In praise of Mayor Bloomberg

A voice of sanity and tolerance amid rampant Islamophobia.

Some of you may be following the row in the United States over plans to build a mosque and community centre two blocks away from Ground Zero. Sarah Palin infamously urged "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" (?!?) the mosque and asked "Ground Zero supporters" (who or what are they, exactly?): "doesn't it stab you in the heart"?

But not all Republicans are as batty, sub-literate and Islamophobic as Palin seems to be. The billionaire Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has given a green light to the proposal and, in the words of the Guardian's Richard Adams, "delivered a moving and powerful rebuke to its opponents" in a public speech where he "appeared close to tears".

It's worth reading Mayor Bloomberg's speech in full, but here is, in my view, the best bit:

The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves -- and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans -- if we said "no" to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbours grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values -- and play into our enemies' hands -- if we were to treat Muslims differently [from] anyone else. In fact, to cave in to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists -- and we should not stand for that.

For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime -- as important a test -- and it is critically important that we get it right.

On September 11 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked "What God do you pray to?" "What beliefs do you hold?"

The attack was an act of war -- and our first responders defended not only our city but also our country and our constitution. We do not honour their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honour their lives by defending those rights -- and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Of course, it is fair to ask the organisers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation -- and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam.

Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith, and they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for the better part of a year, as is their right.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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