Ground zero mosque debate echoes Europe's fears of Muslims

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg voices his support for the planned mosque.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg voices his support for the planned mosque. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

PARIS — As they weather a steamy August, Europeans are dimly aware of a convulsing U.S. debate over the so-called ground zero mosque in New York, an Islamic center that's scheduled to be built two blocks from where al Qaida destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001.

In Europe, America is seen as a harbor of religious freedom whose embassies promote interfaith dialogue and protection of minority faiths. President Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo speech to harmonize Islam and American values was perceived as typical, as is the American inclination to push Europeans not to ban small churches and "cults."

In Paris and London, opinion seems split between those who support and even admire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's acceptance of the Islamic center and those who say the 16-story center is inappropriate or a provocation Americans shouldn't accept.

In France, stories on Bloomberg's decision registered surprise that America, which they often see as narrow-minded and Arab-hating, proved more open and tolerant in some ways than current French opinion.

"What we see (in New York) is a fair, balanced treatment of communities ....Let the Americans do it their way. ...Most of their founders settled in the U.S. in order to obtain absolute religious freedom, and this is what is being upheld by this decision," one Francois Bogard commented in a Le Monde forum.

Yet striking among pundits, websites and bloggers is an often articulate though sometimes churlish depiction of Islam as a monolithic form of faith, inherently violent and extreme, and of Muslims as incapable of being moderate.

An essay on the French leftist website Agoravox spoke of incomprehension and shock that in the same week that German authorities closed a radical Hamburg mosque, New York approved the Islamic center: "The mayor, instigated by an imam who is said to be 'moderate,' plans to build a mosque extremely close to ground zero, where stood the Twin Towers that Islamist fanaticism reduced to rubble. ...You rub your eyes and read again. No, it is not a hallucination. ... You look for the justification ... but instead of understanding, you dive deeper into an impression of unreality."

To be sure, Europeans who are familiar with the U.S. see the brouhaha as largely driven by the same nativist sentiments they hear about in the upstart U.S. "tea party" movement. They know the U.S. has something called a First Amendment that guarantees religious rights even when faiths are unpopular or different.

"I understand the sensitivities of many speaking against the mosque; their wounds are still raw, nine years later," pointed out Nick Spencer at Theos, a faith and public policy center in London. "But reacting against it is counterproductive ... for reasons of religious liberty. ... But it also is a positive opportunity. Those responsible for building the center know the eyes of the world, and America's eyes, will be directly on them. That's a chance to show Islam as conciliatory, and a chance for Islam and the U.S. to exchange."

Yet the controversy plays out as Europe, long proud of its cosmopolitan tolerance, is roiled by rising Muslim populations, has banned minarets and burqas and is seeing populist anti-Islamic sentiment in its politics. The rise of "Islamophobia" here five years ago hasn't ended. Rather, it's become more comfortably settled. Social politeness and taboos on talking about Islam are eroding.

The fact is, Europeans aren't exactly sure what they think about Islam, analysts said. Its educated classes grew up in a multicultural world and imbibed values of getting along, but a shadow is falling between the idea and the reality. The French and Belgian burqa ban is a symbolic pushback against growing numbers of Muslims, not yet embraced by the countries but whom the nations want to assimilate. The burqa discussion hit Great Britain powerfully in July, before the new Conservative government put its foot down against such a ban.

One British religious scholar points out that public opinion in Great Britain today on the Islam question bounces back and forth between the "positions of guys like Tony Blair, who argue absolutely about positive pluralism and the need to support moderate Muslims, and the concerns of us who for the first time are thinking it isn't that simple, as we see the identity of Britain changing."

In early January a proposed "mega-mosque" in London was sidelined after four years of increasing opposition. The mosque would border a London Olympics 2012 site. The symbolism of the site and the size of the mosque — designed to hold 12,000 worshippers, when most British churches hold 500 — brought considerable opposition, led by a Christian evangelical politician. Many Muslims also opposed the project, initiated by the controversial Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat.

Even many hard-core religious pluralists finally said they thought the idea was a bad one, but the long debate added to the poisonous and exaggerated positions in the general atmosphere.

London, Paris and Barcelona cosmopolitans still insist on an ethic of tolerance and fairness, but there's an uneasy fear about how a growing melange of peoples and faiths is going to turn out. The Swiss, Austrian and Dutch have elected political figures who are committed to curbing Islamic expression, if not erasing it.

Noam Chomsky, the linguist and public intellectual, a Jew long critical of Israeli policies, recently stopped in France after being prevented from lecturing at an Palestinian university in the West Bank, and observed that, "Europe has always actually been more racist than the U.S."

Such opinions are deeply unappreciated in Europe. Yet in the past week of comment on the lively website Rue 89 and on Le Monde, the majority of those who chose to express themselves on the ground zero subject, though a self-selected group, expressed hostility to Muslims without much qualification. There were other views, including the humorous French position that a mosque or any other building would be fine on the site so long as it wasn't a McDonald's, but a majority took the case as a chance to air a "clash of civilizations."


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