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Mosque madness | Race-Talk | 412

Mosque madness

Filed under: US |

Two American Islamic organizations proposed to build a mosque and community center several blocks from ‘ground zero,’ where the World Trade Center’s twin towers were destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.[1] This proposal has divided the city that suffered the attack, and now the nation.

Have we all gone insane?  How could such a proposal produce such polarization?

Conservative media and conservative ideologues are skillful at manipulating the issue and preying on our prejudices for political advantage.  On August 14, the Drudge Report’s top headline was the Islamic greeting, “As-Salamu Alaykum,” with a skillfully selected photograph of President Obama above it, and a link to this story about mosque proposal.   Matt Drudge is not merely a news aggregator selecting links for his readers; he’s a master narrator.   Without typing a word, he influences our perception of the world through the ways in which he selects, frames, and organizes information.    From the Islamic greeting to the choice of photographs, Drudge is creating a master narrative or, at the least, feeding conservative and radical narratives about the President and our world.

The story, the image, and the headline play directly into two radical, right-wing narratives about the President.    The first is the so-called ‘birther’ idea that President Obama isn’t American, and was born outside of the United States.   Recent polls show that 27% of Americans think this is ‘probably or definitely’ true, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   The second is the idea that President Obama is Muslim.  Another Time poll shows that 24% of Americans believe this.    Even if the reader doesn’t subscribe to either idea, Drudge’s presentation feeds the less radical, core idea that underpins both narratives: that President Obama is not really ‘one of us,’ that he might not be a ‘real American’ in some cultural sense, that there is something ‘vaguely foreign’ about him.

It is no secret that conservatives have long deployed cultural wedge issues (guns, abortion, gay marriage, etc) to divide the electorate.   Researchers have shown that the electorate cares primarily about three things: 1) the economy, 2) security (foreign policy), 3) ‘values’ issues.   While Democrats may have the advantage in any given election cycle on the first two issues, conservatives have long used cultural wedge issues, or the ‘values’ basket, to polarize the electorate, and reduce the salience or significance of other issues.   President Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ rousing white resentment to busing and civil rights, is a well-known example.

Immigration has proven to be a much more difficult cultural wedge issue for conservatives, given the rapidly growing Latino electorate, but they sense that they have stumbled upon a new, winning issue with the mosque controversy.   But it is an issue that manipulates our worst impulses and prejudices.   A recent poll shows that many Americans harbor prejudice against Muslims, with nearly a third of the nation saying that Muslims should be barred from becoming President, and nearly that many saying that Muslims should be ineligible to sit on the Supreme Court.  The mosque controversy plays upon the idea that 9/11 was a skirmish in the ‘clash of civilizations,’ and that “Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.”

Drudge didn’t have to editorialize to make this point.  In fact, such right-wing appeals are most effective when they are subterranean, left as an implied suggestion.    In Drew Westin’s book, “The Political Brain,” he repeatedly makes the point that – when it comes to issues like this — our conscious values are our better angels.    In other words, the prejudicial, ‘us vs. them’ appeals are most potent when they remain covert.   Once exposed as bigotry, they lose much of their power.   Our better, rational values kick in.

The case against the mosque proposal relies on the flimsiest of logic, some sort of implied, unproven and unsubstantiated guilt by association between the sponsoring American Islamic organizations and the terrorists that committed the atrocities of 9/11. [2] That would be like arguing that we shouldn’t allow the construction of a Christian Church near the site of the Oklahoma City federal building or the site of the 1996 Olympic bombings in Atlanta, since Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph were both influenced by radical Christian organizations.

President Obama’s articulation of the freedom of religion and private property are the obvious applicable principles here.   Upon rational reflection, I struggle to see how the question of whether a mosque should be near ground zero is even an issue at all.   And yet, most Americans, in poll after poll, seem to be divided or oppose the mosque proposal.

The mosque controversy is yet another reminder of a hard lesson: the political brain is not a rational, logical organ.   It’s high time we called out those who would prey upon our prejudices, and manipulate us for political advantage.

[1]The two sponsoring organizations are the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, dedicated to improving muslim-west relations.

[2] Sarah Palin said: ““Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people?”


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