The ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is treated as a party-political issue. In reality, both Republicans and Democrats are split on it.
In their reporting of the political arguments over the proposed Park 51 centre (the master building that will house the “Ground Zero mosque”), most US and international media coverage has characterised the ongoing debate as a Democrat v Republican party-line dispute. But this simplification obscures the reality of a disagreement that is significantly more complex, but also unambiguous in its rightful answer.
At face value, it is easy to see why the mosque debate is being portrayed by most reporting as a partisan battle. Sarah Palin’s 18 July Twitter assertion that the mosque represents an “UNNECESSARY provocation” that “stabs hearts”, ignited a storm of similar, but increasingly ridiculous (and attention-grabbing) exhortations from other high-profile Republicans. This summit of absurdity reached new heights with Newt Gingrich’s declarations that “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington” and that the US “would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor”.
Aside from the obvious logical fallacy in these statements (9/11 was conducted by extremists acting outside mainstream Islamic thought/authority and not, as with the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor, by state actors), these comments have been undeniably attractive to media organisations looking for saleable headlines. Against the backdrop of an election year, and motivated by polling that suggests most Americans oppose the Park 51 centre, the formal Republican leadership has not troubled itself to distance the party from Gingrich, Palin and their allies. President Barack Obama’s relative statement of support for Park 51 has also provided media outlets with the adversary to Republican positions needed to complete the partisan battle picture.
However, below the surface of the debate, deep doubts and disagreements exist within both parties about what line to take on the issue and the electoral implications associated with these choices. While Obama is standing with the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to support the right of the Park 51 centre to proceed, many key Democrats are less than sure in their support for the president’s approach. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York (usually known for voicing strong opinions) has, significantly, not yet commented on the issue.
Under pressure from his Republican opponent in Nevada, the office of Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has stated that the senator believes “the mosque should be built someplace else”. Nancy Pelosi has offered less than unequivocal support for the plan, declaring it to be a “local decision”. For Democrats, their traditional electoral fear of appearing weak on national security greatly complicates their ability to support Park 51 with confidence. Many already believe that their performance in this year’s election will be disastrous and so fear taking a seemingly unpopular line on an issue of great controversy.