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Ground Zero mosque as wedge issue: Muslims vs. 'real' Americans

The debate over the so-called ground zero mosque has rekindled an old debate over who belongs in America. It has also given us an opportunity to finally stamp out the recurring nativist impulse to exclude feared groups from our midst.

By Alia Malek / August 17, 2010

New York

Like today’s other hot-button issues including gay marriage and illegal immigration, at the heart of the uproar over Cordoba House, the proposed Muslim community center located in lower Manhattan, is generally a struggle to define what makes an American truly, authentically American. And specifically underlying the Cordoba controversy, the fear of the radicalization of Muslim-American youth, and the growing Islamophobia spreading through the US (a Florida church is hosting “International Burn a Koran Day” on Sept. 11) is a suspicion that a Muslim cannot be a real American.

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Not everyone thinking through these issues is hateful. There are also many others including even Muslim Americans who worry that perhaps these are unique times that justify such boundary-setting; that Islam as a religion presents a unique challenge to American ideals; or that maybe American pluralism has its limits.

Such views are aided by a simplistic teaching of American history that presents immigration as an easy blending of different peoples that only today is being challenged by people who are simply too different.

All of us instead should take a closer look at our past and take heart. As a country, we’ve been here before.

The US is no stranger to immigrants from foreign lands with ways perceived as utterly strange and incompatible.

Anti-Catholic bigotry

We’ve seen a “foreign” religion – Catholicism – demonized in a way that did not demur to then non-existent political correctness. (Consider the famous Thomas Nast cartoon that portrayed Catholic bishops in their full attire crawling onto the shores of America, their mitres re-interpreted as the mouths of crocodiles.)

We’ve seen geopolitical crisis – like World War I – bring to the surface the competing nationalisms and identities housed in this country, sometimes even within individuals. And we’ve seen the demonization of American co-ethnics – Germans and Japanese – of our enemies abroad.

Then, like today, nativist voices billowed loudly from the media to the halls of Congress, positing the existence of some mythical, homogenous, authentic America that excluded a whole list of Americans, from Native Americans to blacks to any immigrant not of the Founding Fathers’ “racial stock” – the composition of which conveniently shifted, depending on how favorably regarded Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans, or French were at the moment.

Today, these exclusionary voices are shouting again. And while their list of who fits in their authentic America has expanded, it still remains much easier for them to identify those, like Muslims, who don’t make the cut.

We must hear the transnational voice

But it’s the voices of the transnationalists that need to be revived, and kudos to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for being one of them. They are remarkably relevant in offering us an alternate vision, a pep talk even. The most eloquent articulation of these beliefs is the 1916 essay “Trans-national America” by Randolph Bourne.

He recognized that what in fact is quintessentially American – and what gave the country a considerable advantage in the world – are its multiple cultures of ethnic and personal identifications all living side by side. For him, more ideas and more exchange yielded a better and more robust society and democracy.