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.

By , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.”

More free?

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.”

Yet the ground zero controversy plays out as a Europe long proud of its cosmopolitan tolerance is roiled by rising Muslim populations and now bans minarets and burqas, and is seeing populist anti-Islamic sentiment in its politics. The rise five years ago of “Islamophobia” here has not ended. Rather, it has become more comfortably settled. Social politeness and taboos on talking about Islam are eroding.

The fact is, Europeans aren’t exactly sure what they think about Islam, analysts say. Educated classes here grew up in a multicultural world and imbibed values of getting along. But between the idea and the reality a shadow is falling. The French and Belgian government burqa ban is a symbolic pushback against growing numbers of Muslims not yet embraced by the country, but who the states want to assimilate. The burqa discussion powerfully hit Great Britain in July, before the new Conservative government put its foot down against such a ban.

New identities?

One British religious scholar points out that public opinion in Great Britain today on the Islam question bounces back and forth between the “positions of guys like Tony Blair, who argue absolutely about positive pluralism and the need to support moderate Muslims – and the concerns of us who for the first time are thinking it isn’t that simple, as we see the identity of Britain changing.”

In early January a “mega-mosque” in London was sidelined after four years of increasing opposition. The mosque would border a London Olympics 2012 site. The symbolism of the site and the size of the mosque – to hold 12,000 worshippers, when most British churches hold 500 persons – brought considerable opposition, led by a Christian evangelical politician. Many Muslims also opposed the project, initiated by the controversial Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat.

Even many hardcore religious pluralists finally said they felt the idea was a bad one. But the four year debate itself added to poisonous and exaggerated positions in the general atmosphere.

London, Parisian, or Barcelona cosmopolitians still insist on an ethic of tolerance and fairness. But there’s an uneasy fear about how a growing mélange of peoples and faiths is going to turn out. The Swiss, Austrian, and Dutch have elected political figures committed to curbing Islamic expression, if not erasing it – as in the case of Geert Wilders, the anti-Islamic Dutch figure who recently scored third in the supposedly tolerant lowlands.

Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and public intellectual, a Jew long critical of Israeli policies, recently stopped in France after being prevented from lecturing at an Palestinian university in the West Bank, and observed that, “Europe has always actually been more racist than the US.”

Such opinions are deeply unappreciated here. Yet in the past week of comment on the lively web site Rue 89, and on Le Monde, the majority of those choosing to express themselves on the Ground Zero subject, though a self-selected group, were expressed hostility to Muslims without much qualification. There were other views, including the humorous French position that a mosque or any other building would be fine on the site, so long as it was “not a McDonalds.” But a majority took the ground zero case as a chance to air a “clash of civilizations.”

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