Monday, September 13, 2010

OPINION: When the idiot few hold sway

Paul Kelly once sang a touching tune called From Little Things Big Things Grow. The song was about human rights for indigenous minorities and reconciliation. Its basic message was that the actions of a few marginalised people can have a snowball effect.

The same effect is being played out in New York. A few marginal people have been taking small steps, and have managed to create a snowball effect. Unlike the heroes of Kelly's song, the marginal people at the heart of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque have little or no interest in minority rights or reconciliation.

The story has some ironies here in Australia. We have seen our own battles over Muslim independent schools and mosques. Few have been built without fierce and often hysterical opposition whipped up by prejudiced outsiders and opportunistic politicians.

Things weren't helped by the often imbecilic remarks of Muslim religious leaders and the refusal of Muslim religious bodies to invest in some decent public relations (or in some cases, much-needed ESL classes).

In 2004, the then Premier of NSW Bob Carr decided that he needed an outsider to help him address the poisonous atmosphere in community relations. Carr was visiting New York when he came across Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Carr later told the ABC Compass program in December 2005 the reasons for inviting Rauf on a state visit.

I reached the view that it would be good for a lot of media commentators and the Australian public to hear the voice and American accent of an Islamic leader and Muslim scholar who was talking about Islam and talking about co-operation across cultures or civilisations. And I also thought it would be good for the Islamic community in Australia to hear his perspective.

Carr may have spoken to 9/11 family members such as Adely Welty, whose firefighter son was just 34 years old when he died trying to rescue people from the burning Twin Towers.

Welty wrote in the New York Post recently that Rauf ...

... led a peaceful congregation a couple of blocks away from the proposed Park
51 site for 27 years without incident.

Harper Collins, the publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch's vast media empire, doesn't have problems with Rauf's views. They flooded the market with the imam's book, entitled What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America, to the extent that it is available from just about every bookstore from Mackay to Montreal.

Sadly, most other parts of Murdoch's empire are busy providing oxygen to the marginalised wingnut brigade who first came up with the idea that nothing representing Islamic culture should exist within sight of what was once the Twin Towers. As is always the case, these forces never allow the facts to get in the way of their prejudices.

Glenn Beck, the modern-day conservative messiah of FoxNews, declared that Rauf "seems to be connected to people who hate America". And how so?

Because Rauf said in a 2005 speech:

We tend to forget in the West that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.

So if I speak the self-evident truth that the United States military has killed more Muslim civilians in its numerous invasions, raids and expeditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines etc than a loose terror network has killed non-Muslims, that makes me a dangerous foe of the United States. Even if I could be echoing the sentiments of prominent American generals, politicians, commentators, writers, academics and policy makers.

Others project Rauf as a dangerous proponent of radical Islamic theocracy ruled by a legal system characterised by little more than non-anaesthetic amputations. Sean Hannity, another FoxNews stalwart, claimed that Rauf wanted to set up a parallel legal system with separate sharia courts.

Hannity went on to interview Robert Spencer, the director of a far-right blog called JihadWatch. In the past, Spencer has used his blog to support, among others, a violent neo-fascist group calling itself the English Defence League and made up largely of former soccer hooligans. Spencer is also associated with the US-based and notoriously homophobic Christian Action Network. But does all this stop FoxNews from having Spencer on air?

Spencer many months ago joined forces with another far-right blogger, Pamela Geller, to form "Stop Islamisation in America", a franchise of an equivalent far-right group in Europe. Geller has her own blog which features a photo of herself wearing a Superman uniform. According to a Guardian report, she has written in support of Serbian war criminals and even white supremacists in South Africa. Geller's blog posts videos suggesting Muslims have sex with goats and even suggested that President Barack Obama's father was Malcolm X.

Spencer and Geller have for years been treated as marginal figures in conservative circles. They struggled to find money (much of it raised on their respective blogs) to fund advertisements on the sides of New York buses calling on people to stop the "Ground Zero Mega-Mosque".

You'd wonder how such elements could oppose an intercultural project headed by a man with decades of experience and who has represented his country's interests in tours sponsored by the US State Department during the Bush Administration. But from little things, big things grow.

The Spencer/Geller cause has now been taken on by Republican Party presidential hopeful and former US House speaker Newt Gingrich and former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Geller has appeared on mainstream news channels, speaking on behalf of American values, 9/11 victims and anything and anyone else she can marshall to support her prejudicial fantasies.

The result has been, according to, that

... the mosque story spread through the conservative and then mainstream media like fire through dry grass ... Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

Indeed from little things, big things grow. A mere 48 hours after the September 11 attacks, Farqad Chawdury was born in a New York hospital. He never met his father, Mohammed, a waiter at the Windows of the World Restaurant in Tower One who perished on 9/11. His mother told a Canadian TV channel about the responses from people to her:

When they saw me ... I'm wearing a scarf. There is a hate look.

This year Farqad turns nine. He still doesn't know how his father died. His mother is too afraid to tell him.

Those who spew forth hatred on behalf of the victims will soon forget them. Glenn Beck famously once said:

... when I see a 9-11 victim family on television, or whatever, I'm just like, 'Oh, shut up!' I'm so sick of them because they're always complaining.

Meanwhile, the real victims just get on with their lives, generally too busy healing their wounds to care who is pretending to speak for or pillory them.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-fascist. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 13 September 2010.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

DeliciousBookmark this on Delicious
Digg!Get Flocked