Demonising mosques and Muslims

Fear and ignorance abound in the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Manhattan.

I blogged earlier in the week on the row over a proposal to build a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. The project has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by right-wing, Republican critics, who have been up in arms about this for several months now..

I have an article in today's Guardian explaining why I believe the mosque row has "become a struggle for the soul of the United States, the nation where freedom and democracy is supposed to reign supreme". Here's a short extract from the piece:

Ignorance and bigotry abounds. Cordoba House is not a mosque but a cultural centre, which will include a prayer area, sports facilities, theatre and restaurant. The aim of the project is to promote "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion . . . a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a centre of learning, art and culture". Nor is it being built at Ground Zero. The proposed site is two blocks to the north.

Neither of these inconvenient facts, however, has stopped a slew of high-profile Republicans falling over one another to denounce the project. The former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, in her now-notorious tweet, urged "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the proposed "mosque", because it "stabs hearts". Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said the project was a "desecration" and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich declared that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia".

I didn't have space in the Guardian piece to explain how Gingrich and his bigoted Republican allies have demonised not just the "mosque" itself, but the moderate imam behind the project. As Mark Potok explains over at the Huffington Post:

The project's chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has criticised Islamic extremism but is still being attacked for not denouncing Hamas, the militant Muslim organisation in Palestine, and for not identifying his source of funding.

Is Rauf, author of What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America and a regular contributor to the Washington Post's On Faith blog, actually a nefarious Islamist bent on glorifying the 9/11 attacks with his controversial Cordoba House initiative? Time magazine's Bobby Ghosh disagrees:

And yet [the project's] main movers, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, are actually the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasise about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents -- ironically, just the kind of "peaceful Muslims" whom Sarah Palin, in her now-infamous tweet, asked to "refudiate" the mosque. Rauf is a Sufi, which is Islam's most mystical and accommodating denomination.

The Kuwaiti-born Rauf, 52, is the imam of a mosque in New York City's Tribeca district, has written extensively on Islam and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam's ideal society.

Jeffrey Goldberg -- not normally a man I'd cite or agree with! -- goes further than Ghosh on his Atlantic Monthly blog:

This seems like such an obvious point, but it is apparently not obvious to the many people who oppose the Cordoba Initiative's planned mosque in Lower Manhattan, so let me state it as clearly as possible: The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al-Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner despatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community centre than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Muslims. This is quantitatively true, of course -- al-Qaeda and its ideological affiliates have murdered thousands of Muslims -- but it is ideologically true as well: al-Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels.

I know Feisal Abdul Rauf; I've spoken with him at a public discussion at the 96th Street mosque in New York about interfaith co-operation. He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilisations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

On a separate but related note, the tarring of Rauf as a secret "Islamist" and a Muslim extremist, based on dubious evidence and dodgy quotes, is not so dissimilar to the manner in which the right-wing neocons and "muscular liberals" who populate the British commentariat and think-tank world accuse most Muslims in British public life of harbouring "radical" or "Islamist" agendas. Andrew Gilligan is one such pundit, and he used his Telegraph column yesterday to accuse senior British civil servants of being "sympathisers of Islamism" because some of them happen to be advocates of dialogue and engagement with mainstream British Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain. (Disclaimer: I am not a member of either organisation, nor do I agree with all of their views. But they're not the British equivalents of al-Qaeda or Hamas either!)

I happened to take part in a Sky News debate with Gilligan this morning. He didn't define "Islamism" in a precise or coherent manner, he couldn't explain why he wants the British government to shun groups like the Muslim Council of Britain while he himself works for the Iranian-government-owned Press TV and he chose not to respond to the comments that I cited from citizens' groups and interfaith forums in east London, which have accused journalists like Gilligan (and Martin Bright) of misrepresenting supposedly "Islamist" groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe and the East London Mosque.

Odd, eh?

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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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.