The Republican response to the proposed New York City interfaith center and mosque has very little to do with Islam and a lot to do with what the party has become.
Once upon a time, the Republicans were comprised of at least two distinct wings: the pro-business, country club types, and the more socially conservative group. Now, with the exception of a rapidly dwindling moderate faction (best exemplified by Maine’s two women senators), the GOP has been taken over by a hard right that sees the party as dedicated to defending America’s Christian character.
Enter Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, presidential aspirants who are intent on appealing to the entity that the party has become. Part of this ideological makeup is animus toward other religions, particularly, but not only, Islam. Hence, Gingrich’s statement that the New York City project would be “hostile to our civilization,” and Palin’s plea to “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” it. Other GOP politicians have also expressed their opposition, including a couple of New York gubernatorial candidates and, bafflingly, a contender for a congressional seat in North Carolina.
There are a few things about the proposed complex to make one pause. Some family members of September 11 victims have been so traumatized by the attack that they think it an insult to their loved ones to have a Muslim venture so close to the World Trade Center (though in doing this, they are reducing Islam to just one single, horrible event). Notwithstanding the lofty, admirable professed goals of the Cordoba Initiative, the organization behind the scheme, there are, in addition, some concerns about the group’s ties with the Malaysian government, which has long been politically repressive and socially exclusionary of its non-Malay Muslim population (this has more to do with ethnicity than religion, however). Plus, the head of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, made some impolitic remarks after the September 11 tragedy.
But the Republican opposition isn’t actually about this. It is about the party’s desire to keep the United States a strongly Christian nation and to make sure that other religions aren’t welcome into the tent. It is no coincidence that the two high-profile Indian-American Republicans, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s likely governor-to-be Nikki Haley, have both had to convert to Christianity from their religions of birth.
The antagonism of certain elements in the Republican Party toward other religions has been visible for some time. In 2007, Idaho Congressman Bill Sali warned that the “protective hand (of God) that's been over this country” could be lifted because a Hindu chaplain had offered prayer in the House and Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison had been elected from Minnesota. And evangelist and past GOP presidential contestant Pat Robertson has been an equal opportunity offender, castigating Islam as “satanic” and Hinduism as “demonic.”
But the current Republican crowd is making even the Bush Administration seem pluralistic, since President Bush was careful to emphasize that the “war on terror” wasn’t a war against Islam. Emblematic of this change is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, thought of in the past as a social moderate but now a person who has come out against the Cordoba proposal.
The Republican Party is fast degenerating into identity politics of the worst sort.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Obama Administration Needs to Truly Pressure Egypt."
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