That the neocon tendency could have dominated the past eight years of foreign policy discourse in America is no surprise. It dovetailed nicely with post-9/11 domestic discourse in American locales far removed from New York City, places protected by their provinciality and their homogeneity. This is Inner America: not just a physical place, but a mental one, too, metastasized to every corner of the nation. It is the id of a state, unrestrained by a superego. Its hallmarks are American exceptionalism, xenophobia, muscular Judeo-Christianity, and the privileging of emotional arguments over intellectual ones. It believes that diversity and dissent—the very broad bases of the nation's civic faith before 9/11—invite national weakness and ruin.
It's been said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Neocons are liberals who have been mugged by reality, and blame it on Islam.
To the neocon priests and their flock in Inner America, one group has always been more monolithically wrong than all others: the world's Muslims. It's been said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Neoconservatives and Inner Americans, then, must be liberals who have been mugged by reality, and blame it on Islam. Before North Korea, before China, neocons and Inner Americans perceived their greatest enemies to be in the Middle East and South Asia, and they prescribed military intervention accordingly. In doing so, they had to perform the most incredible of mental gymnastics, conflating the Salafist Al Qaeda threat with the Shi'ite revolutionary government in Iran and, of course, the nationalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In the event, neoconservatism brought us no justice or closure in Afghanistan. It brought us woe in Iraq, it deepened our nation's financial ruin, and it cemented our global reputation as profilers and torturers of minorities. In short, it proved itself a spectacular failure; Barack Obama, a centrist Democrat who advocated a liberal, multilateral foreign policy and an eventual end to America's expeditionary wars, was to be its antidote.
Despite all of that, Inner America is resurgent, and so are its priests. Two years of the Obama presidency have proven insufficient to restore America's prosperity and prestige. In fact, to Inner America, this administration and its supporters represent a further assault on their Manichaean worldview, an advance of the very diversity and dialogue they believe dilute their "American" values. The president is, after all, a multiracial man with a funny name, tied by his detractors to the Islamic world. He is a deceiver and a usurper to them. His rise to power, rather than ushering in a post-racial era in the United States, has emboldened Inner America to declare openly its antagonism to all that is different, alien, potentially subversive.
THE CURRENT OBJECT OF THIS IRE is a new structure planned on Park Place, two blocks from where the northernmost of the Twin Towers stood. This is Park51, a Muslim-oriented community center also known as the Cordoba House or the "Ground Zero Mosque." It's a space meant to propagate the same faith the Towers represented: not Islam, but rather, pluralism. In the end, it will be the only sort of sacred space Manhattan really knows, an upward-stretching column of steel and glass, a windbreak and a place of communion for the city's densely packed multitudes.
Spearheading the Park51 plan is 62-year-old Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Columbia-educated Sufi Muslim who has lived in New York since the 1960s and has led a mosque in the city for 27 years. Rauf is something of a jet-setter, a frequenter of panels at the World Economic Forum and the Aspen Institute. He seems to aspire to de facto leadership in the American Muslim community, becoming a best-selling author and Islamic mega-church patrician in the mold of Christian pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. By building flocks around child daycare, Starbucks coffee, and arena big-screen TVs, those pastors have fused economic success—the universal standard of American achievement—with soul saving and mainstream acceptance of their convictions. Rauf clearly hopes his Lower Manhattan center, replete with basketball court, auditorium, and yes, a mosque, will earn him the same acclaim. In that way, the Arab-born Muslim could not be more loyal to American values.
That's not the way Inner America sees it. Early last May, in the midst of a contentious national midterm election campaign, a bombastic right-wing blogger named Pamela Geller wrote a blog post titled "Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction." In it, she described Park51 as "Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem." As Salon has pointed out, Geller has also claimed that Obama is literally the child of former Nation of Islam minister and American dissident Malcolm X. After beating the battle drums for several more months, Inner America's lay clergy began to take note: vice presidential also-ran Sarah Palin, philandering former congressional speaker Newt Gingrich, and ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani had all joined a chorus condemning the "Ground Zero Mosque" and demanding that it be located elsewhere.
Ground Zero Mosque opponents include Debra Burlingame, my old friend Chic's sister. When he died, she founded a group called "9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America," which endorsed the Iraq war and Bush's reelection in 2004. She also joined forces with Liz Cheney, the former vice president's daughter, and neocon William Kristol to form "Keep America Safe," a right-wing lobby group that "believes the United States can only defeat our adversaries and defend our interests from a position of strength." According to Debra, a former New York-based CourtTV producer, Imam Rauf is one such adversary:
9/11 was more than a "deeply traumatic event," it was an act of war. Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah. Those who continue to target and kill American civilians and U.S. troops will see it as a symbol of their historic progress at the site of their most bloody victory. Demolishing a building that was damaged by wreckage from one of the hijacked planes in order to build a mosque and Islamic Center will further energize those who regard it as a ratification of their violent and divinely ordered mission: the spread of shariah law and its subjugation of all free people...
Thus born ugly, the anti-mosque movement quickly grew grotesque. It became a national referendum, not merely on how a parcel of private property near Ground Zero was to be developed, but on how Muslims fit into the founding story America tells itself. In California, a mosque-construction plan became a protest target for conservatives. In Florida, the "charismatic" Christian church of Pastor Terry Jones has chosen to commemorate 9/11 this year by burning Korans (Jones reneged on the stunt after enough media attention had already focused on it). And in Tennessee—where a right-wing candidate for office doubted aloud whether the "cult" of Islam deserved First Amendment protection—a Murfreesboro Muslim center was firebombed in late August, members of its congregation shot at while surveying the damage. In local online news coverage of the shooting, a commenter calling himself "CanYouHearUsNow" left the following message for all to see: "Sorry ragheads, but you're not in new york city here. BOOM…BANG…BOOM."
SOME OF INNER AMERICA'S wiser priests—that is, the neoconservatives—recognize the tenuousness of directly attacking a religion in a nation founded on religious freedom. And so they've reframed the debate as one that recognizes Rauf's fundamental religious liberty…but hopes he'll exercise it elsewhere, out of sensitivity to the families of those killed at Ground Zero. Karen Hughes, the Bush administration official once assigned the unenviable task of explaining US foreign policy to the Arab and Islamic worlds, wrote in the Washington Post that moving Park51 would be "a powerful example" of sensitivity to Americans who "are neither anti-freedom nor anti-Muslim; they just don't believe it's respectful." This call for sensitivity and respect comes from a conservative faction that's lambasted Obama and his judicial nominees for displaying what the detractors called an excess of "empathy" in jurisprudence.