Editorial: Division over mosque a gift for terrorists

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The first eight anniversaries of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, were days in which Americans came together as one in mourning for the victims. Not this year.

Commemoration and unity gave way to demonstration and divisiveness in a manner that can only have elated the perpetrators of the outrage.

At issue is a mosque that will be built on the site of a derelict clothing store in New York. It has become a test of America's commitment to religious tolerance, one of its founding beliefs.

If President Barack Obama is passing this examination with flying colours, the same cannot be said for many of his compatriots.

Opposition to the mosque, which centres on it being disrespectful to the memory of the 3000 people killed on September 11, might be understandable if it were at, or very near, Ground Zero. Obviously, that is and always will be hallowed ground, and a site of enormous sensitivity.

But the building is two blocks, and several hundreds metres, from Ground Zero. More than that, it will actually be a 13-storey Islamic cultural centre that will include a prayer room, mosque and a September 11 memorial.

As proposed by a well-known progressive imam from New York, it is intended to give Islam a new face in the United States and to promote tolerance. As such, it had been warmly endorsed by the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

None of this matters to the crackpot clerics and ultra-conservatives who have whipped up fervour against the project. Preying partly on many Americans' ignorance of the precepts of Islam, partly on the resilience of al Qaeda and the threat of further terrorist attacks, and partly on President Obama's fading popularity, they have engineered a sad spectacle.

American Muslims are being subjected to an antagonism that includes mosques in Tennessee, California, New York and elsewhere being shot at and vandalised.

There may be little new in this; some view the anti-Islamic expression in the same light as the prejudice Catholics and Jews experienced as newcomers to America. But that makes the spectacle no more savoury.

The degree of distastefulness is enhanced by the way it is being inflamed by people in positions of influence. Blowhard broadcasters have been aided and abetted by politicians, most notably Sarah Palin, the Republican Party's most recent vice-presidential candidate.

If even she had the sense to disown the plan of an obscure Florida pastor to burn copies of the Koran on September 11, this was a rare show of restraint.

With mid-term congressional elections looming, it has taken some courage for President Obama to take a stand against this intolerance, even if his every impulse said he must.

He is, in fact, a representative of the very diversity that alarms many of those who oppose the mosque and all that it represents.

On successive days at the weekend, the President urged mutual tolerance. Specifically, he referred to the terrorists' efforts to spark conflict among the faiths.

"They [al Qaeda] may seek to exploit our freedoms, but we will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," he said. "They may wish to drive us apart, but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice."

The US was built on its ability to integrate successive waves of immigrants, with their many cultures, customs and religions. The election of President Obama was another step along the same path.

So, too, was his immediate peace offering to the Islamic world. This episode of religious intolerance threatens to undermine that progress. If it endures, the terrorists will, indeed, have scored a prized victory.

- NZ Herald

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