Somehow all the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque begins to feel like all the controversy over Terri Schiavo. You might remember that business – the brain-dead woman with the husband who wanted to follow her wishes and remove the feeding tube, and the woman’s parents who said the husband was evil and they thought she was just fine and would recover, and who argued that they had more say in the matter than the stupid husband. It would have been nothing but an infinitely sad family dispute, and a wholly private matter – but then it got political. In 2003 the parents decided on lobbying for their case to keep their daughter alive and selected pro-life activist Randall Terry as their spokesman. And Terry is good. It ended with Congress passing a law to keep the woman’s body functioning – and the courts ruled that was nonsense, and then it was over.
Why was congress involved? The lobbying worked. By 2004 the Republicans had subpoenaed everyone in sight, even the brain dead woman (she didn’t testify). Bill Frist, the Senate leader at the time – and a heart surgeon – looked at the edited videotapes the parents had provided and said the woman looked fine to him and would recover. And he was a doctor. So what the husband proposed was nothing less than murder. And it became a Right to Life Issue – a defining moment. Congress had to act. And of course it was a way to paint the Democrats as willing participants in murder, as they had been on the issue of abortion right and the Roe case. This was their chance to box them in – agree to pass this law for this one woman or be forever tarred as murderers. We are for life, and you Democrats are always for Death itself – you like to kill children and now want to kill this woman. The Democrats had no choice. No one wants to be seen as a murderer – no votes there. So everyone sort of agreed and passed Terri’s Law and Bush interrupted his vacation – the one and only time he did that, as he didn’t do that when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans – to sign it into law. And it was ruled unconstitutional at each level. Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida at the time, seemed to be about to defy the courts and, as the woman was in a nursing home in his state, kidnap the woman for safe-keeping. He didn’t. The feeding tube was removed. The woman lingered for a bit and then died on March 31, 2005. The autopsy showed her brain had atrophied long ago, and there wasn’t much brain there. There was talk of Frist losing his medical license for diagnosing someone he had never physically examined, from heavily edited videotapes for someone with an agenda, but nothing came of that. He wasn’t treating her or anything.
So what was all that about? It was about creating a defining moment of course. The idea seemed to be that the nation would be in awe of the Republicans’ moral superiority and heroic goodness in this one case, and in the 2006 midterm elections the Republicans would win big and keep control of the House and Senate, if not win every single open seat. People would forget about the two wars they had started and were going badly, and forget about all the bodies floating in the water in New Orleans.
Of course they didn’t account for the majority of the nation being appalled at the idea of the government intervening in a private family matter. And when that intervention was crafted and rammed through Congress by the same guys who had said for generations that the government should stay out of people’s private business, they lost a few from their base. That created a bit of cognitive dissonance. And they lost both houses in the midterms. Frist retired from politics. But they seemed to think it was worth a shot. It might have worked.
And so it is with the Ground Zero Mosque, which isn’t really a mosque and isn’t really at Ground Zero. Read Justin Elliott’s complete chronology of how anti-Islam blogger Pamela “Atlas Shrugged” Geller and Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post manufactured a controversy where there wasn’t one. After all, substituting for Bill O’Reilly last December, Fox “personality” Laura Ingraham praised the project in an interview with the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Daisy Kahn, telling her, “I like what you’re trying to do.” That was before there needed to be a defining moment. The idea was that here was a way to trap the Democrats. They say the Ground Zero Mosque isn’t really a mosque and isn’t really at Ground Zero, and talk about the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion, and when they do that you say they support Islamic terrorists – and Obama’s middle name is Hussein – and you say they have no respect for all those who die on that September day long ago, and that they obviously hate America. They could spring a trap.
And it worked. If the Democrats say these folks have the right to build this community center there America will turn against them – just as America turned against the Democrats when they said Terri Schiavo’s husband was in the right on that matter, and it wasn’t the government’s business at all. Of course it was, and Terri Schiavo’s husband had hired the ACLU to help him! So there! And this is the government’s business too, in spite of those words in the First Amendment in the Free Exercise Clause on religion, about the duty of the government to avoid, at all costs, “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That was crazy talk these days.
In short, here was a chance to pull off a defining moment again – or maybe it was a chance to get it right this time. What could go wrong? People are still scared silly, and no one knows a damned thing about Islam.
But the wild card in this case is George Bush. See Joe Conason with Where is George W. Bush When America Needs Him?
For Muslims around the world, George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq became symbols of Western arrogance, hostility and even religious supremacy. But neither Bush’s terrible foreign policy nor his personal and political connections with the religious right – where bigotry against Muslims runs rampant – prevented him from speaking out for religious tolerance and freedom on many occasions, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He prided himself on that record, which had roots in his family’s long relationship with the Saudi monarchy.
So why is the former president silent now, when a proposed community center and mosque in lower Manhattan have called forth such vitriol and prejudice from his supporters? Still popular among Republicans and conservatives (who are already seeking to rehabilitate him) Bush could speak out firmly on behalf of the First Amendment rights he has always claimed to uphold. If he were only to issue a statement saying he agrees with President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg that Muslims enjoy the same rights as other Americans – without exception or qualification – then people, especially his people, would have to listen.
But George, like Elvis, has left the building. All we have to defend Obama is Bush’s ex-speechwriter Michael Gerson:
No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
Conason notes that is the essential constitutional issue, but Gerson goes on to say more, that the Murdoch-led conservatives are advancing the interests of our enemies:
The militants hope, above all else, to provoke conflict between the West and Islam – to graft their totalitarian political manias onto a broader movement of Muslim solidarity. America hopes to draw a line that isolates the politically violent and those who tolerate political violence – creating solidarity with Muslim opponents and victims of radicalism.
How precisely is our cause served by treating the construction of a non-radical mosque in Lower Manhattan as the functional equivalent of defiling a grave? It assumes a civilizational conflict instead of defusing it. Symbolism is indeed important in the war against terrorism. But a mosque that rejects radicalism is not a symbol of the enemy’s victory; it is a prerequisite for our own. …
A president not only serves Muslim citizens, not only commands Muslims in the American military, but also leads a coalition that includes Iraqi and Afghan Muslims who risk death each day fighting Islamic radicalism at our side. How could he possibly tell them that their place of worship inherently symbolizes the triumph of terror?
How indeed? Yet that ugly, stigmatizing message is now central to right-wing Christian ideology and Republican political strategy, as one of Bush’s home-state senators smugly explained yesterday. If the former president meant any of the things he used to say about the meaning of liberty, he should be saying them again now – and telling the demagogues in his party to shut up before they inflict permanent damage on America’s heritage, prestige and strategic interests.
That smug Senator:
Texas Sen. John Cornyn says Obama is “disconnected from mainstream America” and that voters this fall will “render their verdict.” Cornyn leads the GOP’s Senate campaign committee.
It’s the Terri Schiavo thing again. Obama has said that religious freedom allows the mosque to be built, but he says he’s not commenting on “the wisdom” of building a mosque two blocks from ground zero. Yeah, well, whatever – he’s still a Muslim-lover, who hates America. Mainstream America knows better. Remember Terri Schiavo!
But it didn’t work that last time. And see Mark Halperin:
Yes, Republicans, you can take advantage of this heated circumstance, backed by the families of the 9/11 victims, in their most emotional return to the public stage since 2001.
But please don’t do it. There are a handful of good reasons to oppose allowing the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero, particularly the family opposition and the availability of other, less raw locations. But what is happening now – the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric – is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve.
It isn’t clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama’s measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner – the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.
That’s all very nice, but Josh Marshall says he is talking to the void:
Mark Halperin has a highly unusual and painfully quaint column today imploring the GOP not to demagogue the Mosque issue for votes in the mid-term election. The reason simply being that it’s not right. This is “your moment”, he writes and commends Republicans for having “restricted yourself as much as possible to an economic message, eschewing social issues and foreign policy as you try to establish contrasts for the electorate between your brand and the Obama-Pelosi-Reid record.”
What stands out most is not only Halperin’s general aping of Republican language but his seemingly genuine belief that there’s anyone there to appeal to.
It comes down to this:
The institutional Republican party has fully (though with some notable and honorable exceptions) hoisted its sail to xenophobia and religious hatred. And as Halperin notes, at least for motivating their own voters, it’s simply good politics. This is not something anybody happened into.
But it is understandable:
For most of us who are anything but quite young, we grew up in America where Islam, as a domestic social or cultural reality, was close to invisible. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any Muslims in the US. The fact that some of our most searing and for many of us some of our first experiences with Islam came in the form of a catastrophic terrorist attack by Islamic radicals creates a situation ripe for exploitation. And here we have it. We’re in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What affects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What’s important is compiling some record of what’s afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.
Marshall thinks Halperin’s take is naive “and ignoring how much Republican elected officials have already made the decision to juice up and fan this fire.” Marshall argues the most important distinction today is between people who will stand up and say this is wrong and those who stand silent. So it’s matter of counting heads.
Or maybe it’s a matter of deciding who is saying, no, these guys aren’t nasty bigots. It’s just like the Schiavo thing. It a cheap trick, badly manufactured, and shouldn’t be taken as seriously – and you should be pissed off that they’re trying to jerk you around this time, again, folks. Only this time it’s far more dangerous.
Of course some conservatives want to have it both ways, like Ross Douthat’s New York Times column, Islam and the Two Americas:
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides.
But there’s this:
There’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon Diaspora – and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.
Has he wants you to embrace each:
But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success.
And his evidence for this is this:
During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture – and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t – was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.
The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms – exerted through fair means and foul – eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.
Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic comments:
Douthat does not really explain whether this push for assimilation from the second America was intended or accidental. It seems distinctly odd to argue that the draconian immigration restrictions in the first part of the century were intended to ensure a more cohesive, liberal society. According to this analysis, immigration restrictionists of earlier eras were motivated not by racism or xenophobia (a word Douthat uses earlier) but rather by a wish for a more democratic and unified citizenry. As for religion, were nativist concerns about Catholicism truly motivated by the illiberalism of American Catholics? To say that nativism is motivated by liberalism is almost a contradiction-in-terms.
Douthat might just be making a simple utilitarian point of the “you-can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-some-eggs” variety, but this type of thinking offers no prescriptive help whatsoever.
Salon’s Joan Walsh is less kind:
I would like to thank New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, on behalf of my Irish Catholic relatives; indeed, on behalf of all Irish Catholics, including the Kennedy family, for reminding us of the debt we owe to anti-Catholic “Nativists.” Yes, even though I was raised to believe the Nativists spread anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry with lies about who we were and what we believed, Douthat says I was raised wrong (not surprising, given I was raised by Irish Catholics). In fact, Catholics like my family and the Kennedys should apparently thank the Nativists, because, as Douthat patiently explains, “Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.”
Got that? Until today, I had always thought the belief that Catholics couldn’t be “unambiguously Catholic and American,” or that the Catholic Church had “illiberal tendencies,” represented prejudice, the kind of prejudice that collided with and eventually gave way to American ideals about equality and religious freedom. I didn’t realize my people had to be “inspired” into fully embracing “the virtues of democracy” by Nativists, often by violence: from Charlestown, Mass, where Nativists burned a Catholic convent in 1834, to Philadelphia in 1844 (where thousands of Nativists attacked Irish Catholics, derided as “scum unloaded on American wharfs,” burned Catholic churches and convents, invaded the homes of Irish Catholics and beat residents), to St. Louis, where a Nativist riot against Irish Catholics killed 10 and destroyed 93 Irish Catholic homes and businesses, or Louisville, Ky., where Nativist mobs killed at least two dozen Catholics on “Bloody Monday,” Aug. 6, 1855.
The whole thing is absurd:
I’m glad all that violence convinced Irish Catholics to stop being dirty, superstitious, lazy, drunken, anti-American Papists – the Nativist line on my people; the Pope was considered as anti-American as Osama bin Laden back in the day – so we’d one day deserve to enjoy the religious and political rights other Americans did. I was raised to believe the election of John F. Kennedy as our first Catholic president represented the triumph of American values of tolerance and inclusion over bigotry. But in Douthat’s bizarro-world version of American history, bigots help their victims, by making them deserve bigotry a little bit less. Is this a great country, or what? Or is Douthat’s argument a little bit like saying African-Americans owe a debt to the KKK, or Jews should thank Nazis?
Douthat is putting lipstick on a pig, of course. Cognitive dissonance will do that to you. Walsh point out how that makes Douthat say absurd things. And, although she doesn’t mention it, the pig doesn’t like it either.
William Saletan goes the other way, arguing that we should build the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, as the best possible idea:
That’s what we must never forget about 9/11. This was never a war between us and the Muslim world. It’s a war between us and al-Qaida. The central battleground in this war isn’t Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lower Manhattan. It’s Islam. That’s the ground al-Qaida is fighting for. It’s the ground Imam Rauf wants to take back. He wants to build an Islam that loves America, embraces freedom, and preaches coexistence. Let’s help him.
Kevin Drum concurs:
One of the reasons that there’s been virtually no homegrown Muslim terrorism in America is because, even imperfectly, we’ve always done a pretty good job of allowing Muslim immigrants to assimilate, to worship freely, and to work without discrimination. Because of this, there’s very little of the resentment and bitterness that’s helped to fuel terrorist cells in Europe. Call me naive, but I’d say this is a national security plus. Why would anyone want to endanger it?
Don’t ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as he doesn’t mind:
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid is breaking ranks with President Obama over the issue of the proposed construction of a controversial Islamic center and mosque just blocks away from Ground Zero.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. “Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built some place [sic] else. If the Republicans are being sincere, they would help us pass this long overdue bill to help the first responders whose health and livelihoods have been devastated because of their bravery on 911, rather than continuing to block this much-needed legislation.”
It’s the Schiavo things again. One by one the Democrats cave, and Steve Benen says this:
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – courageous stands are rarely rewarded by voters in competitive contests – but it’s nevertheless disappointing to see Reid make the wrong call. It’s disappointing because I’m all but certain Reid doesn’t actually believe this. As a member of a religious minority himself, Reid knows better. He has to.
Yep, Reid is one of those weird Mormons. And his position statement did him no good anyway. Republicans responded to Reid’s effort to prevent political attacks by attacking him anyway – ah ha, he agrees with opponent Sharron Angle, so why not just bypass Reid and have Angle be the senator?
If he was going to get slammed either way, Reid probably should have just done the right thing and stood up for the American values he knows are worth fighting for.
The trap worked, but oddly, Sam Stein reports here on Muslim and Arab-American Republicans who are “working behind the scenes to try and tone down their own party’s rhetoric.”
Organized informally, the group includes officials who served in the Bush administration or have strong ties to GOP leadership. Their concerns are twofold: that there is something fundamentally unconstitutional about opposing the Islamic cultural center and that the tenor of conservatives risks alienating the Muslim and Arab communities (both domestic and abroad) for years to come.
“People like myself… who are hardcore Republicans and have been activists for years, with undoubted credentials on the Republican side, are really outraged by what is going on,” said David Ramadan, a prominent Muslim-American conservative operative and a member of the Virginia delegation to the Republican National Convention. “We believe first and foremost in the Constitution. This is not a matter of this mosque or that mosque. This is not a New York mosque issue. It is a Constitutional issue…. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
With close ties to both Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell national Republicans, Ramadan said that he and others will launch an outreach campaign in the days ahead targeting key leaders, from members of Congress on down. The hope is to bring the GOP closer in line with the position it held during the Bush years, when Islam was defined first and foremost as a religion of peace.
Benen on this development:
Reading the piece, which is worth checking out in full, I was reminded of similar reports earlier this year about prominent Hispanic Americans in the Republican Party who were equally incensed about the direction of their party, as GOP leaders and candidates became increasingly anti-immigrant. It seems likely that prominent African Americans in the Republican Party have been similarly concerned with the party’s race-based politicking of late.
The larger truth is that when Republicans get anxious in an election season, their first instinct is to play games with identity politics. It’s a calculated divisiveness – the GOP will lose the Muslim-American conservatives Bush brought into the party, but it’s a small price to pay for boosting turnout from the rest of the party base.
Long term, as the United States gets more diverse, this is still a losing proposition. For now, Republicans don’t seem to care.
Maybe they need to be reminded of what happened the last time they set up a defining moment. That didn’t work out well. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on this one.