Within another month, Sarah Palin had tweeted her famous “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” tweet. Peter King and Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty followed suit — with political reporters and television news programs dutifully covering “both sides” of the controversy.

Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

When I chastised my classmate three months ago for identifying an entire religion with terrorists and murderers, I naively failed to understand that this was exactly the point of the campaign he so willingly made himself a part of. And of course, thanks to typical mainstream media coverage of “the controversy,” giving credence to even the nuttiest ideas, we now find even Howard Dean urging “compromise.” It’s suddenly reasonable to tell all members of a religion that they should make special effort not to offend the rest of us, that they should not build on (or rather near, but with no direct sight lines of) “hallowed ground.” My goodness.

Among the many powerful pieces about this manufactured controversy, I especially appreciated Amy Davidson’s piece three days ago at the New Yorker blog, brilliantly connecting the issue to the Little League World Series now underway.

in 1955, sixty-two local Little Leagues in the state of South Carolina entered the tournament that leads to the Little League World Series. For the first time, one of them consisted of black players—the Cannon Street YMCA All Stars. None of the sixty-one other teams had a single black player, and every one of them refused to play Cannon Street. They wanted them out of the tournament. Instead, the Little League head office disqualified the sixty-one white teams.

One can imagine the pressures on the Cannon Street team and their coaches. Why were they spoiling it for all the other kids? Why were they making everyone uncomfortable? If they really cared about racial harmony and people getting along, why were they being so provocative? If they hadn’t meant to be, couldn’t they tell from the reaction that it was a mistake? Were there outside agitators involved? This wasn’t the time, or the place—couldn’t they just play somewhere else?

Davidson describes the Little League’s actions as a shining moment. “Shining moments aren’t easy. They can cost you Little League franchises; they can cost you votes. It might take years to realize how proud, or how ashamed, one is of what one did at a certain moment. (In 2002, Little League invited the surviving Cannon Street players back, and declared them South Carolina champions.) You don’t always have to stand up for one team out of sixty-two, or for your neighbors. But there are times when you should.”

Amen.

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Categories: Journalism, Politics, Religion
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