Ground zero mosque debate echoes Europe's fears of Muslims
The US debate over the so-called ground zero mosque in New York tracks similar fights that have taken place in European capitals in recent years over national identity and the impact of growing Muslim populations.
As they weather a steamy August, Europeans are dimly aware of a convulsing US debate over the so-called ground zero mosque in New York, an Islamic center scheduled to be built two blocks from where Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Here, America is seen as a harbor of religious freedom whose embassies promote interfaith dialogue and protection of minority faiths. President Obama’s Cairo speech to harmonize Islam and American values was perceived as typical, as is the American inclination to push Europeans not to ban small churches and “cults.”
In Paris and London, opinion seems split between those who support and even admire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s acceptance of the Islamic center and those who say the 16-story center is inappropriate or a provocation Americans shouldn’t accept.
In France, stories on Mr. Bloomberg’s decision registered surprise that an America often seen here as narrow-minded and Arab-hating proved more open and tolerant in some ways than current French opinion.
“What we see [in New York] is a fair, balanced treatment of communities ….Let the Americans do it their way….most of their founders settled in the US in order to obtain absolute religious freedom, and this is what is being upheld by this [New York City] decision,” comments one François Bogard, in a Le Monde forum.
Yet striking among pundits, websites, and bloggers is an often articulate though sometimes churlish depiction of Islam as a single monolithic form of faith, inherently violent and extreme, and of Muslims as incapable of being moderate.
An essay on a French leftist website Agoravox spoke of incomprehension and shock that on the same week German authorities closed a radical Hamburg mosque New York approved the Islamic center: “The Mayor, instigated by an imam who is said to be ‘moderate,’ plans to build a mosque extremely close to Ground Zero, where stood the Twin Towers that Islamist fanaticism reduced to rubble…You rub your eyes and read again. No, it is not a hallucination...you look for the justification…but instead of understanding, you dive deeper into an impression of unreality.”
To be sure, Europeans familiar with the US do see the ground zero brouhaha as largely driven by the same nativist sentiments they hear about in the upstart US “tea parties.” They know the US has something called a First Amendment that guarantees religious rights even when faiths are unpopular or different.
“I understand the sensitivities of many speaking against the mosque; their wounds are still raw, nine years later,” points out Nick Spencer at Theos, a faith and public policy center in London. “But reacting against it is counterproductive…for reasons of religious liberty... But it also is a positive opportunity. Those responsible for building the center know the eyes of the world, and America’s eyes, will be directly on them. That’s a chance to show Islam as conciliatory, and a chance for Islam and the US to exchange.”