The “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy Was a Harbinger Of Our Times

ground zero mosque protests

The ascendance of Donald Trump has prompted many to look back and chart the factors and events that led him to power. In that regard, his John the Baptist was Sarah Palin, whose talk of “real Americans” in the 2008 campaign set the groundwork for a conservative populist nationalism that would come to dominate rightwing Republican politics. It was embodied in the rise of the Tea Party, who the media thought was about taxes, rather than the desire for a white nationalist republic that the slogan “take our country back” so obviously implied in the age of Obama.

That nationalism is of course part of a frightening international trend, from Xi’s China to Orban’s Hungary to Modi’s India. One defining aspect of that nationalism in both Europe and North America is hatred of Muslims. While the national media covered the Tea Party Spring of 2010 as if it were an uprising against taxes and “big government,” it mostly ignored the flood of paranoia about Islam and “sharia law.” States like Tennessee and Oklahoma moved to ban the non-existent use of sharia in the court system due to some supposed attempt by Muslims to take over the country. Those laws were passed after the Tea Party wave crashed into those states and many others.

The one instance of rampant Islamophobia in the Tea Party year of 2010 that reached the national media conversation was the furor over the supposed “Ground Zero Mosque.” In retrospect, this incident ought to be seen as a major harbinger of the rise of Trump. I was especially shaken by it at the time, because I actually witnessed it.

palin - the one
They have a type

It was a summer day, and I was in the New York area and visiting my wife, who lived in New Jersey. At the time I was stupidly living in rural east Texas and maintaining a long distance marriage. During this time I summered in beautiful, sunny Newark, and soaked up as much of New York as I could as an antidote to the stultifying rural existence I carried on most of the year. I went to the city that day by myself, since my wife was tired and wanted some time to rest and I wanted to have one last trip to the Big Apple before heading back to the country. At the end of a day bumming around Manhattan, I walked down to the World Trade Center PATH station to get the train back to Newark, and I saw them.

There was a horde of people who definitely did not look like New Yorkers or the usual tourists you’d see gawking at the Ground Zero site. The crowd was uniformly white, with eyes full of hard, direct stares with hatred smoldering behind them. One memory above all stands out to me. I saw a child, maybe nine or ten years old holding a sign. It simply said “Sharia” in red letters dripping with blood. He had such a look of anger on his face that I couldn’t avert my gaze. I was chilled wondering how many children were being made to think like this. These were people who had come out in the open in public for all to see to proclaim their hatred of a group of people because of their religion. It is hard to describe, but there was a feeling in the air that I had never felt before, a palpable feeling of hate that seemed to just emanate from the crowd’s bodies.

At the time I was shaken, but there were signs that I was witnessing the future, not just an isolated incident. The media, for example, treated the anger at the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” as a legitimate expression of patriotism rather than rooted in outright hatred. In a now familiar run of events, it failed to point out the facts of the case, lest there be any sign of “bias.”

The media, in its quest for “fairness” and “objectivity” rarely pointed out that 1. this was a community center, not a mosque; 2. it was to be located a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site, which in lower Manhattan terms might as well be on a different planet; and 3. Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf, who spearheaded the measure, was from a Sufi background, and thus despised by the Wahhabists who committed the 9/11 attack.

It also gave a platform to “respectable” politicians spouting bigotry. Newt Gingrich (remember him?) said “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington…we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” Notwithstanding the fact that the planned center was in no way next to the site, Gingrich implied that all Muslims were somehow responsible for the attack, and compared the Muslim faith to Nazism. He was still allowed to have a political career, as pathetic as it was, as were other politicians.

A personal performance by Whitney Houston, probably

Fox News went all in on this narrative, stoking the hatred already felt by their die-hard viewership. Bill O’Reilly (remember him?) hit the nationalist button hard by maintaining that a community center for New York Muslims would instead be a “victory mosque” and only had support from “the far left.” (In reality opposition among New Yorkers was exaggerated in the media.)

Beyond political and media figures, the “Ground Zero Mosque” paranoia helped maintain a broader wave of anti-Muslim hate in America that had jumped up after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq (which that hate helped garner popular support for) . It was after the protests in New York that a Florida pastor called for a Quran burning at his church. That incident caused a ruckus, but for the most part the media failed to connect the dots between the many, many examples of anti-Muslim hate happening across the country. This is hardly surprise, since when Muslims and Sikhs were targeted by violence and even murder after 9/11, it was always treated as a local, isolated issue.

This might be a good time to remember that the current president of the United States called for killing the family members of suspected terrorists when he was running for office. Or that he talked lustily of killing Muslims accused of terrorism with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Or that he has repeatedly tried to ban people from several predominately Muslim countries from stepping into the United States. The Fox News bloviating about the supposed “Victory Mosque” primed its viewers for Trump’s message of intolerance.

Not only that, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who bankrolled Trump’s campaign, also provided most of the money for the movement against the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Mercer and his daughter Rebekah have been the most important financial backers for the alt-right, most notably for Breitbart, modern America’s answer to Der Stürmer. Most people act like the alt-right came out of nowhere two years ago, but the ground for its rise was laid by people like the Mercers using events like the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” to fuel the fires of white nationalism.

This controversy, like so many flare-ups of racist hatred that privileged members of the media can safely ignore, quickly faded from the spotlight. The Politico article showing the connection to the Mercers was published one year later, and even back then this episode was already referred to as “almost forgotten.”

And so today we must live with a man as president who is the avatar of that crowd I saw on that summer day in 2010. The Mercers still fund the hate that drives them, it uses Cambridge Analytica to weaponize that hate on social media, and the media continues to enable it. It is a bad road, but don’t claim that we just started driving on it. Perhaps #TheResistance should have been mobilized before it was too late. It is a great shame that the willingness to defend Muslims is so weak even among purported liberals that the current wave of hate was not combatted before it crashed down on this nation.

For more of our coverage of of these issues, see our “Is Trump Sui Generis?” series (short-sighted, perhaps, but still insightful) and essays on conservatism and race.