Mosque near ground zero controversy simmers ... with media help

The mosque near ground zero debate is still percolating partly because the topic is so well suited to blogs and talk shows.

By , Staff writer

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    People participate in a rally against a proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York in this Aug. 22 file photo.
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The Islamic community center near the World Trade Center, the mosque at Ground Zero – whatever you call it, it isn't fading to black any time soon.

  • A New York Times poll that came out Friday shows two-thirds of New Yorkers believe the building should relocate.
  • Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert demonstrated (albeit in a rebroadcast) how he himself could be labeled a terrorist with enough triangulations of connections between himself and others.
  • An online op-ed piece by Jason Ditz news director of antiwar.com is attracting a shower of impassioned response.
  • And during the week of Aug. 23-27, almost a quarter (23 percent) of the news links on blogs were about the mosque, making it the No. 1 subject, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In other words, this is not going away because politicians and even talk show hosts have an interest in fanning the flame. The facts are taking a back seat to the spotlight, notes Jim Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

“This has become a way for these various figures to talk to their particular audiences,” he says. That means the national dialogue is less about exploring facts or resolution and more about politics, he says.

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“The various factions aren’t even really talking to each other,” he adds. “Rather, they are talking past one another to their supporters and constituencies.”

Jordan Sekulow is a lawyer who represents Tim Brown, a 9/11 first responder who is disputing the proposed plan. Mr. Sekulow says the biggest reason this fire grew from a local zoning issue to a national firestorm is the president himself.

“Once President Obama took a position, then all the other political figures had to take a stand,” says Sekulow, director of international operations for the American Center for Law and Justice. “Everyone from Harry Reid to the local candidates in North Carolina has had to issue statements about the mosque.”

He suggests this is turning into a major issue in the upcoming election because it reveals a widening gap between the president and the American people – showing how of how out of touch he is with the country. “This has become just another issue that makes people question the president and his party," he says, suggesting that that divide is reflected in polls.

But polls can create their own controversy because they produce answers only to the questions that are asked, says Graham Wilson, a political scientist at Boston University.

“In many ways this controversy echoes what political scientists have long documented about public opinion,” he says via e-mail. Tell Americans that something is in the Constitution and ask them if they agree with it and they’ll say, ‘Sure.’ Ask them the same question without mentioning the Constitution and you get a very different result, he notes.

“Here we’ve got a clear exercise-of-religion question, but if you bring in 9/11 or even just Islam and don’t remind people of our Constitution and founding principles, then you get a different result,” he says.

He would like to see a joint statement from the various living US presidents affirming the constitutional issue.

The American public needs to be reminded what the Constitution says and both our friends and foes in the Islamic world need to hear us saying that loud and clear. “Let’s be clear: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ ” he says.

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