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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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.