Park 51 dividing lines
The ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is treated as a party-political issue. In reality, both Republicans and Democrats are split on it
At face value, it is easy to see why the mosque debate is being portrayed by most reporting as a partisan battle. Sarah Palin’s 18 July Twitter assertion that the mosque represents an “UNNECESSARY provocation” that “stabs hearts”, ignited a storm of similar, but increasingly ridiculous (and attention-grabbing) exhortations from other high-profile Republicans. This summit of absurdity reached new heights with Newt Gingrich’s declarations that “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington” and that the US “would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor”.
Aside from the obvious logical fallacy in these statements (9/11 was conducted by extremists acting outside mainstream Islamic thought/authority and not, as with the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor, by state actors), these comments have been undeniably attractive to media organisations looking for saleable headlines. Against the backdrop of an election year, and motivated by polling that suggests most Americans oppose the Park 51 centre, the formal Republican leadership has not troubled itself to distance the party from Gingrich, Palin and their allies. President Barack Obama’s relative statement of support for Park 51 has also provided media outlets with the adversary to Republican positions needed to complete the partisan battle picture.
However, below the surface of the debate, deep doubts and disagreements exist within both parties about what line to take on the issue and the electoral implications associated with these choices. While Obama is standing with the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to support the right of the Park 51 centre to proceed, many key Democrats are less than sure in their support for the president’s approach. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York (usually known for voicing strong opinions) has, significantly, not yet commented on the issue.
Under pressure from his Republican opponent in Nevada, the office of Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has stated that the senator believes “the mosque should be built someplace else”. Nancy Pelosi has offered less than unequivocal support for the plan, declaring it to be a “local decision”. For Democrats, their traditional electoral fear of appearing weak on national security greatly complicates their ability to support Park 51 with confidence. Many already believe that their performance in this year’s election will be disastrous and so fear taking a seemingly unpopular line on an issue of great controversy.
On the Republican side, former Bush administration official and husband of a 9/11 victim Ted Olson recently warned that he didn’t want Americans “to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith”. Conservative religious leader Pat Buchanan has condemned Gingrich for going “too far” with his comments; and rising Republican star, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, has warned that Republicans cannot risk being perceived as willing to “paint all of Islam” with the brush of responsibility for 9/11. Even Grover Norqvist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, who once said of the US federal government that he wished to “drown it in the bathtub”, has argued that Republican opposition to Park 51 is “very stupid”.
These Republicans are not only concerned with protecting freedom of worship and unity in American society; they are also keenly aware of the forming electoral landscape that Republicans will face beyond this election cycle and into the future. While these Republicans do not fear perception of weakness on national security as many Democrats do, underlining their attitudes towards the mosque debate is their realisation that the Republican party is running on risky ground.
Alongside Arizona’s recent immigration law and rapidly changing national demographics, these politicians know that if the Republican party alienates too many minorities among the population, they risk entering an electoral wilderness of their own making. These Republicans are committed to small government, a strong military and low taxes – but also to the legacy of nationally enshrined individual rights born of the Lincoln heritage.
Beyond internal party struggles over Park 51, the issue is further complicated by the larger lens with which Democrats and Republicans view the ongoing “war on terror” in general. While most Democrats are now deeply uncomfortable with the idea of large-scale military deployments against Salafi extremists, many Republicans conversely feel that military force must continue to play a critical and enduring role in the US effort against international terrorism. With Democrats generally wanting to effect a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan while Republicans wish to maintain a considerable American military presence there for the foreseeable future, the Park 51 plan has landed amid an unavoidably emotional debate over an issue (the war in Afghanistan) that is obviously and inextricably linked to Ground Zero itself.
Ultimately, it does not matter that the Park 51 project will involve a community multifaith worship centre, or a swimming pool, or a music and art centre (hardly the priorities of extremist Islamism). In an election-year environment, emotion can – and in this case, has – often overwhelmed logic.
American politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, should remember the first part of the first amendment to the constitution that they have sworn to uphold: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Respect for personal freedom, including freedom to worship, as central to our political process is a vital part of our national identity. It really is that simple.