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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle