This article, by Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and myself, originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of FAIR’s Extra! magazine.
How did a local story about a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan turn into a national controversy about whether a “Ground Zero Mosque” would be a slap in the face to 9/11 victims?
It started with a small group of anti-Muslim activists who suggested the proposal was a scheme by anti-American Muslims to “conquer” the hallowed site of the September 11 attacks (Big Government, 5/18/10). Some even suggested that the Imam behind the proposal was an Al-Qaeda supporter (Fox News, 5/13/10). The project was named “Cordoba House,” opponents argued, in honor of the Islamic conquest of Spain, where Muslim victors built a mosque on the ruins of a sacked church (Newt.org, 6/21/10). How could anyone miss the parallels?
Created on small anti-Muslim blogs, the “Ground Zero Mosque” framing was eventually adopted by bigger right-wing outlets before making extensive inroads into broader corporate media.
Every key point in the opponents’ storyline was false. The location of the proposed 13-story community center and mosque, at 51 Park Place (known as Park51), is not part of Ground Zero, and isn’t even visible from the former site of the World Trade Center. The three-block radius around the WTC site that would need to be drawn to make Park51 part of some “hallowed ground” includes strip clubs, porn shops and liquor stores (Daily News, 8/16/10). The key figure behind the proposal, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an American Muslim who works in fields of interfaith outreach and tolerance, with an emphasis on improved relations between the Arab/Muslim world and the West. Cordoba House is a project of Rauf’s organization, the Cordoba Initiative, whose name honors the tolerance among Muslims, Christians and Jews that flourished in the Spanish city a thousand years ago (New York Times, 7/14/10).
But the facts didn’t seem to matter. The people who ought to have been on the defensive for misrepresenting facts and fomenting religious bigotry continued to be on the offensive, driving the coverage with their dubious claims, while their progressive Muslim targets remained on the defensive, smeared and chided for “intolerantly” pushing forward with their proposal.
A useful timeline produced by Salon (8/16/10) traced the controversy’s birth to posts by Pamela Geller on her Atlas Shrugs blog (e.g., 12/8/09), a key outlet for anti-Muslim bigotry. Geller (12/21/09) charged that the Muslim community center was about “Islamic domination and expansionism…. Clearly a more appropriate ‘Islamic center’ would be one devoted to expunging the Quran of its violent texts.” In April 2010, Geller joined with Robert Spencer of the “notoriously Islamophobic” Jihad Watch website (Guardian, 2/7/06) to form a group called Stop Islamization of America, which began to organize against the proposed center.
Another of Geller and Spencer’s anti–Cordoba House groups, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is represented by attorney David Yerushalmi, who has written that Islam is an “evil religion,” “blacks are the most murderous of peoples (at least in New York City)” and “there is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote” (Little Green Footballs, 8/10/10).
Beginning in May, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post picked up the story; columnist Andrea Peyser (5/13/10) propagated the falsehood that the center would open on September 11, 2011, and the Post repeatedly used the phrase “Ground Zero mosque” (5/16/10, 5/20/10). It quickly exploded in right-wing media, which is no stranger to anti-Muslim sentiment (nor to late-summer, pre-election wedge issues.)
The usual suspects got on the case with their usual disregard for the facts. Fox News’ Sean Hannity (5/20/10) claimed that Imam Rauf “may be much more radical than most Americans know,” despite the fact that Rauf worked extensively with the Bush administration on improving America’s standing in the Muslim world (Talking Points Memo, 8/12/10). Fox pundit Newt Gingrich (Yglesias, 7/22/10) made the bizarre proposal that “there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” and later (Fox News, 8/16/10) compared the building of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero to Nazis putting “up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”
As Talking Points Memo pointed out (5/18/10), Tea Party leader and radio host Mark Williams wrote on his blog (5/14/10) that “the animals of Allah…are drooling over the positive response that they are getting from New York City officials over a proposal to build a 13-story monument to the 9/11 Muslim hijackers.” Houston-based radio host Michael Berry called for the “mosque” to be “blown up” (Think Progress, 5/28/10).
The story soon migrated to the establishment press. While challenging some of the “facts” that opponents put forward and refraining from calling for a ban on the community center, the more centrist corporate media entertained the lies and bigotry of anti-Muslim forces to an alarming degree.
CNN featured virulent Islamophobes on a number of occasions. Geller—who has called for the destruction of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites, and whose website depicted Muhammad with the face of a pig (FAIR Blog, 8/18/10)—appeared on the network twice (5/26/10, 8/17/10) to talk about her opposition to the project.
Bryan Fischer of the right-wing American Family Association called for “no more mosques” in the United States in a August 10 blog post (Talking Points Memo, 8/11/10); the next week, Anderson Cooper 360 (8/16/10) gave Fischer a platform to claim that Islam is a “totalitarian ideology that is anti-Christian [and] anti-Semitic,” and seeks “the extermination of Western civilization.” Another 360 segment (8/11/10) featured Flip Benham of the pro-life, anti-Islam group Operation Save America, where Benham called Islam “a lie from the pit of hell.”
Other outlets adopted the false framing the Islamophobic right was pushing. In big, bold letters, Newsweek’s August 16 cover asked, “A Mosque at Ground Zero?” NPR also adopted the “Ground Zero mosque” language (8/3/10, 8/18/10).
A front-page New York Times (8/10/10) report seemed to blame the victims of the bigotry, as reporter Anne Barnard described the “combustible debate” as coming about through “a combination of arguable naïveté, public-relations missteps and a national political climate in which perhaps no preparation could have headed off controversy.” Missing from her list was the organized campaign of misinformation and bigotry that launched and fed the controversy.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (8/13/10) raised an absurd hypothetical to justify his opposition to the Islamic community center: “Who is to say that the mosque won’t one day hire an Anwar al-Aulaqi—spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, and onetime imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 terrorists?” And who’s to say that Krauthammer won’t decide to become a cannibal, like fellow psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter?
Krauthammer also questioned the “goodwill” of Imam Rauf for saying, on CBS’s 60 Minutes (9/30/01), in reference to September 11: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” As the Daily Show pointed out (8/16/10), Glenn Beck has made a similar point (Fox News, 4/15/10), saying: “When people said they hate us, well, did we deserve 9/11? No. But were we minding our business? No. Were we in bed with dictators that abandoned our values and principles? Yes. That causes problems.” Nobody questioned whether Beck sympathized with terrorism then, though.
Philadelphia Inquirer culture writer Stephan Salisbury (Tom Dispatch, 8/10/10) placed this story in the context of elevated anti-Muslim sentiment in the country since September 11, and the coinciding Islamo-phobic activism, which includes anti-mosque movements in Tennessee, California, Connecticut and elsewhere, as well as in New York. Calling the opposition to Cordoba House part of a larger movement that seeks to ban Islam in the U.S., Salisbury told Extra! he blamed media for failing to adequately confront the New York project’s opponents: “The role of journalists is to challenge narratives, not sit on the sidelines. This is especially true when a bigoted narrative like this one comes along.”
If some journalists challenged the anti-Muslim smears and defended Rauf and his associates (e.g., Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, 8/6/10; New York Times editorial, 8/16/10), the coverage never fully reversed direction to frame the saga for what it was: a story of monumental lying and bigotry.
While much opposition to Park51 can be attributed to Islamophobia and a media culture that is often receptive to it, there’s also a partisan political aspect to the story that hasn’t been sufficiently examined. In December 2009, when the proposal was first unveiled, it generated little controversy (New York Times, 12/9/09) outside of the small number of anti-Muslim websites. But moving into the summer, it was seized upon by prominent conservative pundits and politicians like Newt Gingrich, who showed up on Fox’s Hannity (8/5/10) denouncing “elite politicians” for “turning a blind eye” to the views of most Americans. (After weeks of distortion, some produced by Gingrich himself, polls showed U.S. public opinion had turned against the center.)
Hannity’s response to Gingrich provided an even clearer look into how the right viewed the story as a handy political wedge in advance of November’s congressional elections:
Isn’t that where we are, though, in terms of American society? The American people support Arizona’s immigration law, but it doesn’t matter to liberal Democrats. The American people don’t want this mosque built. It doesn’t matter to liberal Democrats.
Perhaps the most revealing glimpse into the entire cynical campaign was provided by right-wing radio firebrand Laura Ingraham. Guest hosting Fox’s O’Reilly Factor (12/21/09) last year, Ingraham told Daisy Kahn, one of the center’s developers and Imam Rauf’s wife, “I like what you’re trying to do,” referring to the project’s spirit of tolerance and outreach. By August, however, Ingraham had changed her tune. Again substituting for O’Reilly (8/25/10), she denounced the center, demanding: “So why is Barack Obama letting this go on? Why is the president of the United States at his already low approval numbers, why is he letting this continue as it is?”