Is the far right afraid of its shadow, or just playing cynical politics?
WASHINGTON — When did the loudmouths of the American right become such a bunch of fraidy-cats and professional victims? Or is it all just an act?
The hysteria over plans for an innocuous Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan — two blocks from Ground Zero, amid an urban hodgepodge of office buildings, eateries and strip clubs — is wildly out of proportion. It would be laughable if it didn't threaten to do great harm to the global campaign against Islamic terrorism.
It is by now firmly established that the project, dubbed Park51, is promoted by a peacenik Muslim cleric whose sermons often sound a bit like the musings of new-age guru Deepak Chopra. It is also undisputed fact that the imam in question, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is such a moderate that the U.S. government regularly sends him as an emissary to Muslim countries to preach peace, coexistence and dialogue.
Yet, right-wing commentators and politicians have twisted themselves in knots to portray the Park51 project as some kind of grievous assault — and "the American people" as victims. Victims of what? Rauf's sinister plot to despoil the city with a fitness center, a swimming pool and — shudder — a space for the performing arts?
The whole "controversy" is ridiculous. Yet conservatives who should know better are doing their best to exploit widespread ignorance about Islam by transforming it into fear and anger. They imply, but don't come right out and say, that it was Islam itself that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, rather than an extremist fringe that espouses what the vast majority of the world's Muslims consider a perversion of the faith. They paint Park51 as a "victory dance" over the hallowed ground where thousands of Americans died — never mind that there wouldn't even be a sight line between the building and Ground Zero — and suggest that the project, even though it would be run by an imam who's practically a flower child, could somehow serve as a recruiting center for terrorists.
Message to anyone who will listen: You're a victim. Be very afraid.
In the process, this anti-mosque pitchfork brigade is surely recruiting terrorists left and right. As Ahmad Moussalli, a professor at the American University of Beirut, told the Los Angeles Times: "Rejecting this has become like rejecting Islam itself." All the Islamophobic rhetoric tends to reinforce the jihadists' main argument, which is that the United States and the West seek to destroy the faith held dear by more than 1 billion souls.
The thing is, though, that the manufactured brouhaha over the Park51 project is part of a larger pattern in which the far right embraces victimhood and stokes fear. The faction that likes to portray itself as a bunch of John Waynes and "mama grizzlies," it turns out, spends an awful lot of time cowering in the corner and complaining about how beastly everyone else is being.
Witness the frequent eruptions over instances of reverse racism — real or imagined. The Shirley Sherrod affair was the most recent example of how eagerly the far right wants to sell the false narrative that African-Americans, once they achieve positions of authority, will use their newly acquired power to punish whites for historical discrimination. The facts of the Sherrod case, as they finally emerged, argue persuasively against this fictional tale of longed-for revenge. But it will be back.
And look at the hysteria over illegal immigration. Facts don't matter — for example, that the flow of undocumented migrants has decreased, or that border enforcement under President Obama is much tougher than under George W. Bush, or that illegal immigrants are not responsible for any kind of crime wave. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, has gone so far as to sound the alarm about alleged "terror babies." The idea is that undocumented pregnant women would cross the border so that their children could have U.S. citizenship, then take the babies away to be raised as terrorists — who would be able to come back in 20 years or so, with legitimate U.S. passports, and presumably wreak untold havoc. No, I did not make that up.
Is the far right really afraid of its own shadow? Do these people really have so little faith in our nation's strength, resilience and values? I hope this is all just cynical political calculation, because there are genuine threats and challenges out there. We'll be better off meeting them with a spine, not a whine.