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Why The Park51 Fight Matters

One notion floated over my vacation that I wanted to respond to is Jonathan Bernstein's argument that the controversy over Park51 doesn't matter. I can see why he would think that. During the last decade, we've seen an ever-increasing cycle of cultural tempests. The paradigmatic examples would be the Elian Gonzales case or the Terry Schiavo imbroglio, though smaller examples of the phenomenon occur more regularly. Generally the story is elevated by the right-wing alternative media, driven by a lurid stew of half-truths and wild speculation that seems to reveal in the minds of the conservative base some deeply sinister trait on the part of whoever happens to be leading the Democratic Party at any given moment. The conservatives agitated over the episode will act as though the fate of the world hinges upon the outcome of the drama, but eventually the poisonous cloud of outrage evaporates into thin air.

The Park51 episode shares many of these characteristics. (Witness this outpouring of rage against by an anti-mosque crowd against a random, non-Muslim black man wearing a skullcap who happened to walk by.) But I believe there are also two larger issues at stake. The first is that this drama is laying down a marker about the place of Muslims in American society. The question is whether they should be presumed to be terrorists unless proven otherwise -- hence the constant, suspicious demands to find out where the money behind the putatively innocent project is coming from -- or whether they should be afforded the same general presumption of innocence enjoyed by other religions.

The second question is about laying the groundwork for Republican foreign policy for the next GOP presidential administration. George W. Bush pursued a policy of attempting to divide the mass of the Muslim world from the dangerous and radical hard core, reassuring and praising the former while opposing the latter. President Obama has pursued the same policy, adding onto it the personal touch of using his identity and unique history to dramatize the same basic message. The Park51 episode has become a proxy fight on this question among Republicans, many of whom see the foreign policy struggle as a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity/Judaism.

I suspect that Park51 will either not be built or will eventually be built away from its proposed location. But the legacy of this latest cultural tempest, unlike previous ones, will have a lasting impact.