Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2010
Issue No. 1012
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trapped at Ground Zero

Obama's defence of building a Muslim community centre in lower Manhattan reveals that America remains trapped in the neocon religious war mindset, writes Ramzy Baroud*

The current controversy over the right of Muslim Americans to build a community centre and mosque a short distance from the site of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks is both strange and outright inappropriate. It should never be necessary for law abiding Americans to justify exercising their right to freely practise their own religion. This right is in accordance to the First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights that has constituted the foundation of American freedom for over 200 years.

But in the age of warmongering neoconservatives and Guantanamo-like gulags stuffed with bearded Muslim men, such principles are conveniently disregarded. The sad fact is that the very ideals that have been celebrated in the United States for generations are being trampled upon, violated and abused. They are aggressively used in such strange contexts to justify wars, rationalise occupations, and support fraudulent elections.

It therefore becomes perfectly acceptable for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reference American ideals and speak of democracy and the same redundant lists of freedoms while justifying the peculiar elections in Afghanistan, or the bewildering sectarian "democracy" underway in Iraq. However, when President Barack Obama made the seemingly dreadful mistake on 13 August of endorsing the right of Muslims to build a community centre near Ground Zero, all hell broke loose. The likes of Peter King, a Republican from New York, immediately denounced Obama's remarks, echoing the sentiment of numerous others in Congress, media and the public. The very next day the president was forced to explain to CNN the underlying intent of his comments. He laboriously delineated the difference between commenting on "the wisdom" of the project and upholding the broader principle that the government should treat "everyone equal, regardless" of religion.

While it's a relief that Obama is yet to reverse his stance on the project (out of fear of voters' reprimands in the November elections), it is indeed a sad day when the president of the United States feels the need to dignify with a response largely racist, bigoted and discriminatory attacks. Although Obama is correct in principle, he should never have tried to justify himself. By doing so he gave a level of credence to those who are manipulating the memory of 11 September to fit their own narrow-minded religious, political and other agendas.

The controversy is indeed bizarre, as well as embarrassing, because the intention of building the community centre and the mosque, which includes a lecture hall and a swimming pool, was meant as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at cultural and religious dialogue. It signals the Muslim community's desire for inclusion. It is also an act of defiance. Those who committed their evil deed in the name of religion, and those who lead major wars also in the name of religion are groups most disaffected by a community initiative aimed at overcoming superficial religious divides that have led to major crimes and fuelled criminal wars.

However, not all of those against the approval of the mosque project are politically manipulative, ideologically or even religiously motivated. Some have innocently bought into the ridiculous media allegations and insinuations. They have been led to believe that building such a structure would be insensitive, betraying the memory of the 11 September victims (who also include Muslims), and could function as a symbolic message that the terrorists have won.

Of course, one fails to understand how a prayer room, a swimming pool and a lecture hall a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood represents a victory in the books of Al-Qaeda's grand designs. But more importantly, such language suggests -- if not confirms -- that what is underway is nothing but a religious war. If that is the case, then Muslims, using the same logic, have the right to curtail the freedom of and target minorities in Muslim countries because they profess religions that are supposedly hostile to Islam. But isn't that precisely what Al-Qaeda -- a group abhorred by most Muslims -- among other zealot groups have been arguing, if not practising?

It's unacceptable that after years of American wars in Muslim countries, which preceded the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and many more wars which killed, wounded and devastated millions, we are still stuck in the same terrible mentality. Many haven't yet matured to see past the tainted lenses of hate and prejudice, the logic of "us" and "them". The very mindset that led America to its political, economic, military, and moral crises for years continues to prevail. The very same cheerleaders who supervised the demise of their country as a world leader are now carrying the torches and forks of intolerance against a mosque, a lecture hall and a swimming pool.

The Muslim community centre project was meant to remain a local affair until President Obama afforded his support during a Ramadan meal with members of the US Muslim community. His comments presented the perfect opportunity for a perfectly opportunistic group of politicians and media pundits. His words were twisted and manipulated to give the impression that he cared little about the victims of 11 September. The US president was reduced to actually have to state that, "the pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable..."

However, as unbelievable, sad and self-defeating as such a debate seems, it is also a wake-up call and a stark reminder of the kind of hatred and intolerance that gave that spot in lower Manhattan its dreadful name. Hatred and intolerance have also created uncountable other "ground zeros" in various Muslim lands, from Baghdad, to Gaza, to Kabul and elsewhere.

Perhaps the controversy is a reminder of the issues we still need to urgently confront. We cannot indulge in the rhetoric of change, hope and audacity while we remain at the same emotional and psychological standstill. We need to realise how such a fragile collective state of mind makes many of us so easily exploited and readily manipulated. This is the discussion that truly needs to commence, as boldly and urgently as possible.

* The writer is editor of

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