America remembers 9/11 amid souring community relations

When official commemorations are over, rallies will begin both for and against the proposed Islamic

America is preparing to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre.

Sadly, this year, the commemoration will be marred by a significant step back in community relations.

At an official ceremony in New York, the names of all the people who died at the World Trade Centre in 2001 -- nearly 3000 -- will be read out. US Vice-President Joe Biden will attend. President Barack Obama will attend a ceremony at the Pentagon, while his wife Michelle and former first lady Laura Bush will be at an event in Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane crashed. Across the country, houses of worship will toll their bells at 8.46am (1.46pm GMT), the moment that the first plane hit the North Tower.

However, when these commemorations are over, rallies are set to begin both for and against the proposed Islamic community centre and mosque near Ground Zero, with both sides keen to use the emotional impact of the day to add weight to their cause. In a clear sign of how low the debate has sunk, the virulently anti-Islam Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, is to speak at a rally opposing the cultural centre.

Over the last week, the news has been dominated by Terry Jones, the crackpot pastor threatening to burn Qurans (more on this from Mehdi Hasan and Patrick Osgood). While he is clearly on the lunatic, fundamentalist fringe, and as such was undeserving of such international attention, Jones is part of a wider trend of Islamaphobia sweeping the US.

A recent survey showed that one in five Americans believe that their president is secretly a Muslim -- as though it were a sinister agenda, antithetical to America, rather than a religion. Attacks on mosques are still unusual, but not unheard of.

Speaking last night, Obama mounted an impassioned defence of religious freedom:

We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other. We are one nation under God and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.

This sad anniversary should be a chance for Americans to stand together -- regardless of their beliefs -- and defend the principles of religious freedom and tolerance that their nation is supposedly built upon.

In 2007, the Pew Research Centre found that American Muslims were:

largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.

It would be a tragedy to undo this further.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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