Friday, 27 August 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque" - the height of absurdity in America's "culture wars"

When the English Defence League descend upon Bradford tomorrow, many are worried that the event will ignite racial tensions in the city. In New York, in the controversy surrounding the so-called "ground zero mosque," they've already exploded.

Student Michael Enright allegedly slashed taxi driver Ahmed Sharif's throat after asking if he was having a good Ramadan. A disturbing incident in itself, it comes amid ever more heated rows.

On Monday, the city saw opposing groups of protesters face each other over the issue. Opponents chanted "No mosque, no way" as supporters responded with "Say no to racist fear". In the anti-mosque gathering, protesters rounded on a man they thought was Muslim because he was wearing a skull cap.
The backdrop to all this are the plans to turn a makeshift place of worship in lower Manhattan into an Islamic cultural centre. Upon completion it will be known as Park51.

The project, upon completion, will contain the following facilities;
  • outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
  • a 500-seat auditorium
  • a restaurant and culinary school
  • cultural amenities including exhibitions
  • education programs
  • a library, reading room and art studios
  • childcare servicea mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all
The mosque, as you can see, is only a part of the "ground zero mosque," and will in fact be run separately from the main project. Moreover, despite the inflammatory title it has earned, it is not at ground zero.

Charlie Brooker makes this point with more than a degree of relish;
To get to the Cordoba Centre from Ground Zero, you'd have to walk in the opposite direction for two blocks, before turning a corner and walking a bit more. The journey should take roughly two minutes, or possibly slightly longer if you're heading an angry mob who can't hear your directions over the sound of their own enraged bellowing.

Perhaps spatial reality functions differently on the other side of the Atlantic, but here in London, something that is "two minutes' walk and round a corner" from something else isn't actually "in" the same place at all. I once had a poo in a pub about two minutes' walk from Buckingham Palace. I was not subsequently arrested and charged with crapping directly onto the Queen's pillow. That's how "distance" works in Britain. It's also how distance works in America, of course, but some people are currently pretending it doesn't, for daft political ends.
And yet, still, "ground zero" gets tagged on as an identifier not only by the protesters and right-wing demagogues, but by the media. Even the BBC, deemed by complete fucking idiots to be biased to the left, talks of the "Ground Zero Islamic centre." Which just reinforces the nonsense.

As a result, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be marked by reactionary idiots opposing a "mega mosque" which is more a product of their imaginations than anything else.

It should come as little surprise that the key organiser of this event - Pamela Gellar - is an avowed supporter of the English Defence League. Her organisations, the Freedom Defence Initiative (FDI) and Stop Islamisation of America (SIOA), are the group's closest analogues stateside.

So, what to do about them? The problem is that, even more so than here in Britain, they are able to demonstrate and march without effective opposition.

As mentioned earlier, the recent anti-mosque protest which saw reactionaries turn on a man for his choice of attire was met with an opposition demo. However, this was organised at the last minute and paled in comparison to the enormous stage-show on offer from the other side.

At the same time, the politics of the counter-demonstration were vague at best. Class consciousness is nowhere near as prevalent in America, and as a result it is easier for people to become drawn into reactionary movements. Moreover, that reaction is far more likely to take a constitutionalist form than a white nationalist form.

Whilst fascism turns the working class against one another on the basis of race and nationality, American constitutionalism uses the rhetoric of freedom to turn working people directly against their own interests. The Tea Party movement is a case in point.

Events such as the anti-mosque protests, of course, are where the lines get blurred. However, whilst it would be safe to say that identity politics are being used to distract from more pressing realities, it would equally be safe to say that the vast majority of those amongst the crowds aren't racists, fascists, or white nationalists. Their flag-waving patriotism and belief in freedom as defined by the right is probably genuine.

As such, traditional antifascist tactics will need tweaking to meet the challenge. The stabbing of Ahmed Sharif and the recent protest chaos, as well as a wave of hate incidents around the country, mean that physical opposition remains important.

But alongside this a serious political challenge needs to be made to the reactionaries. Not by liberals defending Barack Obama, or by "anti-racists" whose views are little more than black-and-white slogan-repetition. It has to come from the perspective of ordinary people with a clear, intuitive understanding of the class tensions simmering below the surface of American life.

Otherwise, all we will be able to do is watch as the culture wars consume the politics of class war.