Don't leave Cordoba reporting to pundits

NEW YORK - AUGUST 3: Linda Rivera holds up a sign in protest of a mosque construction near Ground Zero during NYC's Landmarks Commission vote over 45-47 Park Place on August 03, 2010 in New York City. The commission voted to not grant landmark status to the building, clearing the way for the property to be converted into a mosque and community center.  (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

We could probably spend weeks looking at the media coverage of the mosque proposed to be built near Ground Zero. One of the things I find so interesting about this story is how so much of the reporting on the mosque and its backers is being done by non-traditional media. And many of the mainstream reports seem less interested in that aspect of the story than looking at the opposition to the mosque. It creates a weird media climate where the best news and analysis comes from blogs and pundits and, well, the worst treatment and analysis comes from blogs and pundits. And there hasn't been a lot of nuance. You basically have one side claiming that those who support the mosque are surrendering the country to radical Islam and the other side claiming that those who oppose the mosque are xenophobic bigots. These approaches aren't just uncharitable, they're also a surefire way to avoid understanding contrary positions. Both sides could use a lot more information -- straight up news -- to move toward greater unity. And both sides could keep in mind that this controversy is being fought at multiple levels. There's the issue of legality -- not just in terms of First Amendment protections but plain old real estate law. And then there's the issue of whether Cordoba's branding as the Ground Zero Mosque, the choice of location, etc., is a good or bad thing for relations with Islam. Sometimes these issues overlap and sometimes they don't. The media haven't done a great job of keeping these issues distinct and it's led to weaknesses in coverage. One notable exception? Crain's New York said part of the debate is over "whether building the Islamic center is 'a right' or 'the right thing to do.'

Let's just look at a few approaches and think about what else the media could do to provide greater information. Time ran an "article" by Ishaan Tharoor, who says he's a "writer/reporter" there. It reads like an op-ed but it's not billed as such. Anyway, here's how he puts the conflict:

"Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans," [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg said in a speech that day. "We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else."

Bloomberg's predecessor didn't agree. The former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that the project, which is partially intended to be an interfaith community center, would be a "desecration," adding that "decent" Muslims ought not object to his opinion. Other GOP politicians and talking heads who have far less to do with the events of 9/11 -- or, for that matter, New York -- have joined the chorus, arguing in some instances that a mosque near Ground Zero would be a monument to terrorists.

Such Islamophobia is unsurprising in the post-Cold War age of al-Qaeda and sleeper cells.

So to sum up -- Bloomberg "says" things while Guiliani only "claims" things. And that some Muslims might agree with Guiliani is just patently absurd. Also, you're only allowed to have an opinion if you were mayor of New York City or a victim of 9/11 apparently. And that's before we get to the part where opposition to a mosque being build near Ground Zero is asserted to be the product of an 'irrational fear of Islam.'

Sigh.

The Washington Post ran a powerful op-ed from Neda Bolourchi, a Muslim woman whose mother was killed by Muslim extremists when they commandeered passenger aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Center Towers. And guess what? She's with Guiliani:

Though I have nothing but contempt for the fanaticism that propelled the terrorists to carry out their murderous attacks on Sept. 11, I still have great respect for the faith. Yet, I worry that the construction of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site would not promote tolerance or understanding; I fear it would become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world. ...

I do not like harboring resentment or anger, but I do not want the death of my mother -- my best friend, my hero, my strength, my love -- to become even more politicized than it already is. To the supporters of this new Islamic cultural center, I must ask: Build your ideological monument somewhere else, far from my mother's grave, and let her rest.

The piece is very powerfully written and Bolourchi doesn't hide from some of the religious issues while she makes her impassioned plea. It was a great idea for an op-ed and a good idea for the Post to run it. Last week when we looked at coverage of the Anti-Defamation League's opposition to Cordoba, religion reporter Bob Smietana asked why we weren't seeing more voices of family members of Muslim victims. Bolourchi's is a start but it would be nice to see people like her featured in an actual news story!

And what I'd really like to see is more reportage to get at the issue Tharoor dismisses and Bolourchi raises. Will this site become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world? Here's another op-ed, written by Muslims, that says it is meant to be a deliberate provocation. How about some coverage of that view -- and competing ones -- in the mainstream media?

It brings up another area that is ripe for exploration -- is Islam in America really as monolithic as the mainstream media present it? Of course not. So let's assume that the folks behind this project are as peace-loving as your average Iowa Mennonite. I'd still like a better idea of who they are and what their theology is. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much interest in that outside of columns such as this one by Forbes' Claudia Rosett. Asserting that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is moderate doesn't really satisfy the great number of questions interested people have about him and everyone else involved with financing and directing this project. Since there is a debate on the matter -- other people are concerned by some of his positions and ties -- more reportage is needed. Might even sell some papers.

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