How Fox Betrayed Petraeus [Frank Rich] THE “ground zero mosque,” as you may well know by now, is not at ground zero. It’s not a mosque but an Islamic cultural center containing a prayer room. It’s not going to determine President Obama’s political future or the elections of 2010 or 2012. Still, the battle that has broken out over this project in Lower Manhattan — on the “hallowed ground” of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory store one block from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club — will prove eventful all the same. And the consequences will be far more profound than any midterm election results or any of the grand debates now raging 24/7 over the parameters of tolerance, religious freedom, and the real estate gospel of location, location, location.
Here’s what’s been lost in all the screaming. The prime movers in the campaign against the “ground zero mosque” just happen to be among the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan. The wrecking ball they’re wielding is not merely pounding Park51, as the project is known, but is demolishing America’s already frail support for that war, which is dedicated to nation-building in a nation whose most conspicuous asset besides opium is actual mosques.
So virulent is the Islamophobic hysteria of the neocon and Fox News right — abetted by the useful idiocy of the Anti-Defamation League, Harry Reid and other cowed Democrats — that it has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative. How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?
You’d think that American hawks invested in the Afghanistan “surge” would not act against their own professed interests. But they couldn’t stop themselves from placing cynical domestic politics over country. The ginned-up rage over the “ground zero mosque” was not motivated by a serious desire to protect America from the real threat of terrorists lurking at home and abroad — a threat this furor has in all likelihood exacerbated — but by the potential short-term rewards of winning votes by pandering to fear during an election season.
We owe thanks to Justin Elliott of Salon for the single most revealing account of this controversy’s evolution. He reports that there was zero reaction to the “ground zero mosque” from the front-line right or anyone else except marginal bloggers when The Times first reported on the Park51 plans in a lengthy front-page article on Dec. 9, 2009. The sole exception came some two weeks later at Fox News, where Laura Ingraham, filling in on “The O’Reilly Factor,” interviewed Daisy Khan, the wife of the project’s organizer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Ingraham gave the plans her blessing. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” she said. “I like what you’re trying to do.”
As well Ingraham might. Rauf is no terrorist. He has been repeatedly sent on speaking tours by the Bush and Obama State Departments alike to promote tolerance in Arab and Muslim nations. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported last week, Rauf gave a moving eulogy at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, at the Manhattan synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. Pearl’s father was in attendance. The Park51 board is chock-full of Christians and Jews. Perhaps the most threatening thing about this fledgling multi-use community center, an unabashed imitator of the venerable (and Jewish) 92nd Street Y uptown, is its potential to spawn yet another coveted, impossible-to-get-into Manhattan private preschool.
In the five months after The Times’s initial account there were no newspaper articles on the project at all. It was only in May of this year that the Rupert Murdoch axis of demagoguery revved up, jettisoning Ingraham’s benign take for a New York Post jihad. The paper’s inspiration was a rabidly anti-Islam blogger best known for claiming that Obama was Malcolm X’s illegitimate son. Soon the rest of the Murdoch empire and its political allies piled on, promoting the incendiary libel that the “radical Islamists” behind the “ground zero mosque” were tantamount either to neo-Nazis in Skokie (according to a Wall Street Journal columnist) or actual Nazis (per Newt Gingrich).
These patriots have never attacked the routine Muslim worship services at another site of the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon. Their sudden concern for ground zero is suspect to those of us who actually live in New York. All but 12 Republicans in the House voted against health benefits for 9/11 responders just last month. Though many of these ground-zero watchdogs partied at the 2004 G.O.P. convention in New York exploiting 9/11, none of them protested that a fellow Republican, the former New York governor George Pataki, so bollixed up the management of the World Trade Center site that nine years on it still lacks any finished buildings, let alone a permanent memorial.
The Fox patron saint Sarah Palin calls Park51 a “stab in the heart” of Americans who “still have that lingering pain from 9/11.” But her only previous engagement with the 9/11 site was when she used it as a political backdrop for taking her first questions from reporters nearly a month after being named to the G.O.P. ticket. (She was so eager to grab her ground zero photo op that she defied John McCain’s just-announced “suspension” of their campaign.) Her disingenuous piety has been topped only by Bernie Kerik, who smuggled a Twitter message out of prison to register his rage at the ground zero desecration. As my colleague Clyde Haberman reminded us, such was Kerik’s previous reverence for the burial ground of 9/11 that he appropriated an apartment overlooking the site (and designated for recovery workers) for an extramarital affair.
At the Islamophobia command center, Murdoch’s News Corporation, the hypocrisy is, if anything, thicker. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial darkly cited unspecified “reports” that Park51 has “money coming from Saudi charities or Gulf princes that also fund Wahabi madrassas.” As Jon Stewart observed, this brand of innuendo could also be applied to News Corp., whose second largest shareholder after the Murdoch family is a member of the Saudi royal family. Perhaps last week’s revelation that News Corp. has poured $1 million into G.O.P. campaign coffers was a fiendishly clever smokescreen to deflect anyone from following the far greater sum of Saudi money (a $3 billion stake) that has flowed into Murdoch enterprises, or the News Corp. money (at least $70 million) recently invested in a Saudi media company.
Were McCain in the White House, Fox and friends would have kept ignoring Park51. But it’s an irresistible target in our current election year because it revives the most insidious anti-Obama narrative of the many Fox promoted in the previous election year: Obama the closet Muslim and secret madrassa alumnus. In the much discussed latest Pew poll, a record number of Americans (nearing 20 percent) said that our Christian president practices Islam. And they do not see that as a good thing. Existing or proposed American mosques hundreds and even thousands of miles from ground zero, from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California, are now under siege.
After 9/11, President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and asked for tolerance for Muslims not necessarily because he was a humanitarian or knew much about Islam but because national security demanded it. An America at war with Islam plays right into Al Qaeda’s recruitment spiel. This month’s incessant and indiscriminate orgy of Muslim-bashing is a national security disaster for that reason — Osama bin Laden’s “next video script has just written itself,” as the former F.B.I. terrorist interrogator Ali Soufan put it — but not just for that reason. America’s Muslim partners, those our troops are fighting and dying for, are collateral damage. If the cleric behind Park51 — a man who has participated in events with Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, for heaven’s sake — is labeled a closet terrorist sympathizer and a Nazi by some of the loudest and most powerful conservative voices in America, which Muslims are not?
In the latest CNN poll, American opposition is at an all-time high to both the ostensibly concluded war in Iraq (69 percent) and the endless one in Afghanistan (62 percent). Now, when the very same politicians and pundits who urge infinite patience for Afghanistan slime Muslims as Nazis, they will have to explain that they are not talking about Hamid Karzai or his corrupt narco-thug government or the questionably loyal Afghan armed forces our own forces are asked to entrust with their lives. The hawks will have to make the case that American troops should make the ultimate sacrifice to build a Nazi — Afghan, I mean — nation and that economically depressed taxpayers should keep paying for it. Good luck with that.
Poor General Petraeus. Over the last week he has been ubiquitous in the major newspapers and on television as he pursues a publicity tour to pitch the war he’s inherited. But have you heard any buzz about what he had to say? Any debate? Any anything? No one was listening and no one cared. Everyone was too busy yelling about the mosque.It’s poignant, really. Even as America’s most venerable soldier returned from the front to valiantly assume the role of Willy Loman, the product he was selling was being discredited and discontinued by his own self-proclaimed allies at home.