The controversy surrounding the Park51 project, known more commonly to the public as the “Ground Zero mosque,” presents a clear example of symbolic moral panic in American society. The proposal seemingly became a momentous issue overnight during the summer of 2010 and received constant media coverage for several months. Opposition to the center focused on the belief that it’s disrespectful to the memory of the tragedy because the attacks were done in the name of Islam and the belief that it would reinforce the perceived Muslim agenda of international domination. One could attribute the public’s reaction to the fundamental anxiety and fear that many Americans still feel in our post-9/11 world. For many, the actuality of a physical attack on the United States is difficult to leave behind. However, the validity of that position is undermined by the fact that, when the specifics of the issue at hand are examined, it becomes apparent Islam is not actually a violent religion and the majority of the Muslim world wishes no harm upon us. Therefore, what actually exists is not impending worldwide domination by the Muslim community, but rather an instance of acute moral panic that is immediately representative of the public’s underlying apprehension that the American ideology and way of life are constantly being threatened by today’s global culture.
The concept of moral panic is comprehensively presented by Chas Critcher in Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future (2008) which begins with an overview of two analytical models. Both models have similar features and certainly are not in conflict with one another, but they do emphasize different elements of moral panic analysis. The Park51 controversy is not exclusively defined as a moral panic by one model. Instead, the “who” components of the processual model and the “what” components of the attributional model complement each other to create a well-founded line of reasoning which ultimately establishes the opposition movement as a moral panic that is reflective of deeper symbolic difficulties.
Stan Cohen’s processual model highlights the fact that the purpose of a moral panic is to reaffirm society’s moral values (Critcher 2008) and emphasizes the importance of four key agents that influence the development of a moral panic: moral entrepreneurs, the control culture, the public and most importantly, the media. Moral entrepreneurs, defined by Critcher, are “individuals and groups who campaign to eradicate immoral or threatening behavior” (2008:1130). The control culture is related to institutional power. From Cohen’s perspective, the media is the most influential of the agents and the receptiveness of the public is of particular importance as it is the group that supports the actual panic.
The attributional model developed by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda emphasizes the criteria that separate moral panics from other social problems. They define moral panics as “overheated periods of intense concern,” (1994:149) and five elements can be identified during these intervals. This theory focuses more on the definitional characteristics of a moral panic than on how the defining groups interact. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, the requirements for a moral panic are an enhanced concern regarding the consequences of a certain group’s behavior, a higher level of hostility towards the members of the group, a consensus that the legitimate threat is a direct result of the detrimental behavior of the group, a disproportionality between the actual threat and consequences and how people perceive them, and, finally, a transitory and unsustainable nature. Their model emphasizes the importance of the moral entrepreneur as the instigator of the crusade and the media’s more passive role as a platform for this message. It also elaborates on Cohen’s argument that policy and institutional changes are the outcomes of moral panics by adding that normative changes occur as well.
Determining how the Park51 project became such a focal point of controversy is best examined from the approach of moral panic analysis, as the project’s objectives and the perceived global domination agenda of Muslims do not seem to bear any logical connection. When the sub-issues are separated into the different elements suggested by the two models, it becomes clear that there are underlying beliefs, agendas, and influences at work. Symbolically, the Park51 project is a threat not just to American power or even safety, as some argue, but also to the American lifestyle and ideology. On another level, there is a tendency of Western culture to employ the conceptualization of “the other” in order to define itself in times of change or crisis and the Park51 debate is an extension of that once again. Finally, the controversy was an easy way for groups on both the political and religious right to gain support in a time when their support was arguably diminishing.
The actual circumstances and facts surrounding the Park51 project do not seem to be threatening to America’s safety or ideals when examined at the most basic level without the influence of panicked misconceptions. The plans are to build a Muslim community center and location for prayer on private property in a building that is two blocks away from Ground Zero (Hernandez, 2010), and there is no visibility between the two sites (Hertzberg, 2010). Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has actually been leading prayer services in the building since it was acquired in 2009. The center is modeled on a Jewish-run cultural center nearby in Manhattan and was initially going to be called the Cordoba House, which is a reference to the Spanish city of Cordoba where Christians, Muslims, and Jews all peacefully coexisted (Rendall and Kane, 2010). Rauf is the primary organizer and spiritual leader of the project and intends it to be a space for cultural awareness and interfaith dialogue. His credentials for such an endeavor include his position with the FBI as a cultural awareness trainer and his promotion of positive interfaith experiences in the Middle East on behalf of both the Bush and Obama administrations (Hasan, 2010). With these facts in mind, the question then becomes why it is that Americans cannot separate the Islamic fundamentalism of the Al Qaeda terrorists from the other 1.2 billion Muslims in the world and what latent judgments and concerns bridge the gap between reality and perceived threat.
Focusing first on the role of the mass media, the concepts of exaggeration and distortion used by Cohen are extremely important. Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg’s book Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy makes several important points about the portrayal of Muslims in the American media. They point out a “consistent disinterest in nonviolent Muslims,” emphasizing that the only images and stories we see represent the negative reactions and violence that small groups or individuals undertake (2008:2). They’re excluded from the American norm and “become visible as people only when they represent threats as Muslims and thus they exist only as Muslims” (2008:143). From this perspective, the link between Park51 and its hateful opposition becomes more clear. Muslims are not identified as Americans or professionals or neighbors who happen to adhere to the Islamic faith. Instead, they are presented only as Muslims and portrayed in a negative manner so that the connection between Islam and violence or oppression is strengthened. People begin to acknowledge the correlation to the point that Islam becomes the cause and violence is the effect. As Gottschalk and Greenberg argue, “they stand only as Muslim men and women, with the built-in expectations about what this means. And because they exist only as Muslims, they are assumed to live as a single community, acting as a single body responsible for every member” (2008:144). Media outlets focused on Muslim celebrations of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 instead of the outright condemnation of the attacks by millions of Muslims all over the world (2008:131) so the only reputation that Islam has is one of violence.
Even if one does not adhere to the idea that media “primes” the public for the panic (Critcher, 2008), but rather that the respective groups within a social context mutually reinforce each other as Goode and Ben-Yehuda suggest (1994), Gottschalk and Greenberg point out that one of the reasons American media depicts Muslims in this way is because people want to see and read news that corroborates their beliefs, and therefore the media continues to depict Muslims unfavorably for the purposes of ratings and success (2008:8). Media and public opinion are mutually reinforcing and Muslims are represented as either non-American or anti-American therefore assaultingAmerican perceptions of freedom and principled ideals.
Inextricably tied to the media are moral entrepreneurs. These individuals have varying motives and agendas, but by definition, they all engage in promoting their positions and framing it ways that will garner support. Attempts to identify who or what started the outbreak of contention generally point to Pamela Gellar, author of the blog Atlas Shrugs. She promoted an extreme and falsified account of what Rauf intended to do with the building and his personal agenda. For example, moving from her blog to the New York Post, she framed the argument using false information that the center was going to be opened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an injury to the memory of the attacks (Wright, 2010). Her campaign went viral after other bloggers began to follow (Ghosh, 2010) and eventually the story was picked up by more well-known conservative media outlets and then finally made it to the 24/7 coverage on the mainstream news networks. Ray Maratea in The e-Rise and Fall of Social Problems: The Blogosphere as a Public Arena (2008) explains that, while blogs are often disregarded because they are not like other media sources which are often subject to editorial oversight and commit to some degree of objectivity, they do sometimes influence the mainstream media to report on invalidated claims. The trend of hysteria, misinformation and ignorance spread to more prominent conservatives who took up the cause and expanded it in their own ways (Gottschalk and Greenberg, 2008:145-146). Mark Williams, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin all made the headlines for their controversial statements as they defended conservative American values and appealed to the prejudices of many members of the Christian Right. The argument has been made that one significant motivator for championing the opposition were the forthcoming November elections. With significant Republican losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the religious and political right used the Park51 issue to exploit the fear and amass support for a return to “traditional” American ways and regain control over the rapidly changing condition of the nation at both the political and religious (primarily Christian) levels (Ameigh, 2010).
In terms of real institutional changes in response to the issue, no new policies or procedures have been generated. One reason could be that the issue is too new or it could be that it more or less disappeared before any proposals for change could be seriously examined. It’s very possible that some noticeable effect will be seen, especially considering that opposition to the center was so strong and many prominent Democrats either stayed silent on the issue or indicated that the project should be relocated (Ghosh, 2010). President Obama himself was more or less neutral on the issue, emphasizing the importance of freedom of religion but not expressing a clear opinion on whether he was in favor of it or not (Bottum, 2010). There are clear examples of real institutional outcomes instigated by moral panic such as the logistics of the Patriot Act and the profiling, harassment, and unjustified arrests of American Muslims (Qureshi and Sells, 2003:10) and anyone erroneously recognized as being Muslim, such as those who follow Sikhism (Gottschalk and Greenberg, 2008: 68).
Public opinion certainly has responded to impact of these groups. In a New York Times poll on September 3, 2010, 67% of the sample reported that the center should not be built near Ground Zero but rather at a less controversial location. Other polls show similar opposition figures (Bassiouni, 2010). However, many polls also show that a majority of people feel the Muslim group has a right to build the center as a protection of freedom of religion (Quinnipiac University, 9/24/2010). The “constitutional right versus sensitivity” debate that became part of the dialogue appears to represent a society which still adheres to the fundamentals of American ideology but feels as if the center would be insensitive to the memory. This distinction is where the role of the media and moral entrepreneurs becomes most clear. The way the issue was framed likely influenced people’s perceptions about where the center is, what it is, and what it stands for. Perhaps if more media coverage had been focused on the interfaith elements and community initiatives set forth by Rauf and less on his alleged connections to terrorists, Americans would not have felt it was so insensitive to remembrance of 9/11 and the sacredness of the Ground Zero site. In this way they would have embraced the American standard of constitutional rights instead of the American standard of ignorance towards Muslims. Similarly, if more politicians had taken a position in favor of the mosque instead of remaining silent or neutral, more of the accurate information might have been presented. Another poll reported that 66% of the population claimed to have heard “a lot” about the project and another 20% had heard some (New York Times, 9/3/10). Given that it was the conservatives who had the advantage in framing the issue because it was their creation, it is reasonable to assume that most of what they heard was misrepresented information that confirmed conservative religious and political principles. The specific issues of Park51 on top of on-going Islamophobic delineations in the public sphere helped to create a first-rate environment for the development of moral panic.
The actions and opinions of these four groups unquestionably demonstrate the existence of an Islamophobic moral panic surrounding the debate. The five elements of the attributional model to follow demonstrate more clearly exactly what this panic symbolizes and why it developed the way it did. To begin with, there is a substantial amount of concern regarding Islamic culture, belief, and practice that is misconceived as being founded upon ideals which are the complete antithesis to American standards. It is impossible to explore the Park51 debate without starting at the very base of Islamophobic ideas which were first established in European culture from the time Islam originated (Gottschalk and Greenberg, 2008:4) and later passed on to the American context (Gottschalk and Greenberg, 2008:15). One of the most widespread misconceptions that is perpetuated by the opposition movement is that Islam is founded on principles of world domination and the extermination of Christianity in particular. This sentiment is seen repeatedly. One minister told a conservative website that “Islam’s desired goal…is to thrust the entire world under one single Islamic caliphate under sharia law.” Relating to the “Ground Zero mosque,” Pamela Gellar promoted the idea that it will be perceived as a “triumphal mosque celebrating the jihad victory of 9/11.” Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association stated that “…each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government” (America Magazine Editors, 2010). Another prominent misconception is that Islam is an inherently violent religion. This notion is based upon the fact that the 9/11 terrorists attacked the U.S. in the name of their faith. In combination with the belief that sharia laws and their allegedly gruesome punishments are proof that Muslims are savage and primitive, Islam then becomes “death cult” instead of a real religion (Ghosh, 2010).
Hostility is, of course, a reality in this moral panic. The “Us vs. Them” mentality is a direct result of Islamophobic concerns and a base for the environment in which this panic was able to grow. Throughout history, there has been a manifestation of the fear of “the other” (Qureshi and Sells, 2003:179). An argument that appears often as an explanation of growing prejudices is that Western nations “structurally require an external enemy and where one does not exist in the shape of Communism, a replacement has to be found or invented” (Qureshi and Sells, 2003:288). Since the amalgamation of Europe during the Crusades, hostility toward Muslims has often been a unifying factor (Qureshi and Sells, 2003:207). Today, it’s no different. In a country with a declining economy and decreasing power in a changing global context, it makes sense that hostility toward Muslims and their way of life would once again serve to unite movements. If Americans cannot define what they are, at least they can define what they’re not through the preservation of stereotypes and alienation (Qureshi and Sells, 2003:75). In America, “home-grown hate is now a national phenomenon (America Magazine Editors, 2010) as people react to the Park51 issue. People are protesting the existence of mosques all across the country (Goodstein, 2010). Clearly, it is not just a matter of sensitivity to the Ground Zero site, but of the presence of Muslims in general.
There is, of course, consensus that Muslims are a threat on some level, as evidenced by the polls and reports of growing misconceptions regarding the Islamic faith. This consensus reflects the disproportionate fear that is perpetuated by the media and conservative moral entrepreneurs. As previously mentioned, when examining the facts of the community center and what the project stands for, it is not intended to be a triumphal celebration or new headquarters for terrorist organizations but rather an unassuming building to serve the Muslim community as well as allow people all faiths to engage in remedial understanding and heal some of the wounds that have been created in our post 9/11 society. It is no different from the other Muslim mosques and centers that are already unassumingly located in Manhattan. The Park51 moral panic also meets the fifth requirement of volatility. With the height of the controversy in late summer and early autumn, the coverage of the issue and heated debate lasted a few short months. The underlying hostilities are still there, of course, but it appears that media coverage has moved on to other stories and the once heated debate is more or less pacified for the time being.
Park51 does not present a legitimate danger to the United States and is not a plot to further the takeover of our country by villainous Muslims. Instead, it is an overreaction by society which symbolizes the struggle between traditional or “normative” American principles and a redefinition of our culture and standards in the post-modern global context. Analysis from the standpoint of the processual and attributional models indicates that larger thematic constructs are responsible for the panic as opposed to a real threat of violence. Unification against what we know we are not alleviates the struggling that comes with our slowly changing way of life and the identity crisis that comes with it. Muslims are portrayed as violent and oppressive so we define what we are as Americans by alienating them because they represent the fundamental antithesis to our long-established national ideals. Evangelical Christians and the political right experienced a decline in influence and therefore it makes sense that they were at the forefront of championing opposition to the project. What ensued was sheer hysteria over an undertaking which was intended to be a religiously-affiliated community center in Manhattan and nothing else.
– Ameigh, Sarah. “Square One Near Ground Zero.” The Humanist. September/October 2010.
– Bassiouni, M. Cherif. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. November 22, 2010.
– Ben-Yehuda, Nachman, and Erich Goode. 1994. “Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction.” Annual Review of Sociology. 20:149-171.
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– Critcher, Chas. 2008. “Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future. Sociology Compass. 2:1127-1144.
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– Gottschalk, Peter and Gabriel Greenberg. 2007. Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
– Hasan, Mehdi. “Fear and Loathing in Manhattan.” New Statesman. November 2, 2010.
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– Maratea, Ray. 2008. “The e-Rise and Fall of Social Problems: The Blogosphere as a Public Arena.” Social Problems. 55:139-160.
– New York Times Poll. August 27-31, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/poll_results.pdf. Published September 3, 2010.
– Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Muslims Have Right To Build Mosque Near Ground Zero, New York Voters Tell Quinnipiac University Poll; But They Should Agree To Move It Somewhere Else.” http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1319.xml?ReleaseID1506. September 24, 2010. Retrieved December 1, 2010.
– Qureshi, Emran and Michael A. Sells. 2003. The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy. New York, NY. Columbia University Press.
– Wright, Lawrence. “Intolerance.” The New Yorker. September 20, 2010.