When I was a graduate student in Poli Sci at UC San Diego, I worked for a quarter as a Teaching Assistant for an Intro to Comparative Politics class. We taught a unit on ethic conflict and the main takeaway we wanted students to get from this section was that ethnic conflict is not indigenous (or primordial, as older political scientists used to argue), but that it is usually a result of political leaders who bring latent ethnic tensions to the fore as a way to gain or increase their political power.
For instance, as in any multi-ethnic society, there were always some latent prejudice in the Balkans between the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, but for 45 years of after World War II (and indeed during the World War II period when multi-ethnic groups fought against the Nazi’s), Tito’s Communist Party was able to keep Yugoslavia together and tamp down any ethnic strife by stressing the commonalities between the different ethnicities and not tolerating ethnic conflict. After the fall of Communism, politicians like Slobodon Milosevich and others filled the political vacuum and began to sew the seeds of conflict with divisive appeals to Serbian nationalism and political speech and action that exacerbated already existing tensions between ethnic groups. The rest, as they say, is history.
As I watched the national freakout over the planned Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, I thought back to this theory as I heard Newt Gingrich rail against the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Among the would-be- president’s greatest hits we heard over the last few weeks were the following: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” …and…allowing the Islamic community center to be built near Ground Zero “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.” In addition to these outrageous statements, Gingrich has proposed a Federal Law which would ban any court from using Sharia law as a replacement for American law (since this is such a burning issue in America).
I won’t spend the time deconstructing these statements because they are outrageous on their face. What I will point out is that Gingrich is engaging in a cynical ploy to gain favor in an increasingly small, insular and Nativist Republican party in an attempt to blaze a path to the 2012 presidential elections. Similarly, perennial loser Rick Lazio, facing an impossible race for the Governorship of New York against Andrew Cuomo has made opposition to the community center his number one issue in the campaign, regularly appearing on national media to smear the imam and demand that there be an “investigation of the funding” for the development.
There is increasing evidence that the Republican party as a whole are taking advantage of latent American Islamophobia to gain political advantage. While people like former Congressman Joe Scarborough and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been notable voices of tolerance, many other Republicans have eschewed George Bush-like rhetoric about Islam and joined the chorus of religion baiting. Unfortunately, Obama’s initial statement in favor of the mosque has played right into the Republican’s hands, handing them yet another cultural issue to use against the Democrats.
Whatever you thought of George W. Bush (and I thought he was a terrible president), he did get one thing right. Even as his Administration went to war with two Islamic countries and took advantage of American ignorance about the Muslim world to conflate Bin Laden with Saddam Hussein, he consistently made it clear that we weren’t at war with Islam and that Islam was a religion of peace. Whether you believe that last statment or not, that kind of national leadership was a critical component in tamping down ethnic tensions in the wake of 9-11 when many Americans were looking for revenge and ready to strike back at the people who perpetrated the attack on America. To a large degree, this effort worked. Although there was a big spike in anti-muslim hate crimes just after September 11th, in the following years, these incidents subsided.
Conservatives such as Charles Krauthamer and Jonah Goldberg have pointed to the liberal outrage about Islamophobia as yet another example of the liberals crying racism when their positions are not supported by Americans. According to these conservatives, the “Ground Zero” conflict is really just a debate about the location of the Lower Manhattan mosque, not whether Muslims can build places of worship. Certainly that’s true for some, but that argument loses some credibility when often vicious protests break out from Tennessee to Florida to Southern California over mosques that are being built within local communities.
Is the United States on the verge of some new Nazism or a Bosnian type ethnic cleansing with Newt Gingrich playing the role of Slobodan Milosevic?
Of course not. Despite the increase in incidents and protest against Muslims practicing their religion, most Americans are a generally tolerant and good people, and I’m hopeful that our better angels will prevail. But when politicians pander to our worst prejudices and intolerances in an attempt to gain and keep political power, it tears at the fabric of American society, divides good Americans against each other and generally takes us further away from the ideals of tolerance and religious freedom that have made America great. This issue might help Newt win a few Republican primaries, but what he and others are doing is bad for the country.