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The mosque non-story


Jonathan Bernstein offers some real talk:

Here's the deal: the odds are very, very good that the current controversy about the "Ground Zero Mosque"...

1. Won't affect any elections this year.

2. Certainly won't affect the presidential election in 2012.

3. Will be rapidly forgotten.

4. Won't have any actual substantive effects.

5. Nor will it have any important lasting symbolic effects.

Which is not to say that there aren't important principles at issue here. But at this point, we're only partially talking about the mosque, or the community center, or whatever it is that's going to be built in downtown New York. Rather the two parties are really just talking about each other, and how much they don't like one another. Greg Sargent noted the Republican National Committee's recent press release on the matter, titled "Great moments in August Democratic Messaging." I rather doubt that'll be on the syllabus of future college courses surveying the history of religious freedom.

You get a lot of these mini-manias in the 24-hour news cycle, and it's always hard to say which you should take seriously and which you should ignore. After all, if you jump on everything that cable news makes into a big deal, you've become part of the problem, because you're helping the story along. But you don't want to just dismiss everything, either. The test I try to use is this: Could I imagine a world in which this thing was happening but no one ever thought to comment on it?

Well, yes. I can't imagine that world for unemployment, or financial-regulation reform, or the Afghanistan Wikileaks. But it absolutely could've been the case that Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf decided to build an Islamic community center and no one really noticed, or cared, and maybe a few local politicians from both parties showed up to help cut the ribbon. As it happened, a few opportunists went after it, which brought it to the attention of a few sensationalistic media outlets, and then some opportunistic politicians jumped on board, and then their colleagues felt compelled to comment, and then more legitimate media outlets had something to cover, and on and on. The story is a story because of the incentives of the people making it a story, not because there's something about an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero that just screams out for national attention.

Don't believe me? Then ask yourself why you've never heard anyone complain about the halal food carts parked outside the Ground Zero construction site. This didn't need to become a polarizing national issue. It was made into a polarizing national issue. And now the only thing to do is to wait for it to pass.

Photo credit: Michael Nagle-Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 17, 2010; 9:28 AM ET
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Next: Chris Hayes makes the case for a more aggressive Fed


My two favorite bits are: 1) there's an actual mosque 3 blocks away from Ground Zero that pre-dates the World Trade Center and evidently only The Daily Show noticed, and 2) there's a strip club a couple blocks from Ground Zero and nobody seems to think this is a problem which needs national attention.

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

The photo at the top of this post says it all. One protester, being coralled by a policeman, while a dozen media types film it.

Posted by: simpleton1 | August 17, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

The one and only good thing about the orgy of over-attention this story has been given in the media for the past week or two is that people will be completely sick of it before Labor Day, and consequently won't want to hear about it as an "issue" in the midterms.

As a GOP wedge issue, it is peaking too soon.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 17, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Frankly, there's lot of hot air but as yet there isn't enough well-documented fact about the matter. If a group of people are using their own money to build on their own property something meeting all building and zoning regulations, it's all good: if a group is using public money or public property or is asking for variances, that's a different story. It's also a different story if one group with a conscience is being given an advantage another group with a conscience is being denied: most stories of bigotry look quite different when the names are changed (as an example, substitute "George Bush" for "Shirley Sherrod" and gauge the reaction of various groups).

The religious battle concerning the PPACA -- now being fought in parallel in six federal district courts in four different circuits -- is related: it's OK to support all religions (and all matters of conscience) generally, with a problem arising only when selected matters of conscience are favored over others. When it comes to matters of conscience, the majority has no say whatsoever (see Milbank's column today for one historical perspective, albeit intermingled with Milbank's own bias).

So, is any public funding or property being used for the proposed religious structure? Could a trio of Druids follow the same procedures and achieve the same results?

Posted by: rmgregory | August 17, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

This whole controversy is just another conformation that the Republican party houses too many bigots.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | August 17, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

thank you, AMviennaVA: the number one point this episode demonstrates is that the republican party is full of nativist thugs.

the second thing it demonstrates is that not only is the republican party full of nativist thugs, it's full of people who don't think a local planning board can make a decision appropriate to its community, despite long-standing rhetoric from the right-wingers about local control being better.

the third thing it demonstrates is that the republican party is full of liars.

Posted by: howard16 | August 17, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

The main question in my mind regarding whether this is a story or non-story is this: How much attention is the Islamic world playing?

If this is only American political theater, than I think Ezra is probably correct that its a nonstory.

On the other hand, if the Islamic world is paying attention, and we force the Cordoba Center to move, thereby sending the message that the United States considers itself at war with all of Islam, I think that could have very serious consequences for our nation's security interests and the safety of our troops abroad. Even though this began as a nonstory drummed up by the political right, it could still end up further endangering the soldiers who are defending our nation.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | August 17, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

It's just sad--the Republicans have no other ways to hold onto their last grasp of power. No economic policies that make sense, no other reason to justify voting for them rather than the other guys. demographically, the parade has passed them by, and this is their pathetic last hurrrah.

Posted by: ciocia1 | August 17, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I think you and Jonathan Bernstein are just wrong here. If you only look through the lens of electoral politics, sure, it's a non-story. But the real story is that the anti-Mosque crowd (which now includes prominent Democrats on our side) is so widely and sanguinely accepted. It's like saying that the anti-Semitism whipped up in the Weimar era and codified in the Nazi-era was no big deal, a sideline to the economic and foreign policy goals of the state. (No, it was a means of achieving those policy objectives.) Or like saying Nixon's Southern strategy would not be remembered in history. The fact that people even think this Islamic community center is "provacative" is really a huge story, and one that should not be shrugged off as insignificant.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 17, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

You know something is a story when libby calls it a "non-story". How about addressing the reasons behind the protesting? Like, actually taking seriously what the protesters are saying for a change? Is that possible from a lib? I doubt it.

Posted by: soma_king | August 17, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

i think the dangerous ramification, is that it strengthens and popularizes newt gingrich.
and makes him admired and viable for like-minded, bigoted and xenophobic sympathizers.

the other lasting consequence is it shows so many americans, and so many people around the world, that many americans dont really believe in religious freedom.
that they are bigoted against and fearful of mosques and the people who pray in them. that everyone using the mosque, whether they be children or doctors or mothers or teachers..
is nothing more to them, than a terrorist in disguise.
between this, and what is happening in the immigration protests, and the racism directed at president obama, it paints a sorry/tragic image of this country.
for people who talk the talk of the founding fathers, of freedom from persecution, freedom of religion, freedom to pray, freedom to assemble, freedom to feel safe and valued as an american feels ugly. really, really, really ugly.
and we have way too many religious lobbyists and organizations and self-serving politicians who are willing to lead people on this ugly road.
i wouldnt have believed that we would be at this place in 2010.
there were commenters years ago in this site, who saw the ugliness far more clearly than i did, and i didnt believe them.
but now, i do.

Posted by: jkaren | August 17, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

, "actually taking seriously what the protesters are saying for a change? Is that possible from a lib? I doubt it.

Posted by: soma_king | August 17, 2010 12:04 PM |"

i am a liberal who will take seriously what is being propogated about putting the mosque there.
your way of thinking is no "non story" to me. it symbolizes the worst aspects today in our culture.
it is about xenophobia.
it is about the most inhumane and ugly aspects of human nature, when we make stereotypes about other american citizens.
when they are "less than," when you look at them, and all you can see is a boogyman, a terrorist dressed as a doctor or a mother.
it is a disgrace to everything that the united states is supposed to stand for.
it makes us ugly, as a people,
weak as a nation.
it makes us small minded, and fearful and bigoted, and everything that i dont want to be.
i take you folks very seriously, and it keeps me up at night, because it makes america a less noble and good place, and it shouldnt be that way, in 2010.
it is a closed, small, scared way of is patriotism and self-protection, and separation of the very worst kind.
i hope we overcome your way of thinking.
it is scary. nothing i had hoped to see repeating itself in this millennia.
but maybe nothing ever changes, and the dark side is always with us....the demons of fear....fear of others, fear of ideas, fear of other cultures that are different than your own....feel of having your image of "superiority" threatened.
i am sorry for people who think like that.
but more sorry for our country that people that think like this are taking us back into the dark ages, times of ugliness and destruction.
so dont doubt that every liberal doesnt take you seriously.
i lament your thinking all of the time now.

Posted by: jkaren | August 17, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Hey, the RNC called it "Democratic" messaging, not "Democrat" messaging. Someone will probably get fired for that.

Posted by: randrewm | August 17, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

People aren't planning to vote for Republicans because they have good ideas, or because they are good with the economy, or national defense, and so on.

They are planning to vote for lunatic Republicans because Democrats like Obama seem incapable of conviction-oriented and courageous leadership.

The mosque issue is just one more reminder to voters that they don't know what Obama and the Dems stand for or don't know what they are willing to fight for.

The "mosque" issue itself won't directly affect the elections, but it does reinforce opinions and notions, and indeed helps to doom Democratic chances. Why? Because as usual Obama sent out a confused message about what he stands for.

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 17, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse


I'd suggest you read, in entirety, this op-ed by William Dalrymple in today's NY Times:

After reading it, I'd be interested to hear why you object to replacing a Burlington Coat Factory two blocks from the former WTC site with a Sufi community center and mosque.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | August 17, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse


After reading this, I think we need to keep the mosque out because it increases the risk of terrorist attack! (and yes I'm completely joking)

"His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination."

Posted by: justin84 | August 17, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

@justin84: I've a sinking feeling that we'll soon hear that argument made with apparent sincerity.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | August 17, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The Republican Party is not "full" of bigots or hateful people, or whatever. It's full of people that vote Republican because they always have, have to some degree a belief in traditional conservative values, or because they like a particular politician and just vote the party line. The vast majority probably don't pay much attention to the politics of the day or agonize over the back and forth over poll numbers. Like most Democrats, they're only partially informed or interested.

What I will agree with is that there are certain elements of the conservative side of the fence who are extremely vocal about issues and positions that I find very troubling and those people are A) mobilized and in significant enough numbers to be relevant for the election, and B) getting lots and lots of attention from the media and politicians. They're also being egged on by some of the bigger conservative commenatators like Rush and Beck.

And unfortunately, these are the sorts of issues that they make a big deal about. On the other hand, like Ezra said, there's just not that much to sink your teeth into on this story, so sooner rather than later the media will decide that it's been played out and will move on to whatever scary/shocking/terrible thing is happening then.

randrewm, that whole thing of refering to "Democrat" this and that is one of the things that annoys me to no end because it's just so damn petty. One of the few times I've cheered Chris Mathews is when he called some Republican (maybe Issa) out on that.

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

howard16 @ August 17, 2010 11:04 AM: I actually tried to temper my words: My very best friend is a die-hard Republican, and he is definitely not a bigot. He is as disturbed by the turn of events as I am. He does not agree with much of what the Democrats want to do, and many Republicans object to an open mind.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | August 17, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

lauren2010 @ August 17, 2010 12:42 PM wrote "They are planning to vote for lunatic Republicans because Democrats like Obama seem incapable of conviction-oriented and courageous leadership."

That is correct! The Democrats obviously lack the courage of their convictions, so they keep taking half-hearted attempts. Consequently we end up with Presidencies like Bush's which actually regressed us by 12 years, economically, and shredded the Constitution.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | August 17, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The author of this article is wacked out on drugs.

Posted by: Richie5 | August 17, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

*. How about addressing the reasons behind the protesting?*

sure. They're people who like bullying others, especially if they're considered an "outsider" group of people. Nothing new there.

rmgregory, instead of taking a stand against this, retreats to a weak, "I'm just asking questions!" as a cover.

Posted by: constans | August 17, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse


I guarantee that in a month you will have moved on to some other distraction cooked up for the purpose of getting your dander up.

A month ago you were screeching about Journolist. A month before that it was some other invented controversy. A month from now you'll be screaming to your family about some other issue that the right told you to get angry about. You're easily distracted.

Posted by: constans | August 17, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"The mosque issue is just one more reminder to voters that they don't know what Obama and the Dems stand for or don't know what they are willing to fight for."

most democrats have a lot of consensus on what they stand for, and are willing to fight for....and obama's support among liberals is still strong.
there are different hues of thinking in any group, but to say that voters dont know where democrats and obama stand, i dont think, is a true statement.
and as far as president obama is concerned, he is trying to thread a needle in deeply unsettling and precarious times.
many of us realize that there are not always pat and easy answers in complex times. it is simplistic to think otherwise.

Posted by: jkaren | August 17, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse



The people who will be freaking out about this mosque in 2012 were never going to be Obama voters.

Obama's reelection depends largely on jobs and little else. If unemployment is sitting at 9.0% in September in 2012 he might as well stop campaigning. If the rate is down to 7.0% he'll have a good shot at earning a second term.

Posted by: justin84 | August 17, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

This story is a flash in the pan so far as you or I are concerned, and you and Jonathan Bernstein are correct that nobody will be thinking about this in November, but the damage is real and will last until corrected. The damage is real to Muslim Americans, who are being told that their constitutional freedoms are matters of debate. The damage is real to our image abroad, as we shred the public commitment to tolerance that has always been our ace in the hole in international conflicts. And the damage is real to our republic, as it conditions self identified "centrists" to both embrace Islamophobia as one end of a debate, and conditions the right to be ready to shred their principles and rights at the slightest provocation.

In general, you're very correct in that this is a constructed nothing of a story that won't even merit a Wikipedia entry three months from now, but the damage is real, and it's worth being horrified over.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | August 17, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

What would you be writing about if Fox and friends hadn't made the 9/11 Mosque into a "story"?

I expect you might be focusing on the economy and (eventually) on how the GOP has stymied almost all attempts to make it better.

That is why the Mosque is a "story". The goal is to fill the news hole with an emotional, big fear/hate social issue and keep journalists' attention off policy and who is doing what to the middle class electorate.

Posted by: grooft | August 17, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

As to the assertion that the "Republican Party is not 'full' of bigots or hateful people"

that is getting harder to believe every day. It looks from the outside like the GOP is full of hateful, angry bigots and racists.

That's mainly because their leadership -- the GOP Congressional leadership, the people with a national platform like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Liz Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, the leadership at the local level like the wacko who plans to burn Korans, the politicians in Arizona, and so on -- actually ARE hate-filled bigots and racists. The people on Fox News, both guests and hosts, ARE racists, bigots, liars.

And then, the Republicans that we see on television, like the tea partiers, the angry, gun-toting racists in Arizona and Texas, the people who come to Washington or state capitols with their racist signs and angry rhetoric and teabag-laden straw hats; the rightwing trolls that regularly invade comment threads with their irrational hate and bigotry -- well, it's hard to see any but a very, very few Republicans that are anything like my father was, a cloth-coat Republican ACTUAL fiscal conservative, intelligent, compassionate, measured, honest, hard-working, rock-ribbed Republican.

But you are the ones who elected these extremists, you are the ones who listen to them, who follow them, who repeat their propaganda. Where IS the part of the Republican Party who isn't all of that?

Posted by: TomBlue | August 17, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I don't think this issue will be "huge" in November or in 2012, but it will still be around because it fits a narrative, hence the GOP say they will make it a national, election year issue.

Look to their talking points. Lots of buzz words that following a single theme, Dems don't care what you think, they just care about making you conform to their socialist agenda. Cornyn said the American people "sense that they’re being lectured to, not listened to," a standard GOP attack against Dems. "Disconnected from the mainstream." “It tells you that he [Obama] has a very disdainful view of the American people.” The GOP wants to be the champion of the people against the arrogant democrats who lecture about liberal ideals and force an elitist Washington decision onto a local issue.

The theme continues: "Sure, there is a right to build there, but the people still think that it is wrong." The GOP wants to highlight the Dems' "arrogance," even though it is not a question for the people, it is a question for the law, constitutional law. "It's a local issue" even though the law is clear that it is not (see state's rights aruments). "The people will decided" even though the people's emotions should not and do not veto constitutional rights.

The issue fits a standard anti-dem theme, therefore the GOP will not let just fade away. It has been claimed that the issue resonates because the "tea party movement liberat[ed] the inner bigot in people." That may be true for some, but more importantly, emotions are easy targets and the GOP believes that anger and fear make for good politics, especially in a national referendum on Obama and the Democratic Party.

Posted by: MassachusettsLiberalinDC | August 17, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

The incisive comment posted by HerooftheBeach is an especially strong example of why it continues to be worthwhile to visit Ezra's blog.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 18, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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