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The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Fight That Presaged Today’s GOP

Republicans exploited the issue, using xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment to score points.
by Jim Swift
September 9, 2021
The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Fight That Presaged Today’s GOP
Illustration featuring leaders from various Muslim organizations holding a press conference on September 20, 2010 at the proposed site of the Park51 Mosque near Ground Zero. (Photos: Getty Images / Shutterstock)

With the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks upon us, it’s worth looking back at one of the many ways this defining moment in American history shaped our politics—by creating an opening for the racism and xenophobia that later came to characterize the Trump years.

You don’t have to venture far from where the Twin Towers once stood—where President Biden will be visiting on the anniversary this weekend—to find the site of one of the major controversies of the post-9/11 era: the planned location of what would have been the “Ground Zero mosque,” so dubbed by some evil genius of political branding.

By way of background: Buildings at 45–51 Park Place were damaged by debris on 9/11. In 2009, the New York Times reported on plans to replace some of the buildings at “Park51” with a mosque and Islamic cultural center.

The proposal quickly became the focus of intense criticism. Some of the criticism was raw and reflexive—radical Muslim terrorists had killed thousands of people, and now Muslims want to put up a mosque nearby?—but the controversy was soon cynically exploited by Republicans looking to position themselves against the Democrats and President Barack Obama. Some critics suggested the planned building was a “victory mosque”—as if Muslim Americans were erecting a Dome of the Rock in lower Manhattan.

At the time, Newt Gingrich said: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. . . We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” He would later warn that “we’re in grave danger of losing our liberty and losing our religious liberty” over the lawsuits against Obamacare—apparently he cared only for the government’s protection of his own religion and not the protection of others’.

Regardless of how sound Gingrich’s and his fellow Republicans’ arguments about religious rights were, they do not jibe with the undertones of xenophobia that characterized Republican rhetoric at the time.

Back in 2011, the Center for American Progress put together a nifty look at six House members who traded a lot on anti-Islamic sentiment. It’s worth checking out—but my recollection is that the craziest Republicans who pumped the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy into the right-wing bloodstream were Reps. Pete King of New York and Renee Ellmers of North Carolina.

Rep. King eventually backtracked on his inflammatory rhetoric.

Rep. Ellmers ran this ad—probably the defining feature of her campaign—in her first race:

No Mosque at Ground Zero - TV

It worked for Ellmers: She was elected in 2010 and served three terms in the House.

Of course, there’s a Trumpian twist:

On Sept. 9, 2010, Trump wrote a letter to Hisham Elzanaty and offered to purchase his $4.8 million stake in the [Park51] project for $6 million—around 25% more—per The Wall Street Journal.

Trump also specified that any agreement would require that a mosque be built at least five blocks from the former World Trade Center.

“I am making this offer as a resident of New York and citizen of the United States, not because I think the location is a spectacular one (because it is not) but because it will end a very serious, inflammatory, and highly divisive situation that is destined, in my opinion, to only get worse,” Trump reportedly wrote in a letter to Elzanaty at the time, according to the Journal.

Trump’s first response to the 9/11 attacks was to congratulate himself (on the radio) for now having the tallest building in downtown Manhattan, the two taller structures having been destroyed. (Naturally, the boast was false.) His bid to buy the Park51 project seemed about as serious as his pledges to ease tension, or his bizarre insistence that he saw people in New Jersey on 9/11 celebrating on rooftops: just more Trumpian bluster.

It is one thing to oppose radical Islamist terrorism. But when Republican politicians, for short-term political gain, redefined the enemy not as violent jihadists but Muslims in general, they also began to redefine their party as one welcoming xenophobic rhetoric and candidates. Remember, this was also the era when Republicans went out of their way to emphasize the middle name of “Barack Hussein Obama,” and when Donald Trump, with an eye on the White House, was helping to spread lies about Obama’s birth certificate and hinted that Obama was secretly Muslim. The GOP became the sort of party that would stand by Donald Trump when he told Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to where they came from. The sort of party that would stand by his “Muslim ban.”

It didn’t have to be that way. Not all Republicans were as irresponsible: After 9/11, President George W. Bush made every effort to communicate that America’s war was not against Muslims—and many of the Muslims who have come here from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere over the past two decades got that message.

But too many Republicans ensured that their party’s base heard a very different message. And they still are: Some are rightly criticizing Biden’s botched response to the Afghanistan withdrawal that Trump sought, but others are demeaning the very people who will be great Americans.

And what of the planned “Ground Zero mosque”? The uproar a decade ago was apparently enough to kill the project—condominiums have been constructed on the site, but no mosque has been built, and even the more modest plans for an Islamic cultural center seem to have been canceled.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.