“No Mosque in My Backyard” Syndrome and the Perils of Lukewarm Tolerance

American mosque“Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” read a recent New York Times headline. The article appeared shortly after the Times ran a few pieces about angry opposition to a Muslim cultural facility proposed by Cordoba House at Ground Zero. (That plan is not for a mosque, as it has been inaccurately described, but a combined arts, cultural, recreational, and prayer space.)

What does opposition to the Ground Zero proposal have to do with aversion to mosques elsewhere in America? Quite a lot, I think.

The surface rationale offered by conservatives (and others, including the ADL) who balk at the Ground Zero proposal is that it would be “insensitive” to family members of Sept. 11th victims. Sarah Palin, for instance, tried to pretend that the issue was not one of freedom of religion (tellingly, so did Abe Foxman of the ADL). She focused on the idea that it was a “stab in the heart” to the victims’ families.

Let’s leave aside for a moment this notion that all Sept. 11th families have allowed bin Laden to warp their view of all Muslims. Let’s also leave aside the idea that the law and everyone else’s freedoms should be held hostage to the prejudices of a few traumatized people.

The gist of the argument, as Palin explained to “peace-seeking” Muslims, is that a “mosque” is fine—really, it is—just not here at Ground Zero.

So imagine the surprise when it turns out that conservative politicians and religious leaders are railing against mosque plans across the country. As the Times notes, “In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself.”

Recruiting various “former” Muslims and hectoring practicing Muslims, conservatives are running around selectively quoting from their newfound translations of the Qur’an and invoking the term “Shariah law” to whip up the fears and prejudices of their base.

On Friday, a dozen right-wing Christians in Connecticut harassed mosque-goers last Friday by yelling “Islam is a Lie” and “Jesus hates Muslims” through their bullhorns; one protester pushed kids around with his placard.

This phenomenon belies the facile and transparent assertion that opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is motivated by concern for Sept.11th families. Conservatives have simply cloaked their own prejudices in the garbs of the traumatized.

In light of the vitriolic opposition to the Ground Zero proposal, and in light of conservatives’ true motives for that opposition, burgeoning anti-Muslim bigotry was inevitable.

Take Rick Lazio, the New York Republican candidate for governor. He loudly claimed that the Ground Zero site is a “security” threat. The idea that the most conspicuous Muslim site in the entire country would pose a security threat can only be described as stupid, but that is beside the point: it reinforces the idea that where there are Muslims, there is danger. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

Within that framework, it is only natural that others across the country would ask themselves why they should have to put with mosques in their own neighborhoods. Why would Muslims in Kansas or Ohio or anywhere else be less dangerous than the ones in New York? Why should the good citizens of these states be more exposed to the Muslim threat than people in New York City?

This is precisely why it is false to draw an imaginary line between the idea that a Muslim presence is acceptable, but just not at Ground Zero, and the idea that a Muslim presence is unacceptable, period.

The former argument plays into the latter. It rests on the infectious idea that American Muslims need to be treated as a threat, viewed through the prism of terrorism, and tolerated only to the extent dictated by some vague sense of political correctness.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the Times article is its reference to a study in January by scholars at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. That report, based on a two-year study, says that American mosques actually help prevent radicalism.

That’s probably not going to stop conservatives such as the angry mob in Connecticut.

But for those of us who have not descended to the level of animals, it underscores the point that treating the Muslim community as the enemy is counter-productive.