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A Mosque-Centered Debate?

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By Taylor Marvin

Author Mark Lynch is confident that the ugly conservative opposition to the Manhattan mosque project will eventually hurt the politicians who advocate it:

“It’s not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda’s narrative of a clash of civilizations. It’s not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It’s that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values. America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity. While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time. It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.”

Today Americans Muslims are experiencing greater popular discrimination than ever before. This isn’t an exaggeration: even in the dark days immediately after 9/11, it would have been unthinkable for the mainstream leaders of the Republican party to engage in the sort of naked stereotyping and bigotry Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have recently delighted in. For all his faults George Bush was always sure to make clear that America was at war with a small violent stream within Islam, not the religion itself. Looking at popular rhetoric today, it seems that a broad part of American society and its political leadership has forgotten this. And it isn’t wrong to call this ugly nativism a mainstream Republican sentiment—Palin and Gingrich are both the frontrunners for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, are increasingly undisputed as the real leaders of America’s conservative movement, and have been joined in their denouncement of the mosque project by a variety of established Republican media and political figures. Their attitude towards American Muslims is ugly, unjustified and ultimately bigoted.

However, it’s important to understand why these views have suddenly gained such an audience. Throughout the Bush presidency it’s hard to believe that the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan would have sparked such public anger and violent rhetoric. What changed? The recent emergence of broad anti-Muslim feeling in American culture is ultimately rooted in the US’s current economic and political situation, and there are two main factors that make these views popularly acceptable:

1. Economic Recession. the recent emergence of mainstream bigotry against American Muslims is linked to a general rightward drift of American conservatives. Both these trends are a direct result of the recession. Benjamin Friedman’s book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth detailed just how bad falling incomes are for the public acceptance of ethnic and religious minorities and civil liberties in general. Throughout American history the KKK and other nativist societies have been strongest during periods of slow growth and while the current anti-Muslim sentiment can’t be compared with these much more severe displays of racism, their root causes are the same: times of falling incomes and increased economic uncertainty create a public market for and acceptance of xenophobic expression that encourages politicians to outbid each other by adopting more and more antagonistic positions. This is mirrored in the American immigration debate. While American concern over immigration is both constant and justified it increases during recessions, as Arizona has recently shown. When incomes fall, uncertainty encourages people to identify their own interests in opposition to and in contest with what’s different, whether that may be American Muslims, immigrants, or foreigners.

2. The Republican Party in Opposition. In modern American society, anti-Muslim feelings, while rooted in justifiable concern over Islamic terrorism, are primarily a conservative cause—it’s no coincidence that it has been mostly Republican candidates and organizations expressing their opposition to the Manhattan mosque project. However, these far-right sentiments are only popularly enfranchised because the Republican Party and broader American conservative political establishments are in the opposition. When a political party is in power, it has an interest in and the ability to control its more radical elements; by tending to lean towards the center, the party avoids alienating moderate portions of the electorate and maximizes its chances of remaining in power. That is why far-left Democrats have been much quieter under Obama than during the Bush administration—a dominant party has no real interest in pandering only to its partisan base and ignoring all other political positions. Because the Republicans are out of power, they don’t have to worry about appealing to the American population as a whole or presenting a viable political plan; it’s much easier and potentially more rewarding to pander to the most extreme and most motivated portions of the conservative base. Republican establishment figures like Gingrich and Palin would only advocate such extreme positions when they’re out of power, when they have so much less to lose by alienating moderates. Conservative opposition contributes to the ability of right-wing radicals to spread their beliefs as well. Conservative media organizations such as Fox News or mainstream political sites wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about spreading such disruptive view during periods of Republican ascendancy. Radical and nativist statements are inherently critical of the government, so mainstream Republicans only advocate and adopt these views when they aren’t the establishment.

Lynch is too optimistic. In the short term, that is the 2010 and 2012 election cycles that dominate today’s American political thinking, this type of bigotry probably won’t hurt the conservative candidates and pundits who stoop to its level. The same social and political factors that allowed for the emergence of this type of naked anti-Muslim sentiment have encouraged successful candidates to track much farther to the right than in previous election cycles, meaning the type of candidates who denounce the Manhattan mosque project have already adopted such far right positions and rhetoric to alienate most ideologically moderate supporters. The tea party movement is generally more conservative than the wider Republican Party and while most self-identified Republican voters see themselves as ideologically closer to the Republican party, the difference is slight.

The overall trends of this election season have pushed conservative voters, politicians, and pundits to the right, a drift that has already either marginalized or radicalized the majority of previously moderate conservative voters. This is by no means universal among conservative voters but it’s unlikely that very many of Sarah Palin’s already conservative backers will be offended enough by her anti-Muslim position to ultimately vote for more moderate candidates. The Manhattan mosque project debate and wider anti-Muslim backlash is a fairly insignificant political issue—voters will ultimately make their decisions based on the economy and political ideology, not what will probably prove to be a brief news story. If far-right politicians, a label that does fit an increasingly dominant portion on the Republican party, ultimately lose politically, it will because of a mainstream rejection of all of their political and social views, not only this one issue.

Despite these factors that encourage it, there’s no excuse for these feelings—they’re ugly and truly discriminatory. When Palin denounces the right of a group of American Muslims to build a place of worship on their own private property, she’s essentially saying that all of the world’s Muslims fall into one reviled class: that American Muslims are just as culpable for 9/11 as al-Qaeda and are just as much enemies of the United States. These types of views are wrong and are dangerous because they so perfectly play into the narrative of the West that Bin Laden preaches. Our greatest defense against the hateful ideology of Islamic radicals is the pluralistic accepting nature of the West—a defense the American right is dismantling. If moderate Republicans aren’t willing to denounce the demagogic bigots in their party, then they are ultimately responsible for the spread of their ugly views. The party most vocal about American exceptionalism should look at itself and begin to practice the tolerance and moderation that makes America so exceptional in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Fox News

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France’s Veil Ban

By Taylor Marvin
On September 14, France’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban face-covering veils in public. The bill enjoyed wide public support in France: according to a recent survey , 82 percent of the French public supports the ban, with most supporters citing concerns over women’s rights and the erosion of France’s secular society. What is interesting is just how deep the support for the law is across French society. Unlike many other social legislations, the ban enjoys wide support among both French youth and the elderly and is backed by both the French political left and right. It’s important to remember what this law is at its core—France has just banned the public wearing of a specific type of garment, a restriction largely unprecedented in Western democracies.

While France is the first state to move towards a formal ban, restricting Islamic facial coverings is not unheard of in most European societies. While the ban is most popular in France, Britain, Germany, and Spain, all support the restriction by wide margins:

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project

It is interesting to note how much lower the support for such a ban is in the United States: here, only 28 percent of the population supports a restriction while 65 percent disapprove. Moreover, American approval for a ban on facial veils remains low despite increased anti-Muslim sentiment and recent public opposition to mosque construction. What contributes to the vast differences between American and European support for a veil ban?

Differences in veil ban approval on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be rooted in demographics, not overall political culture. Support for the ban tends to be correlated with the percentage of Muslims in each country’s society:

Source: The Pew Forum

Support for restrictions on Muslim religious clothing is likely tied to demographics because a popular narrative of a minority religion’s threat to the social status quo is more credible in societies with a large and visible minority population. This view is supported by European demographics: France, where support for the ban is nearly universal, leads Europe with a 5-10 percent Muslim population (accurate statistics are hard to come by because most liberal democracies don’t request religious census information), while in Germany and the UK, where the ban is less supported but still widely popular, Muslims number between 5 and 2 percent of the population. Spain’s 2 percent Muslim population likely contributes to its lower support for a ban. In America the Muslim population is much less than one percent of the population, despite its high media profile and controversial image in public society, and this small size likely contributes to the strong public opposition to a ban.

However, national culture does probably play a role in shaping public support for a veil ban. The American Muslim population is much more integrated into wider society than their European counterparts. Many European Muslims, especially in France, live in ethnically segregated areas and suffer from incomes far below the national average. Additionally, despite a recent rise in public acceptance of anti-Muslim attitudes in American society, anti-Muslim sentiment and concern over the future of Islam in Europe are much more prevalent in Europe than the US. All of these factors likely contribute to the wider European approval of a public veil ban, while the American history of wide immigration and the US’s varied ethnic makeup seem to help blunt these concerns.

The wide European support for a veil ban tell us a lot about the problems of integrating a growing and highly visible minority into democratic societies. France’s veil ban is unjustified and wrong. While France’s concerns over women’s rights and a secular society are valid, a broad ban on a specific type of clothing is clearly a violation of individual rights. If a woman chooses to express herself and her beliefs by adopting a certain manner of dress, a liberal government clearly has no justification in stopping her. Additionally, while a commitment to public secularism is an important part of French national heritage and public culture, no one can argue that this commitment requires restricting private citizens’ right to express their religious views. Women’s rights are clearly an important guarantee of any liberal society. However, restricting the veil does not strengthen this goal. Continuing to permit the veil would not legalize domestic abuse, and a women’s freedom of choice over her own wardrobe is clearly a fundamental part of her own personal liberty.

Ostensibly, the French proposal to ban the veil is based on French values and civil traditions. No one would deny that countries have a right to restrict the habits of immigrants, even if this contradicts immigrants’ cultural values. There are some cultural practices that have no place in liberal societies—female illiteracy or sex-specific abortion come to mind. However, banning the veil clearly does not meet this criteria. Instead, this ban is rooted in Europe’s long challenge of adopting to a multicultural society inhabited not exclusively by European ethnic groups and cultural practices. While European nations do have a responsibility to protect their liberal traditions and a right to preserve their basic social traits, this can’t infringe on the private rights of their own citizens. The veil ban is clearly such an infringement, and has no place in the liberal, pluralistic societies Europeans pride themselves in building.