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.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.