By Ed Hancox
Perhaps it’s the August heat, but invariably whenever the summer months roll around, American political discourse always seems to get fixated on some nonsensical issue - this year is no different with talk of the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” dominating the airwaves. Of course the name is something of a misnomer - the “mosque” isn’t a mosque per se, but rather an Islamic cultural center that will contain a dedicated prayer facility within its 13-stories (in fact its creators stress that the prayer space officially is not a mosque) and it will not be at “Ground Zero” (the former World Trade Center site), but on a street two blocks south. Still, these distinctions haven’t prevented a host of self-serving politicians from issuing ridiculous statements to a public already whipped into a Nativist fervor by even more political grandstanding on issues like “defending our southern border” and “anchor babies” (we‘ll save full discussion of those immigration-related stances for another post). Last week former New York Governor George Pataki decried the idea of a mosque “looming over” Ground Zero - a clear indication that the former governor hasn’t visited lower Manhattan lately, since a 13-story building would be lost among the skyscrapers; while Rep. Peter King issued his own condemnation, which boils down to “we’re not telling them not to build there, we’re just saying they shouldn’t build there.” Ground Zero, we're told by opponents of the Islamic center, is “sacred ground” that cannot be defiled by having a mosque in its presence – though apparently the ground is not sufficiently sacred enough to keep developers from putting mixed-use office buildings on its site, nor for the city to keep strip clubs and lingerie shops from its immediate area as CBSNews reports.
Lost in this discussion is the fact that the “they” – the Cordoba Initiative - behind the Cordoba House are exactly the type of group we have been telling the Muslim world they need to support for these past nine years - a moderate Islamic group, opposed to terrorism and other forms of religious-based violence, who promote a modern view of Islam that is both tolerant and promotes interaction with other faiths. Yet rather than embracing the Cordoba Initiative and the Cordoba House project as a way to build bridges with moderate forces within the Muslim world and promote a sense of reconciliation, popular discussion has instead been dominated by the insistence that “they” can’t be allowed to build “that” “there” - my personal favorite was the protest sign that identified the Cordoba House as the “9/11 Victory Mosque”. Opponents of the Cordoba project apparently seem to have no problem in judging a religion of one billion people based on the actions of 19 extremist members.
It’s worth remembering that it was none other than George W. Bush (hardly a bleeding-heart liberal himself) who, in the days following 9/11 called Islam a “religion of peace” and asked Americans not to judge an entire faith based on the actions of a few twisted individuals; he took pains to explain that America’s coming “war on terrorism” was not a war on Islam, but rather on those who would co-opt a religion’s message for their own nihilistic goals. It was a message that Bush would repeat often throughout his presidency. And it’s a message that seems to be falling on deaf ears today. You have to wonder if the opponents of Cordoba would apply their logic to other religions as well. Do they assume that all Catholics are really pedophiles because of the actions of a collection of sick priests, or that Mormons are all a bunch of government-hating bigamists because of the actions of a few radicals within their faith? Do they buy into other religious stereotypes and believe that all Hindus run convenience stores, or that the world truly is run by a cabal of Jewish bankers?
These are silly examples of extremist thought, but sadly silly extremist thought seems to be dominating the national discourse today; crowding out any rational analysis of the facts at hand. The previously mentioned debate, for lack of a better term, over immigration, particularly immigration by “undocumented” individuals (a.k.a. illegal aliens) provides an excellent example. Frankly, I’m not going to say that illegal immigration isn’t a problem, that some aren’t taking advantage of the system, and that it isn’t affecting the ability of some US citizens and legal aliens to get jobs. But unfortunately the discourse over this issue has taken such an ugly turn that in reality there is no meaningful dialog going on. Either you’re in favor of building a massive wall and militarizing the US/Mexico border, or you are some sort of quasi-Socialist who hates America. And the border is just the tip of a larger anti-immigrant iceberg.
Lost in that discussion though is any mention of the great economic benefits the United States reaps from immigration. One report from the US Council of Economic Advisors indicated that the native-born US population reaps an annual $37 billion “immigration surplus” from those coming to the country. A study released last week showed quite clearly that it is in fact immigration that is helping the United States to avoid the demographic trap that many other countries – particularly those in Western Europe, Russia, Japan and even China – will face in the near future: a rapidly aging population being supported by fewer and fewer younger workers. While in the coming decades the median age in these countries will edge higher and higher, though the median age in the United States is projected to remain fairly stable, thanks in large part to the steady influx of immigrants coming to our shores, and the generally higher birth-rate among these groups. But pity the poor politician who tries to take a pro-immigration stance in today's political atmosphere.
Appealing to the public's more base instincts has always been a winning political strategy; even the ancient Romans knew that. Perhaps then it's worth looking at another lesson from history – specifically the United States' actions at the end of World War II. It's tempting to say that today's opponents of the Cordoba House Islamic Center would have been in favor of punishing the defeated Germany and Japan, after all (and especially in Japan's case) they had the gall to attack America; there were of course people at the time advocating that very same position. But thankfully there were others who took a broader view of both history and the political climate of the time. They realized that the punitive measures dished out to Germany at the end of World War I were a direct cause of World War II. They also realized that if the United States wasn't willing to step into the vacuum left by the obliteration of the regimes in Germany and Japan, the Soviet Union – at its most expansionist, and aggressive under Josef Stalin – would. So the largest peace-time reconstruction act was launched in two nations that months earlier had been our two bitterest enemies; today the Soviet Union has been consigned to history while Japan and Germany are two of America's strongest allies. We should then apply that same logic to the efforts of the Cordoba; whose moderate, inclusive view of the Muslim faith will do more to combat Islamic extremism than any military action ever could.