The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ as a political Rorschach Test and its effect on the multi-party gubernatorial race in New York

The Cordoba House Initiative has become the summer’s defining political Rorschach test. Depending on whom you ask, the controversy surrounding Park 51 in downtown Manhattan, widely termed the ‘Ground Zero Mosque,’ is either a distraction or one of the most important issues facing the people of the United States, a matter of defending religious liberty or fighting supremacist triumphalism, defending rights or respecting sensibilities, Islamophobia or anti-fascism, and so on.

The bifurcation has already begun to define the contours of the New York gubernatorial race.  But, at least one distinct side-benefit has resulted from the debate.  It has demonstrated the absurdity of the demagoguery that so often passes for mainstream political discourse among Democrats and Republicans.  For instance, some who are against the project have argued that if it is allowed to proceed, the terrorists will have won, while others who defend the project have argued that if the center is not built, the terrorists will have won, leaving us with the ridiculous conclusion that no matter what happens with respect to the Cordoba House, the terrorists will have won. 

Interestingly, the controversy has not fallen out along party lines but rather cuts across them.  One can find Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, for instance, on both sides of the issue, though admittedly in different proportions.  This is not surprising given that the American public appears to have conflicting, if not contradictory, views on the issues involved.  

According to a Pew Research survey, 62% of respondents agreed that Muslims should have the same right as other groups to build houses of worship, while 25% were willing to deny Muslims their first amendment rights if the local community objects to their exercise, and 13% responded that they did not know.  On the other hand, a majority also agreed with those who object to building the Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center (51%), while just over a third think it should be allowed to be built (34%), leaving 15% who stated they did not know.  Paradoxically, then, 62% agree that the group has a right to build the center, but only 34% agree they should be allowed to build it (near Ground Zero). 

Politicians and political hopefuls across the country have, of course, weighed in on the debate.  In New York, NYC’s Independent mayor Michael Bloomberg has come out strongly in defense of the project, arguing that it is a matter of fundamental rights and liberties, while Democratic governor David Paterson has favored relocating the center to a “less emotionally charged location.”  

The matter has already become an issue in the state’s gubernatorial race.  Republican and Conservative Party hopeful Rick Lazio, for instance, has released an ad criticizing Democratic front-runner Andrew Cuomo for siding with Mayor Bloomberg’s stance on the project, stating “incredibly, Andrew Cuomo defends it,” and calling for an investigation into its funding.  Lazio finds himself on the same side of the issue as Carl Paladino, a rival Republican and self-described Tea Party candidate, who has produced an ad entitled “I’ll stop the mosque,” as well as Kristin Davis, who is, ironically, running on a permissive platform under the banner of the Anti-Prohibition Party. 

On the other side of the debate, Green and Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidates have issued forceful statements against Lazio and Paladino’s opposition to the center, defending the project on constitutional grounds.  As reported at On the Wilder Side and Independent Political Report, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins has slammed his conservative rivals and argued they are using the Cordoba House issue as a diversionary tactic.  

     “Why do right-wingers like Lazio and Paladino hate our U.S. Constitution? They talk freedom and practice repression . . . They are making the Muslim community center an issue to divert attention from their unpopular response to the economic crisis,” said Hawkins. 

In a statement on his campaign website, Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate Warren Redlich also argues against Lazio and, by extension, Paladino’s opposition to the project on constitutional grounds.  

     “The reason for opposing this facility is because it’s associated with the Muslim religion. That violates freedom of religion under the First Amendment. . . . People associated with the Tea Party movement often invoke the Constitution . . . If you support the Constitution then support it fully, not just when it’s convenient for your ideology,” writes Redlich. 

Perhaps the Cordoba House Initiative would never have become an issue of national or even local concern if construction at the World Trade Center site were further along, or even already completed, nearly ten years after the destruction of the Twin Towers.  As of today, it is estimated that the Freedom Tower planned for 1 World Trade Center will be completed in 2013. Even if the bureaucratic wrangling that has seemingly slowed construction since 2004 is finally overcome, Ground Zero will literally remain an open wound for years to come.